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

 

A Blinding Passion

Is seldom what it seems.

Defying monster waves, abandoning your marriage, an illicit affair, quitting your job, buying a Ferrari…

Is seldom what it seems.

Dig deeper, and under each sweeping impulse you’ll find a common thread: the burning desire to feel intensely alive.

Most of us could care less about the ultimate meaning of existence, said the great mythologist Joseph Campbell. What we truly yearn for is the experience of being alive, so that our day-to-day existence, on the physical plane, resonates with our innermost self to awaken rapture — a word that, at origin, means to be carried away, snatched away… swept away!

It’s the longing many us feel at different points in our lives and project onto the intimate screen of our wistful day dreams.

Like the sultry one of being trapped inside the elevator with our sexy coworker who’s charmed with that irresistible dimple, healthy lack of inhibition and naughty disdain for company policy.

The carefree fantasy of a life in sun-drenched Tuscany, or the melting desire to be ravished by a Venetian, black-eyed gondolier.

The stirring wish to find a job posted online by a band of pirates looking for a daredevil shipmate for their next raid out on the open sea. “No swashbuckling experience required. Booty guaranteed!”

The barefooted dream on a white sand beach swaying on a hammock watching our slick sailboat bobbing nearby with no other care in the world than charting the next leg of our intrepid voyage.

It’s that ultimate yearning to be whisked away from our tedious lives, dispassionate relationships, boring locales, dispiriting jobs, or saved, if only for a day, from the death lock of monotony.

Bemoaning the apathy and deadening conformity of the 1950s, Beat writer Jack Kerouac captured his generation’s seething urge for revolt through the personal lens of his disquietude:

“At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night… I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’ disillusioned.”

In today’s regimented, rat-racing world, I imagine many must feel like they ought to check their pulse now and then just to make sure they’re still alive.

Not long ago, at the heels of a dangerous dalliance with a married woman, I quit my well-paying job and walked away. I had reached the point of numbness, a state of mind and spirit made worse by seeing the hourglass of my life more than half empty and the sand accelerating its fall.

‘Now or never!’… I finally broke free to fulfill my boyhood dream of becoming a writer; one I unwittingly buried to join the ladder-climbing sheep of my generation. In my early twenties, much too young and unwise to second-guess my impulse, I donned the mask, the suit and tie, and got busy pursuing other people’s tinsel fantasies. So convincingly did I play the role that after fifteen grueling years working long hours finally made it to the top.

It all came tumbling down in a flash.

Like Sisyphus, I spent the following two decades rolling my heavy burden uphill just to see it roll back down to start all over again. Paycheck to paycheck, one humdrum job after the other, escape was morally untenable. By then, I was honor bound to my family so bowed my head and kept going through the motions like a shackled, limp marionette. Breaking free only became possible once I launched my two daughters into self-reliance. At long last, I heeded the call of my boyhood passion and allowed myself to be swept away, and for the past three years, have been doing what I believe I was meant to all my life.

But something’s missing…

While most of my hours hum and zing with a spirited charge of aliveness, I still find myself longing for that sense of rapture Campbell and Kerouac so poignantly described.

Is it just me?

Am I the only one cursed with abiding dissatisfaction? Might my affliction be living proof of the hedonic treadmill theory? The one that says humans quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative life changes? Are we just inveterate desiring machines; nothing but incorrigible dopamine addicts? Or is our restlessness caused by our awareness and fear of death? “We love life,” says writer Sam Keen, “so death is an insult to our spirit.”

“There is something highly erotic about living in a conscious relationship to danger and fear,” Keen writes in ‘Learning to Fly.’ “The presence of danger makes us feel intensively alive and allows us to take an inventory of our fears, gives us an index of our courage, and forces us to develop grace under pressure (like bullfighters). On the other hand, if ‘security’ and ‘safety’ become the watchwords by which we live, the circle of our experience gradually becomes small and claustrophobic.”

Perhaps this is what I’m up against; the dreadful recognition that my life is again losing its edge, becoming small and stifling. Still too safe and secure, I’m like a sheltered ship at harbor, yet know that is not what ships are meant for. Maybe this is why I lately find myself daydreaming of purchasing a one-way ticket to a foreign country and moving there with only loose change in my pocket. What could possibly go wrong? Would I really end up starving to death in some squalid, rat-infested neighborhood swarming with pimps, prostitutes, and knife-wielding assassins? Or might I instead discover within me a previously untapped fount of courage and butt-saving street-smarts? One thing I am certain of is that those who live closer to the bloody floor of life’s slaughterhouse know no boredom. Like animals on the hunt, their hides must quiver, alert and alive.

No difficulty can discourage, no obstacle dismay, no trouble dishearten the man who has acquired the art of being alive. Difficulties are but dares of fate, obstacles but hurdles to try his skill, troubles but bitter tonics to give him strength; and he rises higher and looms greater after each encounter with adversity. — Ella Wheeler Wilcox

For all my present confusion, though, there is one more thing I know well, and that is myself. In such state of vulnerable unease, I know I am easy prey to a new blinding passion so must remain vigilant and keep the stamping and impetuous bull inside me locked in its pen until I figure this out.

Those lacking self-awareness are the ones who succumb to subconscious urges making them bolt from their marriages, abandon their children, buy Ferraris, have affairs, or quit their jobs on a whim.

Knee-jerking is for fools. Wise men simmer. They shine the light of reason on the wild and dark recesses of their minds before deciding to act on a bubbling impulse. When they do act, they make sure the remedy for their itch is the right one and not some fleeting opiate they know won’t work. A sexual obsession, for example, is a sign of repressed spirituality, as Sam Keen wisely notes.

Having singed my wings to feel the burn far too many times, I have proven what Keen says about using self-indulgent risk taking as an antidote to boredom — it is a dangerous drug.

Slowly then, I’m beginning to sense that serenity, perhaps even rapture, can only be experienced when we become part of something greater than ourselves. A worthy, selfless quest must surely be life’s most powerful aphrodisiac.

Perhaps the deepest measure of our character, of our very humanity, is how much we go on giving when what we most value is taken from us — when a loved one withholds their love, when the world withdraws its mercy. – Maria Popova

Facing danger — even death — in loving service to others and the world may be as close as we can get to meaningful and intense aliveness. It is also the only path to immortality, one forever etched in the memories of those whose lives we heal and inspire by the touch of our grace.

Slay the Dream-Scorching Dragon!

And let go of those who hold you back.

Quimera
Contributor Noah Black @ aminoapps.com

Had his childhood dream not been scorched, my father would’ve made a dashing world explorer.

Instead, he became a businessman, and lived to regret it.

At age seven, right before World War II, he escaped Germany and moved to Guatemala to begin his new life at my grandparent’s estate, which, at the time, led out to grassy fields, steep ravines, streams, rivers, and roaring waterfalls. It was every boy’s fantasyland.

Precocious and inquisitive, Dad learned to read at age four and turned into a bookworm with an insatiable appetite for learning and discovery. He loved science fiction and the Tarzan of the Apes book series, devouring them all, more than once.

Dan and Horse

To ease Dad’s transition into his new environment, my grandfather bought him a horse and two dogs. Thereon, every afternoon after school, he’d set off on his mount to explore the vast wildlands of this fantastic realm. From a high point, he could see a shimmering blue lake, far in the distance, backdropped by four imposing volcanoes — two in permanent, fiery upheaval. His favorite resting spot was a waterfall plunging thirty feet into a crystalline pool teeming with crayfish he loved to catch. He’d stop to swim and play with his dogs, always on the lookout for lianas by which to swing from tall tree to tall tree like Tarzan.

Guatemala was once ruled by the Maya, one of ancient history’s most advanced civilizations. The fields across which my father roamed were thus strewn with obsidian arrowheads, jade beads, stone axe heads, and pottery fragments which he collected and treasured all his life.

These wild experiences, and the books he read, filled my father’s young imagination with a stirring sense of adventure. By the time he was ten, he yearned to climb the highest mountains, trek across the most inhospitable jungles, and draw maps to guide other explorers. Swept-up in his excitement, he wrote about his dream, and, late one evening, waited for his father to return from work to share his budding aspiration.

I never liked my grandfather. He was cold and stern, stiff like stone and creaking wood. It wasn’t until he died that Dad told me how the old man used to drag him down to a basement and kick a ball at him with such force that it often bruised him. “Be a man! Toughen up! Don’t cry!” he’d yell at his son. My grandfather also worked long hours, so Dad hardly saw him. My grandfather held the notion that a man’s identity is solely defined by his work.

That night, taking Dad’s story from his hesitant, outstretched hands, the old man adjusted his wire-rim glasses and started reading. Dad, meanwhile, looked up at him with a boyish sparkle in his eyes, waiting for his blessing.

Done reading, my grandfather looked down and scoffed:

“Tsk! So a nobody, that’s what you’re saying… a bum, basically. Is that all you aspire to?”

Before Dad could shake his head and explain, the old man’s callous fist crushed his dream and threw the crumpled paper on the floor. “You will write no more nonsense!” He thundered and walked away.

Meet the Dream-Scorching Dragon, who’s deadly fire that fateful day denied the world a dashing explorer. Following in his father’s footsteps, Dad became a businessman instead and lost the sparkle in his eye.

I have two possible explanations for what occurred.

First, that my grandfather thought a man could only earn a living and provide for a family by holding a “respectable” job, and feared climbing mountains and drawing maps would lead Dad to failure. In other words, he crushed my father’s dream out of love, wanting to protect him from hardship later in life.

Second, he was jealous, and wasn’t about to let his son bask in heroic limelight. As a boy, he too might have yearned to go on a wild adventure… on his own hero’s journey, but couldn’t, for whatever reason, Perhaps some other Dream-Scorching Dragon stopped him in his tracks.

Whether A, B, or both, not receiving a father’s blessing is one of the deepest and most devastating wounds a child can suffer.

There are too many people like that lurking in our midst. People who lack the faith and audacity to slay the Dragon and give time and power to their true calling — no matter how unconventional, unprofitable, or impractical — so become Dream-Scorching Dragons themselves.

German philosopher Nietzsche knew them well:

“Ah! I have known noble ones who lost their

Highest hope. And then they disparaged all

High hopes.

Then lived shamelessly in

Temporary pleasures, and beyond the

Day had hardly an aim.

Then broke the wings of their spirit.

Once they thought of becoming heroes;

But sensualists are they now.

A trouble and a terror

Is the hero to them.” — ‘Zarathustra’

Many Dragons
From ‘Dungeons and Dragons. All rights reserved.

Three years ago, I woke up from a 40-year lie and upended my life to pursue my boyhood dream of becoming a writer. Soon after declaring my intention, a horde of Dream-Scorching Dragons lined up ahead of my path and began to blow their disheartening fire. Not least, my father, who, while often my most ardent cheerleader, also spat numbing venom, making me question my sanity. It was, I suppose, a twisted form of payback.

Dream-Scorching Dragons are shapeshifters. Whether with good or bad intent, those closest to you will be the ones most likely to make you hesitate or give up on your dream altogether. They’ll either presume to know what’s best for you, or appeal to your sense of duty to place their interests ahead of your own.

“You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you. What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting. You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.” — Walt Whitman, ‘Song of the Open Road’

It took every ounce of resolve for me to resist the clutch of those outreached hands trying to hold me back. It also took a heavy dose of selfishness… of the good kind I mean, defined by philosopher Alain de Botton as one that involves the courage to give priority to ourselves and our concerns at particular points; the confidence to be forthright about our needs, not in order to harm or reject other people, but in order to serve them in a deeper, more sustained and committed way over the long term.

After all, one cannot fully love others while denying oneself. Only in fullness does one overflow.

If we turn our backs on our aspirations and remain shut within the walls of what appears safe or practical, we will become dead in life… forever haunted by regrets as poet Rainer Maria Rilke poignantly foretold:

“Sometimes a man stands up during supper

and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,

because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,

stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,

so that his children have to go far out into the world

toward that same church, which he forgot.”

I did not wish to remain “inside the dishes and the glasses” leaving it up to my children to do what only I was meant to do. Nor did I want to be like so many fathers who exact on the hides and hearts of their children the ire of their frustrations, the thunderbolts of their distress, the dull ache of their tedious, apathetic existence, and the festering wounds of their unfulfilled desires.

Neither should you.

Answering the call of your true destiny will require a stout heart, self-love, a firm intention, and unwavering resolve.

For some of us, it also requires a touch of madness.

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

To arm you for battle against the Dream-Scorching Dragons who will try to hold you back, I give you this weapon, forged by the mighty pen of poet Mary Oliver:

“One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice —

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do.

Little by little,

as you left their voice behind,

the stars began to burn

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do —

determined to save

the only life you could save.

Now tell me…

What is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”


 

Read Episode I: Overcoming the Ice Dragon of Self Doubt.

Read the Dragon Series in my book for boys.

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