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On Attempting to Answer the Questions of Purpose

Steven Topper

At some point in our lives, the questions we ask about the world grow in magnitude. When we are little ones, we love to ask big questions about what we’re all doing here. However, as we grow up, this curiosity often vanishes. For many of us, as children we find order and structure in school, and direction through getting into college and/or looking for work. Then we find direction in seeking connection with others and establishing our careers. Eventually, most of us find ourselves asking: what is the point of all of this? Questions can lead to fear, worry, loneliness, and at times hopelessness. We reach for concrete answers, or avoid the questions altogether. Yet these questions are foundational to the ways in which we live our lives, where we place our feet.

Many people, with great sense and function, gravitate towards what makes them happy. If I’m happy doing X, than X must be my purpose. For some it’s work, for others, it’s particular relationships. One issue that arises is how change impacts us. What if our relationships end? What if our work undergoes change? Where does that leave purpose? Or if we gain less happiness from these aspects of our lives, we may feel lost and apathetic. While using happiness as a gauge for meaning-making, it may be only the beginning of the story. Could it be that the places of happiness are part of something deeper?

Am I open to something deeper? In our yearning for meaning and purpose, are we willing to have pain? Within the framework of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), these questions of purpose are directly tied to our pain. To make meaning out of a life is to — with gentleness and openness — bring willing curiosity to the pain in our lives. And this pain can take many forms. Often it’s memories of loss (relationships ending, loved ones dying, lacking social support), though for many of us it can take many other forms. Fear of failure takes us back to a time when we were ostracized due to some perceived inadequacy. Desire for control may come from moments when, in our most vulnerable, we were hurt by others. Each of us have heartbreaking experiences that have shaped us in both helpful and harmful ways. It’s human nature to avoid pain and suffering, and yet when we close ourselves off to that, we may just close ourselves off to fulfillment as well. Whatever you’re not willing to have, you’ve got.

One of the most powerful components to therapy is the environment where one can be completely open and vulnerable in the presence of a caring support. It gives us an opportunity to explore and process our pain and places of suffering, our fears and our stories (the ones we hold dearest), all in the movement toward a richer, more meaningful life. It may be that once we leave our comfort zone, we enter a place where something magical can happen.

If you’ve found yourself struggling with questions of purpose and meaning, or if you’ve been experiencing loneliness, fear, or hopelessness, it may be useful to try counseling. Contact Symmetry Counseling at 312-578-9990 to set up an appointment with one of our very skilled therapists today!

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