Do You Have a Purpose in Life?


My daughter Facetimed me yesterday about a problem in her Washington, DC apartment. The ants had returned.

She hates any kind of insect or bug, so this is a big deal. The line of little marching invaders made its way to the cat food area. She then sprayed (pet-safe) insecticide on ants and their trail.

This fix was only temporary. She had mopped the floor because of the flowery aroma. Result? The ants were back.

So she wisely moved the mat and bowls to the other side of the room. She sprayed again, holding her nose. Then found online advice that ants hate white vinegar. She was becoming an expert exterminator

You might be thinking, why didn’t she Google or YouTube first? Why call me a couple of thousand miles away? I don’t know, but I like it. Her calls give me a purpose in life.

I am only half-kidding about that. Having thought about it many times, I suggest that the lofty expectations we lay on ourselves are problematic.

We celebrated my mother-in-law’s 99th birthday by gathering at a favorite restaurant. The servers brought her a little dessert with a candle. We sang to her. (Or I should say, they sang to her. I am the musical outcast in the family.)

Some years ago, my wife walked with Gma, as we call her, to the elevator in the retirement center when my mother-in-law confessed, “I don’t know why I am still alive. I have no purpose.”

Almost speechless, my clergy spouse, unexpectedly challenged, tried to be as comforting as possible by talking about how much her mother meant to her family members.

Gma felt the same as many of us when we retired. We are suddenly without the things that used to define us.

She certainly had that circumstance. Her life had been filled with innumerable activities and concerns.

Just after World War II, she became the mother to four kids in a short period, adding another a few years later. As the wife of a college president, she hosted many gatherings in their home on two different campuses.

Then when her husband tragically died at a very young age, she finished her doctorate in music and went on to teach for many years.

Then, retirement, that dismissive word that tries to explain why we are out in the world with nothing to do. Or so it seems, at least.

What then? The older crew at our regular church men’s breakfast talks about many ‘post-retirement’ activities. One works with an agency building sustainable, affordable housing, and yet another teaches at a senior citizen continuing education program. Another guy seems to volunteer everywhere in the city.

I sit down at the end of the table and think, “More power to them.” I don’t do all those things and think I’m fine.

I appreciate their efforts, but I suggest one does not have to ‘do’ something to have a purpose. One simply has to ‘be.’ Or at least do very little.

Back to the ant crisis, sitting in my recliner, I can look around my daughter’s apartment to enjoy her cat, plants, Peloton, and pieces of new furniture and rugs. I am not concerned that my ant fighting input is of any particular value. All I care about is that I am there, albeit virtually.

How do you see your purpose in life after you finish the former phase?
Are you restless because you are out of the loop? Do you think of ways to stick your nose in your old company’s business? Do you stop in to check on things? Do you complain curmudgeonly about how they are changing things?

I suggest that having a family has a built-in purpose. They want you to be present one way or another. Maybe more or less, but still.
What about those with little or no family? We can point to friends who enjoy contact with you. Many of us have a cat or a dog that depends on us. It sounds a bit mundane but don’t be too sure.

All this aside, there are myriad ways to have a purpose. I often ask the name of our server at a restaurant, and then, careful not to overdo it, I use it during our visit. Simple interchanges with others count.

Being kind is a purpose in and of itself. Think about the opposite for a second. How disturbing it is to be met with unkindness.

The trick may be to stop thinking about ‘purpose.’ What does that term even mean?

There are many gags and cartoons about gurus sitting on top of a mountain.
One of my favorites shows the seeker crawling up to the bearded one and asking, “What is the meaning of life.” The master answers, “Don’t freeze your ass off in the lotus position on a Himalayan peak.”

After many years of earning a master of divinity degree, I discovered that theology helped me not one bit when the times got rough. Biblical literature portrayed more fear and loathing than serenity. Talking about heady concepts only made things worse.

What was life-changing for me was simple. Stop trying to “figure it out.” Trying to think our way out of problems and into joy never works. Only getting out of our heads has any promise.

“Do you have a purpose in life?” is the wrong question. Of course, you do. Just stop worrying about it and get going with life.

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