Recently, I was reading an article on how to find your life’s purpose. I always find myself reading articles like that — I’m not sure why, exactly, because I know my life’s purpose, but I suppose because I’m interested in how other people are defining theirs. (I’ve known what I want to do, what I feel as though I’m meant to do, since I was a teenager. The struggle, for me, has been actually doing it — getting through all the clutter of people wanting me to do other things. No one except me wanted for me to be a writer . . .)
The article said pretty much what all such articles say, in my experience: What do you love to do? What will the world reward you for doing? Where and how do those two things intersect? Define your goals, identify the steps to getting there. How do you envision your life? Plan to live the life you’ve always wanted . . .
And I don’t dispute that these are worthwhile things to do. I’ve done them myself: made lists, pinned them up on cork boards. But the article seemed, to me, to miss the heart of the matter. It also missed a very important aspect of trying to create the life you want: you’re going to fail. You’re going to fail over and over again, in a variety of ways. And if you finally succeed, if you’re living the life you’ve wanted for yourself, you will need to create new goals, or you will feel as though something, somewhere, is subtly wrong — as though you’ve gotten what you wanted, and yet it does not satisfy.
Because, here’s the thing: If you’re the sort of person who reads articles on how to find your life’s purpose, what you’re ultimately looking for is meaning. And you don’t find meaning by defining what you want and then getting it. You find meaning by serving something higher than yourself. So the central question I would suggest asking yourself is: What will you serve? To what will you dedicate yourself?
You see, if you’re serving something, if you’ve dedicated your life to something and are working for it, the failures are simply part of the service itself. They do not, really, matter . . . You can serve as well in failure as in success. And living the life you want becomes not a goal, but a process. So, what sorts of things can you serve? Well, you can serve music (by being a musician or composer). You can serve art (by being an artist), knowledge (by teaching), medicine (by healing). You can serve the handicrafts. You can serve birds. You can serve the ocean. There are an infinite number of things you can serve. (I suppose you can also serve things like money and power, but those are not true service — really in those cases you are serving yourself, glorifying yourself. And that is unworthy of you.)
It would be helpful, I think, if we still had gods of various disciplines. It’s easier, in a sense, to serve Asklepios than to serve medicine, or even health, which seem so abstract. So if it helps you, name your god, or if you prefer, your patron saint: Do you serve one of the muses? One of the saints that presides over teaching or metalsmithing or studying orangutans? (If there are no gods or saints for such disciplines, create them.) There are two advantages to naming your god or saint. First, it gives what you do an ethical dimension. You want to serve well. Asklepios has rules and standards for the practice of medicine. Clio demands that you record history accurately. Terpsichore wants to see you at the barre every morning. And second, it gives you something to pray to. We all need something, or someone, to pray to now and then.
I know that in my own life, when the first method, the method of the article, has failed me — when I have not met my goals, when I don’t see how I can possibly achieve the life I want — the second method keeps me going. I can say to myself, but I am writing the book I’m supposed to write. I am teaching to the best of my ability. I am serving the higher purpose for which I was made, and whether I succeed or fail is irrelevant to the fact that I have served, that I have done my part.
What do I serve? It’s not literature, exactly — that is the method, the way in which I serve. But my patron deity is the oldest of them all, Mother Night herself, and everything that, for me at least, she stands for: the darkness before the light, as Goethe put it. She represents the depths of the human mind, the darkness below the earth and above the stars, the formlessness that gives rise to the myriad forms. She is the source of all stories. That is where my writing comes from, when it’s going well. When I’m not sure whether I’m doing the right thing, I can ask myself, what would Mother Night say? And when I’m down and disappointed, I check to see — have I done anything worthwhile lately? Not in pursuit of my personal goals, but in service to the larger purpose of which I am only a part.
You, of course, can pursue your life’s purpose in any way you wish. But I recommend at least considering this way, asking yourself this question. What do you serve? And if you’re not sure, what do you wish to serve? At least, answering that question will teach you something new about yourself, which is always worthwhile.
(The image is Lady of the Night by Don Blanding.)