Thursday, 5 January 2017

Stoicism: Know your purpose

"Let all your efforts be directed to something, let it keep that end in view. It's not activity that disturbs people, but false conceptions of things that drive them mad."
Seneca: On Tranquility of Mind, 12.5

The singular truth is that one must have a purpose not just in action but also in life.

As I look back at my life so far, it is now obvious to me that one major contributor to the developmet of my depression and anxiety was the feeling that I have no purpose in life. Why would or should something exist that has no purpose?

In nature all things that exist have a purpose, a meaning, so to feel that one has no purpose is to feel that one's existance has no meaning. As mental places go, this is a bad one to be in. When I began to count the time I've lived alone in years instead of in weeks or months, it became increasingly difficult to think that my existence bears any social relevance. My professional life had me feeling the same for even a longer time. Ultimately the feeling of being without a purpose and meaning expanded to cover most of how I viewed my life to the point that for quite some time my only real goal in life was just to live a longer than my dog as I felt that she was the only being that still honestly needed me and by that extension, gave some purpose and meaning for my life.

Since I was a teenager, I have looked for other people to give me sense of purpose, meaning and validation: if I was useful to someone, I felt I had meaning. If someone needed me, I felt I had meaning. The more my professional work benefitted the people (and not just my employer), the greater was my sense of meaning. When the sense of meaning began to fade, I began to lose myself. Never completely, though. I still had friends and family, and I did have my work and my dog, so I had things in my life that kept me more or less grounded, but as I could not explain to myself what was my purpose I kept spiraling deeper into my depression and anxiety.

Was I truly without a purpose in life? Other people might disagree with me, and there were people who did their best to be there for me, but in the end it is all about how one deep down feels about the matter; it is one thing tell someone where to go, but actually getting there is completely different set of challenges.

As I'm writing this I cannot say with much confidence that I have found some or any purpose on any aspect of my life, and neither am I sure writing this block would qualify as one either. (There is an important distinction that I think should be noted here: it is one thing to ask if writing this blog is giving me any sense of purpose, and completely different thing to ask if I'm writing this blog with a sense of purpose. More on that a little later*.)

I think I chose to follow a different, if somewhat parallel path when I found meaning in stoic philosopy. As I mentioned, for much of my life I've relied on other people to have a sense purpose and meaning - to feel relevant - but ultimately that is something that is out of my control: I can make myself available in various ways, but I cannot make other people to see any value in me. The only thing I can have control over is how I allow my feelings on the matter influence my behavior, and to accept matters of life as they are.

I know not why or how this realisation gave me any peace of mind, but by doing so it opened a door for me that in a way allowed me to take a step outside and view myself from a different point of observation; to find a healthier perspective, in a manner of speaking, by accepting that I have ultimately very little influence over what value people would see in me, and to be at peace with notion. What is more, I know (at least rationally if not always emotionally) there are people who are willing to help me to find my way, but there is not much they can do about it until I find my way to a mental place where I can see things as they are as opposed to have I feel them to be: one may feel that one has no purpose or meaning, but it does not mean that it is truly so.


In all honesty I know not where to go from here, but for some reason I do feel some measure of confidence that I might find my way to... somewhere, where I might feel again that I'm needed and that my actions are serving a purpose I can find worthy. It is much like my favourite quote from Douglas Adams:
"I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I ended up where I needed to be."
This does not mean that I won't feel the need to receive validation from other people, and to feel to be needed and appreciated, but now at least (at least for now) I'm at peace with the fact that this is (mostly) beyond my control, and that I'm more likely to find some measure of satisfaction by focusing my time and energy on matters that I do have influence over.

 *One such thing is this blog of mine. While I wield it mainly as a tool for introspection, it might also offer some perspective for others who are facing similar issues; if some one can find some meaning from these words, I would be glad, but I'm going to be fine even if no one does.

The thing is, while one must have a purpose not just in action but also in life, one must find it from within instead of from without: to not just know why or what one is doing, but also have the innate confidence that it is worth doing.

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