Seeking Purpose: A Meditation

At the beginning of each new semester when I taught English 101 at UNM in Taos, New Mexico, I would draw a huge circle on the front board, while the semicircle of first-year students sat and stared.

“This is the world,” I’d say, patting the circle. “And these –” I quickly marked the circle with lots of short, horizontal dashes “— are problems in the world. As I see it, our job as individuals – our personal purpose – is to seek out one of those little negatives and turn it into a positive, using all the intelligence, talents, heart and soul we’ve been given.”

I scanned the room to read the students’ reactions. Their faces looked blank — what we used to call “subway faces” in New York — registering nothing, neither acceptance nor rejection, neither positive nor negative.

“Maybe you’re wondering what all this –”  I patted the circle on the board again “– has to do with English 101,” I’d say. I knew many of my students were the first in their families to attend college, even this two-year community college; many were Hispanic, and English had never been their favorite subject in school.

“To succeed in life, as human beings and responsible citizens of the world, to fulfill our purpose and reach our personal goals, I strongly believe, we must first become educated. We must learn how to think like never before. This is why college and university is called ‘higher education.’ It’s here in college where we learn critical thinking. Not how to be critical but how to really think. Thinking is critically important.”

Again, I studied faces. Some were quizzical. Some looked skeptical. I pressed on.

“So how exactly do we learn how to think? And how do we show, or prove, what we’ve been thinking? In this course we’ll approach this by doing a lot of reading, speaking, writing, and sharing. We’ll do all this in English, because that happens to be the official language of this country. If we were in Mexico, we’d use Spanish, or if we were in France, we’d use French. Language is just a tool for expressing our thoughts, and English is just one of the world’s many languages.”

I was an adjunct instructor at UNM for ten years, and all together in those years I had about a thousand students. Whether or not my little introductory pep talks made any difference for any of my students in the long run, I’ll never know. But I do know that it seemed easier to talk with young people then about “purpose” than it is to bring up the subject with older people now.

Why is this, I wonder? Have we in la tercera edad (the third age, or stage, of life) given up? Do we feel we’ve served our purpose and there’s not much more for us to do? (Due, perhaps, to the endemic ageism in the American culture?) Has retirement from the corporate world – or seeing our children go off into the world – left us with a sense of purposeless now?

Looking back, I know there have been many times in my life when I’ve had a strong sense of purpose, which made me deeply happy. Serving in the Peace Corps was one time. Teaching at UNM was another. Neither of these pursuits paid well; as a Peace Corps volunteer I got a small monthly living allowance, and as an adjunct college instructor, I earned pittance. Clearly, the remuneration for meaningful purposes is not necessarily in dinero.

I’ve been grappling more than ever before lately with the concept of purpose, and I like to think I’m not alone in this. What is the work that we older people are charged to do in this crazy, mixed-up world (So many negative marks on that big circle!), while we still have time on this earth to do it? And, speaking personally, what more should I be doing now? It seems to me this issue deserves some serious – yes, critical – thinking.

As ever in my life, I’ve looked to books for guidance. I recently found and read several short, helpful how-to’s on the subject of finding one’s purpose. The most practical and useful of these in my opinion was LIVE YOUR PASSION, FIND YOUR PURPOSE, by S. Degnan (2023), filled with helpful lists and workbook-like exercises.

In it Degnan writes: “Recognizing your passions is an ongoing journey of self-discovery, a continuous process of self-awareness and exploration that leads to a life filled with meaning, joy, and a sense of purpose.”

This week a friend shared with me an interview she’d viewed recently with the eminent journalist Christiane Amanpour in which Amanpour talks about the importance of purpose. “You must have a dream,” Amanpour says. “You must have a sense of purpose. You must want to do something that is really worthwhile in the world in which we live.”

This sense, this drive, I believe, must be timeless.

I’d love to hear from you. Are you seeking purpose too? If so, how, and where? Have you found your later-in-life purpose? If so, what is it, and what does it mean to you? I invite you to contribute to the conversation in the Comments section for everyone’s benefit. Muchisimas gracias!

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20 thoughts on “Seeking Purpose: A Meditation”

  1. La Bonnie, what a beautiful post! I will share it with my ESL students—they may use Google translate but will get the idea, which is what matters. I will adapt (read: steal ) your introductory speech to my classes too. My sense of purpose comes mostly from writing, it is what I have wanted to do since my teen years, and I am happy to be able to do it now. Teaching also fills a need, plus it is fun! Amo mis clases. Besitos.

    1. I’m so happy to hear this, querida Te! Glad you can use my little speech with your students. And I’m glad to know you love your classes. Your students are lucky to have your joyful teaching. — Mucho love, BB

  2. YES I’m seeking purpose! Trying to fit too many ‘purposes’ in recently, and deciding to go with most critical….for me, support of friends, family, supporting connection between diverse groups, helping children learn, supporting climate change efforts. Thanks for your always thoughtful blogs….

  3. One of the common denominators of people living in Blue Zone lands( see recent Netflix docu series on those places where centenarians are in large numbers) is having a strong purpose for living. In fact, several of those places have specific words to describe this concept.

  4. Every day I ask myself whether I’m living with purpose. This doesn’t require grand gestures or elaborate plans. Sometimes it’s just filling the hummingbird feeder. And thank you Bonnie — your post motivates me to action on something I was purring off!

    1. It seems to me, querida Kim, that you’ve found a wonderful purpose in opening your bookstore Aurora Books here in SMA. It’s such a rich resource for the community — filled with magnificent, carefully curated books that make readers THINK. Brava!

  5. BB, wonderful to hear about that Purpose Circle. It’s an ingenious way to intrigue people and get them thinking about what their purposes may be. I “retired” from UNMT 2 years ago, to put my energy, such that it is, into finishing my book and following my love of sharing photo images with people. Thanks for reminding me to read your new post!!

  6. Most people have their “sense of purpose” defined for them by their parents or by society.
    They go to school, get a job, get married and raise the kids. Some people would say that nurturing the next generation or providing care to the previous one, is an honorable achievement, and I agree.
    However, when employment is over and the children have moved away, what then?
    I personally believe its ok to not have a sense of purpose, in your retirement years, if you are content with enjoying the day, socializing, reading and doing whatever you want. You might have already paid your dues and now is “your” time for the freedom to choose to do what you wish to do each day.
    For those that like to delve into deeper thinking, having a sense of purpose that contributes something back to society in some way, might be crucial.
    Your blog, Bonnie, opens us all to the questioning and you provide wonderful examples of how your passion has contributed to worthwhile ventures. And kudos to you for asking the question-‘What should I be doing?’
    My answer to you Bonnie would be, whatever gives you reason to get out of bed each day, with passion and enthusiasm. Many hugs!

    1. Thank you, as ever, dear Loula, for your thoughtful response. Yes, I guess it comes down to “to each his/her own.” I just feel that there’s a whole lot of injustice and inequality in this world that we older people, with time on our hands and experience under our belts, might be in a position to address — if we were to give it some serious thought.

  7. I always loved my work and finally figured out retirement during covid. If we are blessed with a long life, LIVE IT, ENJOY IT and DO WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY. LOVE YOU GIFT OF MORE YEARS!

  8. Dear Bon,
    I certainly identify with your experience of teaching to blank faces, with glimmers of interest and curiosity interspersed through the class. Now that I no longer have that purpose, I devote my time to reading for my own enjoyment, which is a luxury teachers do not have.
    Equally important to me is working in my own small way to advance progressive causes. I am far more politically informed and consciously progressive now than I have ever been. I find both these activities fill my days and provide both purpose and even a sense of achievement.

    1. Dearest Paul — I’m overjoyed to learn that you’re enjoying your new retirement and your days are both full and purposeful. Yes, using our time now to become better informed than ever certainly points us in a purposeful direction! — BB xx

  9. Dear Bonnie, this article inspires me and supports my belief that in this stage if my life – having purpose is more important than ever. There is more than enough “need” all around us – from “pre-natalhood” to death – there are beings at some point (s) who need assistance – including our planet. Every minute in a day there’s a way to find purpose by helping out in some way to make someone or some situation feel or function better – one doesn’t even have to leave the house, exert much effort, or spend much of anything to make a positive difference – especially locally.
    I upcycle junk into art and when I sell it, all proceeds go toward one of the local non-profits in cash or materials are bought to benefit others. There are plenty of wonderful NGO’s that help in countless ways, and in SMA they are easily accessible. It’s a blessing to have the time and capacity to contribute positively and to find joy in such purpose.

    1. Dear Dorothy — How I appreciate your words! Thank you for sharing your point of view and for encouraging all of us to heed your example. Yes, having a purpose is more important now than ever before.”Apathy is complicity,” and we can’t afford to be complicit with the forces that have got the world into such a mess. (Well, that’s my p.o.v. anyway.)

  10. Now you made me have to think. I think my art drives me most days as staying in touch with dear friends. I’ve been losing too many lately. I think we need to celebrate every day and maybe that’s our purpose. Thank you I always enjoy your writing.

    1. Thank YOU, dear Victoria, for joining in the conversation. I like to think that we elders (esp. older women) might join forces and help to turn this ocean liner (which is headed for an iceberg) around before it’s too late. But maybe that’s just wildly wishful thinking. Maybe all we can realistically do is be thankful for each day we have before it all crashes and sinks. 🙁

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