Why it’s Essential to Find Your Inner Purpose, and Why it’s So Hard

“He who has a ‘why’ to live for can endure any ‘how’.” Nietzche

A bunch of gratitude to Chad Prevost, guest blogger, for this stellar post.

There’s a tension between the self and society, especially when it comes to self-understanding and how does that self “fit in” with others. To what extent does the self insist on being an individual, and to what extent does the self disappear into the outer roles and expectations for what it means to function, to survive and/or thrive? 

Over the past 50+ years, our culture has prized the individual to an extreme degree. Coupled with dramatic advances in technology, our culture’s hyper-individualism has led to a crisis--ironically enough--of the self. Or you could even say, the lack of self. It’s a fundamental lack of knowing ourselves. Part of this lack is a lack of means. There is very little sense of a greater community who can work with and through us to help us find our way further up and further in, as C.S. Lewis would write in his Narnia tales. 

Most of us focus our energy and attention on our outer purpose, our career achievement, what we are to do with our individuated selves. Our institutions teach us to prepare for one kind of labor or another with very little emphasis on who we are to be within that labor. 

And it’s that very understanding that we need in order to find joy in whatever it is we do. I think the real key, however, is more than understanding who you are, but also listening and honoring that truth. Let me explain.

Inner purpose comes from a strong sense of who you are, and it can define and inform the outer work--or complement it--but either way without understanding it, you’re going to experience burnout in one form or another. It may be just the general malaise of restless, and often undefined, boredom and directionlessness. It may turn into a crisis. One way or another it’s going to happen. 


Without the inner purpose that comes from self-awareness, you become fragile. As Nietzche says, “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can endure any ‘how’.” In other words, having an inner purpose anchors you when you experience setbacks, challenges, or outright failures. By contrast, when you don’t know your purpose, setbacks are much more fraught with potential for total collapse. 

Child psychiatrist D.W. Winnicott describes True Self as "the spontaneous expression of being alive." Your true self is your aliveness. Your Inner Purpose is the discovering of this aliveness and, eventually, discovering the gifts associated with you when you're most alive, and bringing that into the world. 

I remember when I was nine and ten years old I liked to put together a monthly magazine for my parents. I called it Smiley Magazine, and I would create puzzles and games and stories out of the ongoing Smiley character. I also recall taking a short story writing assignment in the 5th grade very seriously. I love creating, and a strength through my broad desire to “be creative” is through words. Actually, words are the vehicle, but the ideas behind those words are where it gets exciting. 

But that’s just one piece of the self-understanding puzzle, and it’s very focused on only the self. What about the community piece? How does what I do contribute to my growing family? How does what I write or spend creative time on make a difference to others? Is it merely to entertain? Is it to instruct? As a pastor kid, and a seminary graduate myself, I also value contribution. That can come through the kind of writing that is of value to others on a transformational scale, or it can come through teaching. See, for all my self-awareness and analysis of the inner and outer data, it’s not like I have it all figured out either. But I do know that if I don’t listen to what I value and what I’m good at, I’m very likely not experiencing joy. If the “lack” persists, your true self will come calling, and it may not be pretty when it does.

The Inner Purpose is a process. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were you--or your journey of deeper self-discovery. Over time, and with intent and focus, you can begin to recognize your true self. 

Identifying strengths is just a part of the process. Your inner purpose can be very separate from your job. Your calling may not make any money, but if it brings you joy and a deeper sense of purpose--if your eyes light up just thinking about having time to make it happen--then it will contribute to the joy you need in your life that will sustain you through good (normal/peaceful) times, and through bad (those laced with one kind of suffering or another). 

To further complicate it, you can have more than one calling at a time, and your calling can change over your life. But the inner purpose is more than your calling. Let’s try it out this way: it’s the structure around which a variety of callings might fit. Thus, staying connected to that true self, what James Hillman calls the daemon, is where the real work lies. The daemon is like a soul-companion, if you will, it is your unique image, your pattern, that did in fact come already created when you were born--you weren’t just a blank slate at birth. The daemon is not the calling itself, but is your essential self, the part of you that never goes away even if you ignore it. 

Callings can be put off, avoided, missed, or even completely discovered and nailed. That innermost part of yourself is a combination of emotions and thought--the Roman emphasized the heart, the Greeks, the head, the Neoplatonists, the body. The first step is to recognize its existence. The follow-up question I would challenge you with next is to answer: Now, what are you going to do about it?


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