I can’t find my passion and purpose in life

You’re not alone. Most people reach their deathbeds not having found them either.

That’s because they look in the wrong places, think inside tight boxes, or tackle the dilemma ass-backward. Many begin by making lists of their skills, aptitudes, and talents, then look for careers that match. Before anything else, they’ll check the pay rate and immediately stop exploring if not near their expectations. No surprise, then, that Gallup recently discovered 70% of Americans dislike their jobs.

For starters, I don’t know where we got the idea all jobs must be meaningful. I doubt Jesus found much meaning in carpentry, or Gandhi in law. And I know for a fact Buddha found his princely life utterly devoid of meaning. In all three cases, their life purpose found them. Either by way of an epiphany — like Jesus experienced when baptized in the Jordan River at age 30 — or when shuddering with indignation, like Buddha and Gandhi did when faced with injustice and human suffering.

Shallow are the souls who have forgotten how to shudder. — Leon Kass

On a train voyage to Pretoria, 24 year-old Mahatma Gandhi was thrown off a first-class railway compartment and beaten by a white stagecoach driver after refusing to give up his seat for a European passenger. That train journey was the turning point for young Gandhi who soon began developing and teaching the concept of “passive resistance” with the ultimate aim of freeing his homeland from the yoke of British colonialism. Thirty-seven years later, the Indian National Congress fulfilled Gandhi’s dream by declaring independence.

At 29, Siddhārtha shuddered when he fled from the ‘perfect’ world inside his royal palace, and, for the first time, witnessed the suffering of the common man in the street. Alleviating human suffering became his sole purpose. At 35, he reached enlightenment and became a Buddha.

It’s worth noting that all three exemplars — Jesus, Gandhi, and Buddha — died relatively poor, and that two of them were killed for their beliefs. It is also worth remembering that the word “passion” comes from the Latin pati— to suffer. As Nietzsche said, “if you have a ‘why’ to live, you can put up with almost any ‘how.’

What we get out of life is not determined by the good feelings, but by [the] bad feelings we’re willing and able to sustain to get us to those good feelings. What pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for? — Mark Manson

From Passion and Anger to Greater Purpose and Meaning

My passion is writing. Has been since the age of eight. I know it is, because when writing I experience flow, that mystical feeling where time stops. I also know it’s my passion because the longer I write, the more energized I feel. It has made me experience the vitality famous playwright William Herzog finds in his own work, and which he describes as follows: “A holiday is a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine, but for me everything is constantly fresh and always new. I love what I do, and my life feels like one long vacation.”

While I don’t believe I was singled out at birth to be a writer, I absolutely love it, and that love makes me practice the craft with steely grit and unwavering discipline. Little by little, day by day, I am becoming better at it, though must confess there are times when it feels, not like a long vacation, but like torture. But as I tell boys in my latest book, there is beauty and nobility in hardship.

The road from intensity to greatness passes through sacrifice. — Rudolf Kassner.

And yet, all this time, my passion had served no other purpose than to cater to my own pleasure and delight. That is, until I shuddered, a little over a year ago.

For a long time, I had been angered by the endless string of mass shootings in the U.S. and had taken the time to research their true cause. I’d also been following the growing crisis in American boyhood and dimming prospects for men in general. But I did absolutely nothing about these issues other than getting increasingly angry and frustrated. Then, on New Year’s Day, 2019, I chanced upon this quote in one of my notebooks: “A man of genius is primarily a man of supreme usefulness” and it struck me with a shattering force.

I finally grasped what Greek philosopher Aristotle meant about vocation — that it lies at the intersection of one’s talents and the needs of the world.

At last, at the ‘tender’ age of 57, I had found my purpose and decided to use my writing talent and passion to serve what I consider the most urgent need in today’s world: to initiate boys into becoming good men.

Thus far, I haven’t earned a dime from this work and hopefully never will, for as I tell boys in the book, one of the precepts of the Medieval Code of Knightly Chivalry is, “Focus on the good of your cause and not on its material rewards.” The word “knight,” I further explain, shares the same root with the word “hero,” meaning “servant.”

While my path opened through outrage, it is not the only way. Often, one’s purpose is found by way of an irrepressible enthusiasm for something one feels must be shared with the world. A crazy love! so to speak. The story of Vietnamese refugee David Tran and his giddy passion for his hot sauce Sriracha is a perfect example. His dream was “never to become a billionaire,” as Tran told Quartz when interviewed, “but to make enough fresh chili sauce so that everyone who wants it can have it. Nothing more.”

That “nothing more” has translated into a food empire now selling over $60 million dollars per year.

What if I don’t know what my passions are?

Here again, you’re not alone.

And it’s because most people shackle themselves to a narrow definition of who they are, what they think they’re good at, like, or may not like, so never move beyond their comfort zone. Hence the reason why so many could-be Jesuses remain in their wood shops, Gandhis in law offices, and Buddhas ensconced in their palaces, and the world doesn’t change nor heal.

Who’s to say, for instance, that if you were to apprentice with a beekeeper you might not discover in yourself a natural talent for it, even a burning passion that will inspire you to run further with it and save honeybees from extinction and the world from starvation in the process? What a legacy that would be!

We’re not slaves, says Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis in ‘Saviors of God.’ As soon as we are born, a new possibility is born in us. Whether we act upon it or not, we each bring a new rhythm, a new desire, and potential new promise to the Universe. But unless we are curious and courageous enough to go out and seek it, we won’t find it.

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. -Anonymous

In his practical and instructive guide, ‘How to Find Fulfilling Work,’ philosopher Alain de Botton says we should allow experience to be our mistress and let her take us “job dating” until we feel a spark. This process may include apprenticeships, internships, volunteering, or simply what he called “conversational research” where you spend an afternoon with a beekeeper, say, or a farmer, artist, chef, or a shamanic healer.

Vocation, Botton adds, is often something we grow into, not something we automatically find.

Before job dating, he recommends we let our imaginations run wild and think of 5 parallel universes where we’re allowed a whole-year-off to pursue any career we desire, then write down what it is about those five careers, or ways of life, that so moves and inspires us.

When I worked on this exercise, my deepest yearnings were for freedom, authenticity, serenity, and meaning.

Prodding deeper, I came up with this list:

  • I want to quit the rat race… don’t want to be a moron, automaton, or commuter
  • I don’t want to be enslaved by machines, bureaucracies, tedium
  • I want to be whole, not a fragment of myself
  • Do my own thing
  • Live simply and frugally
  • I want to deal with authentic people, not masks
  • People matter to me, nature matters, beauty matters, wholeness matters
  • I want to care for others. Give back. Pay forward. Heal.

At 54, I finally mustered the courage and broke free.

A man needs a little madness or else he never dares cut the rope and be free! — Nikos Kazantzakis

Another useful strategy recommended in Botton’s book is “The Personal Job Advertisement” in which we write down our talents, likes and dislikes, our yearnings, personal qualities and limitations, and the core values and causes in which we believe, and then send it to ten people who know us well asking them to recommend 2 or 3 career pathways that might fit. It then becomes a matter of experimenting with these possibilities in the real world.

A Means to an End

Not every job will be meaningful or engaging, as 70% of American workers have discovered. But it doesn’t mean the end of the world, nor that the promise that came with you when you were born will never see the light of day.

I freelance to pay my bills and hate every second while writing shit I could care less about. But I don’t complain. I see it as means to an end, affording me the freedom and time to bring my passion and talents to bear on what I do care about — the wellbeing and future of boys. If I can prevent but one mass shooting, I will die a happy man.

Your deep-seated frustrations with the world, your anger, outrage, or simply your irrepressible enthusiasms contain the clues to your purpose. Find that one need in the world that can be best served by your talents and you will have found your calling and unique path to a meaningful life. Just don’t expect a smooth ride, nor praise, fame, or rich rewards, and above all, don’t —please don’t wait until you’re 57. As poet Jimmy Santiago Baca said: “Life is not a rehearsal for living someday.”


Related reflections:

Warriors Wanted to Save the World!

Stop Sharpening your F*#king Pencil!

“Living your Truth” is only for Madmen

 

Warriors Wanted to Save the World!

In ‘Saviors of God,’ Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis said he wanted to find a single justification to live amid the dreadful daily spectacle of disease, ugliness, injustice and death.

Coming out of the horror of a concentration camp twenty years after Kazantzakis’ woeful plea, Viktor Frankl provided such justification: “For people who think there’s nothing to live,” he said, “the question is getting [them] to realize that life is still expecting something from them.”

He who has a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how.’ — Friedrich Nietzsche

Cowering inside our homes as most of us are today amid a world in shambles, it is easy to want to cry out for one good reason to keep going. If my daughters were still young and in need of support, the reason would be clear. Now that they are self-reliant, I have found a new purpose — to serve the world.

My quest wasn’t hard to find. I simply searched for a need in the world I could become passionate about, then found a way to use my talents to serve that need. While the journey hasn’t been easy, I would not trade it for anything.

Happy the man who hears the Cry of his times and works in collaboration with it. He alone can be saved. What, then, is our duty? It is to carefully distinguish the historic moment in which we live and to consciously assign our energies to a specific battlefield. — Nikos Kazantzakis

In recent years, there have endless debates about men’s purpose. Some have even dared suggest we are on our way to the scrap heap of historical obsolescence, there to lie buried along the VCR, the pay phone, and the floppy disk. But that was 2020 B.C. — before Corona.

Covid-19 now presents us men with the opportunity to rise and prove our mettle and worth, just like the menace of fascism in the 1940s roused men to save the day making them win the accolade of ‘The Greatest Generation.’

Our chance for glory has arrived! This is no time for cowering.

In ‘Fire in the Belly,’ Sam Keen says “the dispassionate, post-modern man is the antithesis of the phallic male — no passion, no standing forth, no risk, no drive to enrich history. Nor is the new age man who is self-absorbed in his own feelings and committed only to personal growth a candidate for heroism. It is an illusion to believe that the virility men have lost can be recovered by anything except a new vocational passion.”

“Virility” is a word you don’t hear much anymore. “For most of history, though, it was normal to praise exemplary men as virile,” writes Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker. “In fact, only in the past century has the word virility been displaced by the more anodyne ‘masculinity’ and ‘manliness.’ In Ancient Rome, virilitas migrated to the center of male identity. The virile man wasn’t just sexually assertive, powerfully built, and procreative, but also intellectually and emotionally levelheaded, vigorous yet deliberate, courageous yet restrained. The virile is not simply what is manly. It’s an ideal of power and virtue, self-assurance and maturity, certitude and domination, courage and greatness accompanied by strength and vigor.”

Swirling around the modern-day debate about men’s purpose is a confusing cacophony of opinions as to what it means to be a man. I’ll now try to settle this matter, once and for all, by way of definitions.

To be ‘Male’ is a matter of biology.

Masculinity, or more accurately, ‘Mask-ulinity,’ is a mannerism. It’s an affect, the extremes of which are found in the macho swagger of a ‘John Wayne’ type and a Japanese ‘Herbivore Man.’

Manhood, however, is not a given, as playwright Norman Mailer said. “It is something men gain by winning battles with honor.”

Where are those battles?

As I recently wrote, the current pandemic has not only toppled humanity’s most cherished illusions — of certainty, security, invincibility and control —  but like a receding tide from what seemed a flawless beach, it has also laid bare all the ugliness to which Kazantzakis referred: the fetid pools, turds and rotting carrion in society; it’s crappy values and misplaced priorities, its ruinous paradigms and widening fault lines of injustice.

It’s time to dare the impossible and bring about a new promise for the world!

“Centuries from now,” Kazantzakis prophetically wrote, “this epoch of ours will possibly be called a middle age, not a renaissance. As one civilization becomes exhausted, loses its creative strength and crumbles, a new Breath carried by a new class of men toils with love, rigor, and faith to create a new civilization.”

I’ve already proposed what this “new class of men” should be like, so won’t repeat myself here. Instead, I’ll summarize the spiritual exercises Kazantzakis laid out for any man wanting to change the world.

Consider it your Warrior’s Training Manual.

Kazantzakis epitaph with flowers
Epitaph on the grave of Kazantzakis in Heraklion: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free!

The Preparation

Discipline is the highest of virtues so may strength and desire be counterbalanced and for the endeavors of man to bear fruit.

Let us give a human meaning to the superhuman struggle.

Conquer the last, greatest temptation of all: Hope.

Say farewell to all things at every moment. Surrender yourself to everything. Our body is a ship that sails on deep blue waters. What is our goal? To be shipwrecked!

The March

This is the moment of greatest crisis. This is the signal for the March to begin. If you do not hear this Cry tearing at your entrails, do not set out.

Someone within me is struggling to lift a great weight, to cast off the mind and flesh by overcoming habit, laziness, necessity.

I put my body through its paces like a war horse. I keep it lean, sturdy, prepared.

I keep my brain wide awake, lucid, unmerciful. I unleash it to battle relentlessly so that — all light — it may devour darkness.

I keep my heart flaming, courageous, restless. I feel in my heart all commotions and all contradictions, the joys and sorrows of life. But I struggle to subdue them to a rhythm superior to that of the mind, harsher than that of my heart, to the ascending rhythm of the Universe.

You are my comrade in arms. Love danger. Which road should you take? The craggiest ascent. In that ascent, do not seek friends; seek comrades-in-arms.

Be always restless, unsatisfied, unconforming. Whenever a habit becomes convenient, smash it! The greatest sin of all is satisfaction.

You are not a slave. As soon as you were born, a new possibility was born with you. Whether you would or not, you brought a new rhythm, a new desire, a new idea.

Gamble the present and all things certain, gamble them for the future and things uncertain.

Free yourself from race; fight to live through the whole struggle of man. Gaze on the dark sea without staggering. Confront the abyss every moment without illusion, or impudence, or fear; battle to give meaning to the confused struggles of man.

It is this ascension — this battle with the descending countercurrent — which gives birth to pain. But pain is not the absolute monarch. Every victory, every momentary balance on the ascent, fills with joy every living thing that breathes, grows, loves, and gives birth.

The ultimate most holy form of theory is action. Action is the widest gate to deliverance. Not to look on passively while the spark leaps from generation to generation, but to leap and to burn with it!

My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: ‘give me and I shall give you.’ My prayer is a report of a soldier to a general: ‘This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.’

Whatever it might be, we fight on without certainty, and our virtue, uncertain of any rewards, acquires a profound nobility.

Die every day. Be born every day. Deny everything you have every day. Impose order, the order of your brain, on the flowing anarchy of the world.

The soul of man is a flame that shouts: ‘I cannot stand still, I cannot be consumed, no one can quench me!’

We can no longer fit into old virtues and hopes; into old theories and actions. Today, the only complete and virtuous man is the Warrior!

Adventure, with all its requisite danger, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man. — John Eldredge, ‘Wild at Heart’

If you were looking for a ‘why’ to live, the havoc Covid-19 has wrought on our world and the many fault lines it has exposed in its wake has just opened up many fronts which call for the fierce warrior energy in men.

The vocational passion called for by Sam Keen is the one Aristotle said is found at the intersection of one’s talents and the needs of the world. I discovered mine… now go find yours!

The world is starved for heroes. It needs virile and passionate men now more than ever. I say it’s time we draw our swords and give the world a solid reason to name us ‘The Bravest Generation!’


Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book and warrior’s manual for boys meant to initiate them into an evolved expression of manhood and train them on the character strengths needed to live spirited lives of noble purpose. Follow the book’s heroic journey to publication.

The Role of The Artist in Times of Crisis

Of all human beings living through these trying times, it is the artist who has no right to be silent.

As a writer, I’ve been asking myself what my role must be amid the current Covid-19 pandemic. This question has become more pressing after reading this rallying cry from poet Toni Morrison:

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

The bravery of doctors, nurses, delivery workers, grocery store clerks, and all the other heroes who are placing themselves at great risk to tend to our needs is laying a heavy burden on my shoulders. It feels as if I were sitting on a witness stand, sometime in the future, and being asked by the next generation to give testimony of what I did to contribute to the healing.

The death sentence would be fitting if I was discovered to have done little else than write for personal gain, self-promotion, or simply hacked away to churn gobs of online fluff to increase my follower count. Prior to facing the firing squad, the torture rack would be additionally deserved were I found to have taken advantage of people’s current state of fear, uncertainty and vulnerability to drive traffic to my content by means of clickbait, deceitful promises, or sensationalist headlines.

On the other hand, working on myself right now would not only be selfish, but outright contemptible. About the only useful and honorable self-improvement task I can think of at present is figuring out what part I’ve played in the mess the world is in, and then getting to work to clean it up.

“The man who is self-absorbed in his own feelings and committed only to personal growth is not a candidate for heroism,” wrote Sam Keen in ‘Fire in the Belly.’ “Men must be full of thunder and lightning,’ he added, “not dispassionate spectators or cynics.”

Author Upton Sinclair harnessed the thunder and lightning of his talent to blow the lid off the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants working in Chicago’s meat-packing industry in the early 1900s. His book, ‘The Jungle,’ was one of the first works of fiction to lead directly to national legislation that eventually created the Food and Drug Administration.

Rachel Carson refused to be a dispassionate spectator to the ravaging effects on the environment from the indiscriminate use of DDT and penned her famous book ‘Silent Spring’ that spurred the modern environmental movement and led to the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

Photojournalist Jacob Ris documented life in the slums of New York City in the 1890s to expose the upper class to the squalid conditions under which their poorer neighbors lived. The Library of Congress included ‘How the Other Half Lives’ in its list of books that shaped America, noting that after its publication and public outcry over conditions among the immigrants living in tenements on the Lower East Side, sewers, plumbing, and trash collection were instated in the neighborhood.

The travails of migrants during the Great Depression chronicled by John Steinbeck in ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ ignited a movement in Congress to pass laws benefiting farm workers. When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962, the committee specifically cited his influential novel as the reason for the award.

And that’s precisely what artists do, says Kurt Vonnegut Jr. “First, they admit they can’t straighten out the whole universe, and second, they make at least one little part of it exactly as it should be.”

“Literature has the same impact as a match lit in the middle of a field in the middle of the night. The match illuminates relatively little, but it enables us to see how much darkness surrounds it.” — William Faulkner

With so many fires raging across the world right now, it is easy for writers to default to self-doubt, despair or cynicism, thinking they are unfit for the task or that there is little their words can do to change things. I bet Sinclair, Carson, Ris, and Steinbeck felt the same at some point during their heroic journey. But they kept at it, bravely lighting their matches and exposing the darkness until they finally ignited a wildfire.

As I writer, I want to earn my place in this pantheon of master pyromaniacs; these fire-breathing, thunderous titans of art! Or at least, I hope to rise to the level of seven-year old Benjamin Ball who single-handedly, with simple words and a big heart, gave sea-turtles a fighting chance by convincing the CEO of L.L. Bean to replace plastic straws for paper at every store-café across the country. For while I doubt I’ll be confronted by future generations demanding to know what I did with my creative talent during the current crisis, I do know this: soon enough, I’ll have to confront myself with the question: “How did you help heal the world?” and I want to make damn sure I have a noble answer when that time comes.

Of all human beings living through these trying times, it is the artist who has no right to be silent.