Without a need for purpose, it is unclear whether humankind would exist as it does, or exist at all. Having a driving need to find purpose and meaning propels us forward in a way that encourages not only survival, but productivity, creativity, contribution and care among others. These needs help us get up in the morning, finish school, find a job and have a family. They push us towards great accomplishment and the most mundane tasks. Purpose is something that we try to meet day-by-day, and even moment by moment, as well as in our lives as a whole. Next to the essential needs for survival, it may be one of the most important needs in the human experience, or any being’s existence.
Think of it like this: There is this energy within us, subtle but persistent that wants purpose. It pushes us to satisfy this need, this longing, this emptiness. Without even knowing why, we take action to satisfy this deep craving. Or, if it’s too painful, we may take steps to medicate it so we can’t feel it. But whether we are aware of it or not, it is driving us towards satisfying its demand.
When we set a goal, like to save money for a vacation or to retire early our effort towards that goal contributes to the satisfaction of our need for purpose. When we practice for a competition, or to get into a school or to simply better ourselves, we are meeting this need for purpose.
Often times when people are depressed, it is because they do not feel their life has meaning or purpose. They feel like they are wandering; that their life is pointless. On the other end of the spectrum, when someone radiates confidence they often have a purpose and they’re feeling it and living it.
Purpose and meaning are different needs although they do overlap. Purpose has a wider range. Going to school to get an education or going to work to feed our family can meet our need for purpose. I came to Spain to learn how to speak Spanish and write this book. This gave my trip purpose.
For many people, work meets the need for purpose. In the United States it is often the main strategy to satisfy the energy for purpose, often overriding other needs like family, health, and growth.
Getting in touch with these needs can and is often a life long endeavor. Especially finding our deepest purpose. In many modalities, including the ancient Indian Vedas, it is believed that each person’s soul has a unique purpose—call it a soul’s purpose or life purpose—and that one of life’s tasks is to discover and manifest that purpose. This alone—finding our life purpose—can meet our need for purpose. Some people believe we were put on Earth to do just that: to find our purpose. That is our journey- to find our purpose, and then to make it happen.
I used to think that I had a need for productivity. Other NVC experts I knew were often not sure whether productivity was a need or a strategy. As my connection to the energy of purpose deepened, I was able to see that my need was indeed for was purpose, and it played out by being productive. When I worked or studied, I was being productive, when I took a long bike ride, I was being productive. These activities met my need for purpose.
Purpose is often the bridge between the present moment and other needs we are trying to meet, such as the need for ease or accomplishment. We may work hard today, so that we can have ease tomorrow. On the surface this may not sound very Buddhist, because in our pursuit of ease in the future we are creating stress in the present, but during that period of stress, we are meeting our deep longing for purpose.
Like all needs, purpose can be influenced tremendously by our earliest childhood experiences. Positive regard by our care takers can infuse a sense of purpose and meaning into our lives that might be absent in a shame based household. In fact, shame is probably the worst enemy of purpose. If we have deep toxic shame, our sense of purpose or meaning may never feel met. This is often a reason why many hugely successful people in the material world are unhappy people. Their attempt to meet their need for purpose continues to go unfilled, like an endless thirst, which they keep trying to meet through material gains.
Put another way, when we feel worthless (a product of shame), we grasp for a sense of purpose as a cure to the feelings of worthlessness. This only makes sense but the path can be painful and endless. Purpose has importance and value. So purpose would naturally be a possible antidote for shame and worthlessness.
The cure to a lack of purpose due to shame is to both drain away the sense of shame and worthlessness as well as to find esteemable strategies that meet the need for purpose. Therapy and survivor recovery from shame sometimes in themselves can help meet our need for purpose! If we suffer from what John Bradshaw called the “shame that binds you,” there is probably no more important endeavor than to heal from this internal shame.
For many of us, healing from binding shame and gaining a sense of self worth can take years, but usually within 6 months of concentrated recovery and therapy, clarity starts to arise. As the feelings of shame start to lessen, needs for deeper purpose will start to unfold. Eventually desire and awareness of “life purpose” may arise. As discussed in a separate chapter, having a “life purpose” and acting on it can be one of the most rewarding states of our human existence.
When we have plans for the day, say to go to work or school or even on an excursion, we can meet this universal human need for purpose when we follow up on those plans. If the plans fall through, there might be a feeling of disappointment because the need for purpose is temporarily unmet.