Steve Wright, M.A.
Research is pretty clear. People who have a strong sense of purpose experience meaning and satisfaction in life. They tend to be happier, less prone to mental illness, and more capable of overcoming life’s difficulties.
But, what does it really mean to have purpose?
I would like to propose that there is a simple answer to that question. Purpose is about adding to the world, instead of taking from it. What I mean by “adding to the world” is really about making a positive impact in the lives of other people. That positive impact is something that is played out in our daily lives and in the relationships we have.
One cannot separate the idea of fulfilling one’s purpose from people. When we look into Scripture, we find overarching statements like, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” or “Love one another as I have loved you,” or “Be kind to one another.” Even the Fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, are all meaningless outside of a community toward which those fruits can be actualized.
So, the opposite of purpose is not meaninglessness, but selfishness. In other words, when I see people as the well I drink from to quench my thirst for significance, validation, and satisfaction instead of seeing myself as a spring for others to experience love and kindness, then I am not functioning out of purpose and my life will be less full.
As a therapist, many of the people I work with struggle with this. Most of them are suffering from intense emotional and mental pain. It makes sense that they are often very self-oriented because, like most of us, they long for their pain to stop and many have developed some rather self-destructive ways to avoid that pain. When we are focused on our pain we tend to be less concerned about others and don’t often realize the impact of our behaviors and actions on the world around us including those with whom we are in relationship.
I worked with a young woman recently who had been abused by a relative growing up. In addition, she experienced bullying in school and at some point began to believe that she was worth very little. In the 7th grade, she went to health class where she learned about how other teens would cut themselves and experience emotional relief. The health class discussion was meant to discourage self-injury behavior, but it made her curious and she tried it. She found that cutting created a feeling of numbness for her and when she focused on the pain she did not have to deal with her emotions.
When she was in 9th grade she went to a party where there was alcohol. She had her first drink and found that she felt much more comfortable and was able to laugh and let go of her anxiety and inhibitions. She began to look forward to parties and by the time she graduated from high school she was drinking 3 to 4 times a week, hiding it from her parents.
College made everything worse. Without the constraint of living with her parents, she began to drink every day. Pretty soon she began to feel the anxiety of paper deadlines and assignments. Then she would either drink or hurt herself.
What she did not realize is that the community of friends she had and her parents all saw her spiraling downward. Eventually, her parents received a report of what she was actually doing and they tried to intervene. Unable and unwilling to face her behaviors and escalating feelings of loss of control, she began to keep more secrets and when that didn’t work, she began to lash out at her family and friends. Some of her close friends became hurt and pulled away from her. Her parents pleaded with her and then tried to exercise control over her to get her to stop.
At some point everything came crashing down on her. She lost a scholarship to her school, failed 3 of 5 classes and was placed on academic probation. The friends with whom she was sharing an apartment told her she couldn’t stay there any longer because of some of her behaviors when she was intoxicated.
She finally realized that things had gotten out of control and after moving back home with her parents, decided to do something about her life and came for treatment. When I met her, she was depressed and discouraged and full of a sense of shame.
This story illustrates how and why self-oriented thinking develops and how one can lose any sense of purpose and meaning in life. The more she hurt the more she tried to stop hurting. The more she tried to stop hurting the more isolated and desperate she became. The more desperate she became, the less she was able to give of herself to the people in her life.
Once that self-destructive cycle was interrupted and she saw how people in her life were affected by her behaviors, she became pretty overwhelmed by shame and struggled for a time with despair. Fortunately, she was able to understand how she was using her behaviors to cope with the underlying issue of believing the lie that she had no value.
She started to experience gratitude in her life. That gratitude created a desire to make changes. Those changes helped her see herself differently and experience her value. She saw herself as God saw her: lovable and worth much. She began to offer insight in her groups and experienced the joy of caring for others genuinely and without expectation of reciprocity. In short, she became that spring of water that gave love and kindness. She began adding to the world.
Steve Wright, M.A., is a therapist at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center located in the Chicago area. He served for more than 25 years as a minister working in churches with youth, families, and as a senior pastor. As a counselor, he worked in residential treatment as a therapist, supervisor, coordinator, and program director first in the substance abuse field and then in the eating disorder discipline. Steve holds a bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies from Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, as well as a Master of Arts in Teaching from Olivet University and a Master of Arts in Community Counseling from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology in Chicago.