The Athenian philosopher Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. In fact, there is much we can learn by looking back and studying our lives. Things that may not have seemed significant at a certain time become more meaningful as life goes on.
There are many ways to examine our lives, but the most common ones are through talk or writing therapy. Examining our lives is an excellent way to review our hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The dance we engage in to discover our bliss, and the stories we tell, can help us focus on finding our life purpose.
Some people believe that life patterns, purposes, and themes are written in our DNA, while others believe that we tend to have more control over our destinies. Chances are that it’s a combination of both factors. At times we might feel that we want something more out of life, but we don’t know how to find out what that something is. For the most part, we all want to make an impact on the world, and the places where we want to have that impact are usually in areas we feel passionate about. But to make a significant change in the world, we need to take initiative and be brave enough to take risks.
Most often our purpose is already present inside of us; it’s just a matter of identifying it. First, it’s important to know ourselves and what has shaped our pasts, and what inspires us to move forward. This type of knowledge can be very empowering.
Our life theme concerns what drives us and what we’re constantly searching for. It may be described as the trajectory or actions that our life has followed in the past and will probably continue to follow in the future. When the theme is right for us, we feel a sense of flow, as if we’re headed in the correct direction and everything feels the way it should. That is, it feels as if our life has meaning.
In his book Flow (2008), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said that when life has meaning, you feel as if there’s a sense of harmony. During my teen years in the 1960s, someone would say, “Man, he’s got his head together,” which means that he was really doing what he was meant to do. This inner congruence results in a deep sense of inner strength and serenity.
Rather than following the path suggested by someone else, those “in the flow” appear to be living their chosen authentic dreams. When our theme is connected to our life purpose, we feel motivated and intrinsically happy. However, nobody can completely convince us what our life theme should be. We need to discover and nurture it on our own and find our own sense of purpose. As Csikszentmihalyi said, “Through trial and error, through intense cultivation, we can straighten out the tangled skein of conflicting goals and choose the one that will give purpose to action” (p. 225).
Sometimes life themes are established early in life and might stem from childhood experiences. Perhaps one of these experiences was a joyful one, or it might have been related to trauma or pain as a result of loss, abandonment, being orphaned, or being severely hurt physically or emotionally. Not everybody responds to challenging situations in the same way, and it is not so much the experience that matters but how we reacted to it and what its effect was on our lives. Some people are blessed to be able to turn disorder into order, to make good from bad, and to draw meaning from lived experiences.
If you’re at a crossroad, or even if your life path has been that of a seeker, chances are that you’ll ask questions about your life purpose, your destiny, your correct path, and how you can discover it. These are indeed sacred questions. They are awakening questions that will inspire you to look for the messages elicited by your heart, which will compel you to examine what matters most to you.
During the discovery process, you might notice untapped talents and desires of your heart. Sometimes when you look closely at these sorts of questions, you can also come face-to-face with angst, confusion, and concerns that inspire you to dig deeper into your soul’s quest. In either case, writing is a productive way to tap into the answers to these questions.
In his book The Art of Healing (2013), Bernie Siegel, M.D., said that he believes that to achieve true balance, we need to use our bodies and light to become soulful in our actions. He suggests we think of ourselves as a candle with the flame reaching for the heavens in the hope that it connects with the divine. He says to think of the wax and wick as our bodies, which help to keep us connected and grounded. While the candle burns, the flame consumes the wax fuel, and its quality is determined by how pure the flame is. This candle illuminates our world by sharing our love and light. Siegel said, “When we die, that light and love are handed to future generations. Therein lies immortality. The light from that candle becomes the pathway to learning about life, just as words are pathways to sharing and understanding ideas” (p. 193).
My doctoral research focused on the healing powers of writing and the effect of early significant experiences on us. Many of those I interviewed said that their life’s work was inspired by pivotal childhood experiences. Kim Stafford, the author of 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do (2012), said that since childhood his life theme has been kuleana, or, as he describes it, “the freedom to tell stories.” It has also been described as a “privilege,” “concern,” or “responsibility.”
When writing about his brother’s suicide, Stafford realized that the experience of writing and telling his stories gave him a palpable freedom. Also, since childhood, he has posed many questions, and he admitted that while writing his memoir, he posed even more questions. Through writing, he also realized the importance of transparency in his life, and he figured out why his father never discussed his brother’s suicide. He suspected that it was due to his father’s upbringing during the Great Depression: people thought differently in those days, and suicide was considered a taboo subject that was rarely discussed.
If you’re considering examining your life, here are some questions you might ask yourself:
- What did I enjoy doing during my childhood?
- What really matters to me?
- What is my soul’s purpose?
- What is the purpose of life?
- To what do I want to consecrate my life?
- What are you most grateful for?
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Raab, D. (2017). Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life. Ann Arbor, MI: Loving Healing Press.
Siegel, B. S. (2013). The Art of Healing. Novato, CA: New World Library.
This post was previously published on Psychology Today.
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