Two friends, recently, distilled for me their life’s purpose. Both said: To serve. The similarity caught my attention.

It’s a small sample, obviously, but I wonder if this is common among older adults. It makes sense. We spend the first part of our lives decidedly inner-directed. By necessity. We’re growing up, discovering who we are, identifying and developing our skillset. We learn how to “take care of ourselves before we can take care of anyone else.” As we get older, friendships, partnering, and possibly parenting, force us to be more other-directed. Most of us get a taste of caregiving along the way.

Many find that taste surprisingly fulfilling. It feels good to help. Maybe we’re better at it than we thought. Some are naturals, some have to work at it, but after a certain point in life, I think, pursuing more indulgent, less meaningful forms of self-gratification just can’t compete. As we age, the ego-driven life begins to fade. We aren’t as desperate for external validation. Inner validation from helping grows stronger, feels more real and lasting.

Being entirely inner-directed is a prescription for isolation. Being entirely other-directed is a recipe for exhaustion. When it comes from a balanced place, serving creates a positive feedback loop. You have to help others in order to help yourself, and you have to help yourself in order to be effective helping others. You give what you get and get what you give. After a while, cause and effect blurs. You’re better for it, they’re better for it, everything works better. At its best, your life becomes a self-reinforcing eco-system of interconnection and symbiosis.

So you serve. Motives aren’t suspect. You don’t do it for reward or regard. The positive stuff that accompanies helping is the result, not the goal. It’s not a “payoff.” It’s part of the package.

But it doesn’t always work so smoothly. Not every “other” welcomes your service. You may not welcome someone’s giving if it seems to come from a giver’s neurotic, unfulfilled needs. Vice versa if you’re the one with neurotic, unfulfilled needs.

Nonetheless, the question, “What is the purpose of my life?” got me thinking. There are also preliminary questions, “Does everyone have a purpose?” and “Is it a purpose worth serving?”

We’re not either/or creatures. We’re both/and. Most of us anyway. We’re inner-directed and other-directed — to varying degrees. And we can be other-directed and inner-directed in healthy or unhealthy ways. As the old story goes, each of us has a good wolf and a bad wolf inside. Which one dominates? The one we feed. The one we serve.

I’m thinking out loud here. I definitely don’t have all this worked out, and I’d be interested in hearing from others if you’ve worked it out — or maybe it will spark some worthwhile pondering.

What is the purpose of your life? Is life better when it is purpose-driven, as Rick Warren, an evangelical Christian author, said in his book, The Purpose-Driven Life – What on Earth am I here for? Barack Obama liked it so much he invited Warren to deliver the invocation at his first inauguration.

As I started thinking about it, I came up with multiple statements of purpose: 1) to write something that benefits and inspires; 2) to love wisely and well, and keep striving to get better at it; 3) to do as much as I can to support my loved ones as they pursue their paths through life; 4) to be useful and make a contribution to the world.

All of the above seem to fit under “To serve.” And having service serve as one’s “north star” may be the best way to assure that we continue to “feed the good wolf.” Doing it with humility is also a hedge against grandiosity.

But my four “purposes” sound more like “life goals.” Purpose, i.e. the reason I’m here kind of purpose, seems different. I think of “to dialogue,” “to question,” “to wonder,” “to incite insight,” “to provoke thought,” “to challenge conventional thinking.” Or maybe simply “to write.” Or “to love.” But I think “love” is the one-size-fits-all purpose for every human being.

Recently I read a book by Stephen Cope titled, The Great Work of Your Life – A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling, which made quite an impact. “True calling” feels like purpose, something we are “called” to do, whether by divine inspiration or something deep inside us.

Cope begins by asking, “What do you fear most in life? … When I pose that question to myself, the answer is this: I’m afraid that I’ll die without having lived fully. … I’m afraid that I may be missing some magnificent possibility. That perhaps I have not risked enough to find it. That maybe I’ve lived too safe a life.”

Does everyone have a true calling that needs to be heard? Does everyone have a purpose for being here?

I don’t know, but I think the question is worth asking.

Have you heard what is calling you?

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