Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It’s not fraught with heavy commercialism. It’s more about regrouping as a family. It’s also a time for contemplation, a time for conversations with yourself, with family and friends, about what’s going on in your life. And these familial conversations among those whom we trust can provoke thoughts about what we are doing and why?
At some point in time we all find ourselves confronting the question, the personal inquest about what we are doing and why we are doing it. Family settings like Thanksgiving are somehow conducive to these moments. The search for and finding that sense of purpose can be a pivotal lifetime moment, our reason for being.
I’ve come to believe that the quest for purpose in life, and finding it, is what consummates the human soul. It’s what our psyche needs whether we realize it or not. Early in life, when we are young and brimming with a robust affliction of narcissism, the pursuit of purpose often gets overwhelmed by hormones and hubris.
But at the end of the day (or life), it’s about what you have contributed to your family, your community, your state, nation or humanity that makes your life satisfyingly worthwhile.
My wife and I know of an individual who is a successful nutritionist. She went on mission to Africa to work in villages where children were dying of starvation. It was a cathartic and defining moment in her life. It was a moment when she understood what she needed to do to make a difference, and to realize a purpose that made her feel not only worthwhile but as though she was somehow earning the gift of her life.
What brings me to these thoughts are strong societal trends that interfere with the search for purpose. Alcohol and drug abuse can dull such aspirations but so can obsessions with social media, computer video games and our zero-sum political and ideological obsessions. We know now that these obsessions and addictions have led to increases in mental health problems.
Winston Churchill once famously said, “It’s not enough to have lived. We should be determined to live for something.” Finding something to live for is liberating and fulfilling, lending itself to positive feelings about one’s outlook on life and that’s what nurtures mental health and feelings of well-being.
There’s something about purpose that signals determination and strength of being. I remember as a young guy living in Connecticut and experiencing my first forays into New York City, the advice my father gave me for safely navigating the streets of Gotham. His advice? “Always walk the streets with a purpose.” I liken this also as a purpose signaling determination to achieve an intentional goal, whether it be for life’s purpose or to safely navigate the hustle of the streets of New York.
All this underlines how important mentors are in helping individuals understand the importance of exploring the “why?” of life. Mentors are manifest in parenting and teaching, and can be found in the works of coaches and grandparents.
Often such discoveries of purpose are made later in life, in retirement, in artistic endeavors, in volunteer work, or simply in dedication to the commitment of grandparenting by setting meaningful pathways of purpose for the rising generation.
A 2021 article on “Crucial Discoveries on Purpose in Life”/(Psychology Today) stated that, “Few people know that there is actually a large and established body of empirical psychological research examining this topic. Summarizing much of that decades-long research reveals three important things:
1. Purpose correlates directly with health, wealth and happiness,
2. Purpose helps to create realistic connections with our communities and world at large.
3. While it does not much matter what gives you purpose, it does matter that you find it somewhere.
The older I get the more I’ve come to believe that finding life’s purpose is akin to that holy grail search of the knights of yore. If such discovery brings spiritual completeness, greater health and happiness, and a lifelong antidote to spirals of depression, then that quest is essential.
In any event, here’s hoping for good conversations with family on this Thanksgiving holiday. As for the quest for a purpose in life, I’ll leave that to the master of parlance and brevity, Mark Twain: “The two most important days in life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.”
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.