Photo of US Supreme Court by Mary Wyckoff, 9/24/20
The first time I heard anyone refer to the psychological need for purpose was when I was an exhausted employee in a demanding, fulltime job, and years from retirement. An older colleague confessed she had the financial wherewithal to stop working but chose to continue. Given I would’ve retired in a heartbeat, I asked why. Her reply, “Purpose.”
A lot has been written about the benefits of having a sense of purpose as we age. Some rely on a religious or philosophical framework to answer the larger question of why we are here, but what makes our lives meaningful is highly personal. My colleague had her purpose attached to her work.
Our nation lost a bright light in Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an exemplar of purpose. In the
public arena, she was committed to speak for those without an equal voice—and in a manner her opponents could hear. As a thirteen-year-old at the end of World War II, Ms. Ginsburg wrote, “No one can feel free from danger and destruction until the many torn threads of civilization are bound together again.” Although purpose can be found at any age, and can shift with time and need, I have to believe the genocide witnessed by this young Jewish woman ignited a lifelong purpose.
Justice Ginsburg worked until age eighty-six through personal tragedies that would’ve sent most of us to the sidelines. She must have had a compulsion to contribute—and enjoyed it. I’ve witnessed others with this passionate commitment, for example scientists. Like RBG, they use their considerable skills and talents to further research which in turn produces satisfaction and/or pleasure for them.
Unless we’re essential workers, we’ve been benched thanks to Covid. This disaster has kept us from activities that feed individual purpose. For many, helping others provides meaning. High achievers really feel the pinch when they can’t get their hit from “doing.” It’s depressing. As my good friend Sue says, “I’m used to running to the fire, not away from it.” With our many concurrent catastrophes requiring attention, sitting it out feels rotten.
If you’ve been depleted, in the doldrums, and thinking you should be over the adjustment to the “new normal” by now, give yourself a break. We’re in uncharted territory. We know how to handle the aftermath of wildfires and hurricanes, but while the landscape of Covid country looks normal, we’re anything but—and we haven’t begun the recovery phase yet. We’re experiencing what’s called “ambiguous loss,” where there’s no closure or understanding yet the grief is real and difficult to resolve. For many, their purpose has been yanked away and it hurts like hell.
When everything appears to be beyond our control, a shift in expectations can help. Perhaps you need to lower yours. Maybe it’s time to recalibrate your sense of purpose. What can you do today, in 2020 (and maybe 2021) from where you are, even with constraints? With so much uncertainty, there’s no better time to carpe diem.
Have you had emotionally low times that surprised you? What helps/helped move you forward and into a sense of purpose again? Please comment in the box below.
Sending you appropriately physically distanced encouragement—and a reminder to treat yourself kindly (which does not necessarily include chocolate).