06/12/2012 07:38 am ET Updated Aug 12, 2012

Following the Path, Finding Your Purpose

The following is an excerpt from, "Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose, and Joy."

What does it mean "to have a purpose?"

"It's not easy to know what you're supposed to be doing in life."

"Maybe not, but first you have to care enough to wonder."

"Happiness," Helen Keller wrote, "is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose." In a society bent on individualism, the insight bends the mind a bit. But think a minute. To realize what great stream of life flows in us, to discover who and what we are and then to give ourselves over to the energy and drive of it for the sake of the world at large has got to be the greatest personal insight in life. I knew, for instance, at the age of 14, that I lived to write, was meant to write and that life would never be whole for me without it. I also knew, feared, intuited that I had not the remotest notion of how to make that happen. I was female to begin with and it was perfectly obvious to me, given the fact that my high school library carried books by only three women authors, that women did not write. More than that, I was going to a monastery in a male church that may have canonized women but certainly did not look to them as authors.

It was a glorious and a painful revelation. What do we do with something like that? With the limitations that come built right into life. For women, of course. For minorities surely. For a working class dreamer with no membership at the Country Club, no connections from college to ease their way from one path to another through life? Then what? Is the dream of becoming myself only for those who have the status, the resources, the time to indulge themselves in the search?

Life has changed over the last 50 years, true. Things have certainly changed in this society. But, in fact, in many ways, life seems just as limiting.

It's not so easy anymore for anyone to take for granted that we will be able to find any position in life, let alone the great soul work we think we're called to do. At the same time, it's also more likely that we will assume that anything that comes along is what we're supposed to be doing in life just because we're desperate for a job. As if a job and what we're really supposed to be doing with our lives were the same thing.

Once the banks failed and the housing market collapsed and the hedge funds dried up and Wall Street and its creative bookkeeping systems were exposed, nothing any of us had become accustomed to taking for granted has been quite the same. College is more expensive to come by. Companies have been downsized. Venture capital has sunk. Grants and scholarships and benefits and student aid and social service programs have all shrunk some, if not disappeared.

We all think differently now, from one end of the economic spectrum to the other, from the CEO who once took profit for granted to the busboy who used to be able to take a job for granted. Boundlessness has vanished; limitation has set in.

We see the world differently. We see ourselves differently. The world as we knew it, with all its security, all its options, has simply disappeared. The world we had come to assume would be there forever has simply disappeared. And with it the jobs and houses and luxury vacations and never ending opportunities to get on the economic escalator to get even more of them. The loss of all those things, so suddenly, so globally, so definitively shook the foundations of the society, of course, and yet not all of it may be as bad in the long run as it feels in the present.

Five years ago, for instance, a generation raised on the myth of interminable possibility was being told by life coaches that to be valuable in this society they needed to be able to show a minimum of five different employment positions on their resumes by the time they were 40.

The purpose, of course, was to be able to show flexibility. But with the advent of permanent flexibility went the security of stability, the virtue of settling down somewhere or settling in to the long, slow process of building a new world rather than simply expecting to find it. The very notion of being in a thing for the long haul was so dull, "so yesterday."

That generation learned to move from one thing to another, simply waiting for the big opportunity to present itself -- as everyone knew that it surely would, of course.

Then, people knew, their purpose in life would be clear. Their passions satisfied.

Their happiness secured.

But the social by-product of such a worldview became very clear very soon. There was no reason in such a world to get too serious about anything too quickly. To think too hard or too much about what we were really called to, made for, in life was unnecessary. It was, of course, a dream job somewhere doing just what we wanted to do -- with advancement, with perquisites, with security. We'd find it, eventually. Or better yet, it would find us. It was, far too often, in fact, all about us. The Infinite Culture had trained us for that.

We became a society that learned to try things and move on.

That kind of freewheeling, open-ended, unlimited-opportunity approach to life was a far cry from the era before it.

Before the years of spiraling stock markets and apparently endless expansion, getting into high school depended on knowing in grade school what you wanted to be in life. You had three choices. You could take a general course, a business course or an academic course. But only an academic program qualified a person to seek a college degree. Which meant, of course, that it immediately limited your options in later life if, as a 14-year-old in grade school, you chose instead to take general or business courses in high school.

Life in a limited environment is more about making a living than changing the world. But not for all. In this social and economic climate, the professions became a new kind of call to social nobility. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, like clergypersons in the eras before them, had a lofty purpose that was educationally defined and clearly delineated from the rest of humanity whose basic function was to make a living, to raise a family, to get by.

Now again, in our own time, for the first time in years, many are lucky just to get a job and keep it. But, at the same time, it is a clarifying moment. It is more obvious than ever now that the noble purpose of life has got to be about more than simply getting the next available job. Now, it is clear, a person's purpose in life is greater than, requires more than, the ability to make money. It is also clear, then, that success in life is not limited to the successful.

We have to learn in an era such as this to weigh our gifts against our opportunities, our needs against our demands, our emotional dreams against our material expectations. Now we need, first, to find out who we are -- what are our talents and where do we find the sacred ecstasy of the soul. Then, second, we must find the work, the life, the activities that fit it. We can't drift anymore -- waiting to simply slide into the next best thing in life. Now we need to find out what we love in life and work at it until it teaches us everything we have to learn from it, until we can give it back to a world in need of it more honed, more meaningful than ever.

For some it is reading to children in the local library after work at night. For others it is delivering meals-on-wheels to the homebound elderly or used furniture to the needy. For many it is in joining watchdog groups in local communities to bring order to the streets and honesty to government. To more, it lies in volunteering in hospitals and schools and prisons and public service agencies; to supervising neighborhood playgrounds, to participating in local ecology and housing programs; to entertaining in homes for the aged and at ethnic food fairs. Whatever it is, it is about using our own gifts to gift our world so that all of us together, our part of the human community, can have a better, happier life. And these things are waiting to be done by all of us, at every point on the social spectrum, at every economic level.

One thing is finally clear: merely having a job that buys a house and puts a second car in the garage does not describe the limits of anyone's purpose in life.

Life can be pleasant and privileged and prestigious. But that is not enough. The truly happy life, the philosophers tell us, is about activity. Not just any activity. Not just activity that keeps us busy or has the appearance of importance. The truly happy life is about activity that gives a sense of purpose to life. It is, in other words, activity the intent of which is to do good -- to go beyond our own interests and claims-to the needs of the world around us.

If we ever want to be happy, then, we need to move beyond the level of simple material satisfaction to the development of the spiritual dimension of what it means to be human. We not only need to find out what we do best and do it to the utmost. We need to ask ourselves again why we were born. What is it that we have that the world needs and is waiting for us to provide?

That is the star we must follow to its end. Then we will not only hear the silent applause of all those who benefitted from our having lived but we will find the whole of ourselves now wholly developed, waiting for us, as well.

Happiness is not about money. It is about who we are and what we do with it for the sake of the rest of the world. We need to learn that giving ourselves to something worth doing is more important, more valuable, than giving ourselves only until something better, something more exciting, something more lucrative comes along.

We need to learn to lose ourselves in what we were born to be in order to become something more than simply all the trappings of self. Then we will have become completely human. Then we will have come to be about something more than the baubles of life which, without it, will soon begin to define us.

"The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it." --William James