Like many of my Gen X peers, and the Millenials following, I spent a lot of my life thinking about purpose, what I’m here to do. I’ve had a whole lot of ideas since childhood, from astronaut to high school teacher to art therapist to minister to best selling non-fiction author (yes, I believed best-selling to be part of my purpose because purpose and success are all tangled up in capitalism). But now that I renewed my relationship with the ecosystem I live in while simultaneously coming to terms with disability, I’m looking at purpose from an entirely different angle. I believe my purpose is who I am in relationship to the world around me, not what I produce as work. I have lived my purpose in every job, in every volunteer endeavor, in my parenting, in my relationship with plants, and in my relationships with my Beloveds, regardless of my circumstances.
Purpose is a cultural construct that became a primary life goal in the 90s, alongside the idea that work doesn’t have to mean drudgery or corporate compliance. Mythologist Joseph Campbell taught us we can follow our bliss (that’s the first voice I remember saying such a thing) and so we turned finding-our-bliss into an industry where we pay others to help us find our purpose and then turn it into work. Capitalism conflates purpose with making money, which leads to tremendous anxiety and frustration for those who can’t seem to discover what they are “supposed to do,” or those who fail to turn their gifts into thriving work, or those who don’t have the financial/racial/abled/cis privilege to access their so-called purpose through education or entrepreneurship. It also means that we don’t honor those who do work that doesn’t appear purposeful – our janitors and housekeepers, parking lot attendants, fast food workers, etc. The work that is typically considered purposeful is either upper strata services that primarily the middle class and higher can access, or community service work where individuals intentionally choose purpose over wealth because service isn’t honored as a product (non-profit, social justice, spiritual service, etc.). Capitalism’s valuing of purpose focuses entirely on what we do (produce) rather than who we are or what values we live.
I don’t believe it is my purpose to write or make plant medicine anymore than it was my purpose to run operations for service organizations. These are my gifts or passions and I have many that I could turn into work. Purpose is something different. The Universe itself moves toward a singular purpose – to grow and nurture the diversity and complexity of life. That is how humans with our conscious ability to contemplate purpose exist in the first place. It is arrogance to imagine that we have any purpose more important or divine than the Universe that sustains us, and this arrogance may be the end of our species. If we are to survive climate change we need to understand that our purpose is simply to return the gift we’ve been given by reciprocally nurturing life in our sphere of existence, much like Indigenous cultures have done for millenia.
Our purpose is in our relationships, how we relate to humans, non-humans, and our eco-systems as a whole.
Our purpose is in our values – what we value most.
Do we value life or do we value wealth?
Do we value connection or do we value transaction?
Do we value domination or do we value reciprocity?
Do we value short-term individual gain or long-term sustenance for the community?
If we collectively put as much energy into living the Universe’s purpose as we do hustling for our individual purpose, then we would probably have a chance of species survival. But the untangling of capitalism’s belief systems from our innate understanding of our place in the Universe is big work. Capitalism values domination over reciprocal relationship, materialism over honoring the spirit in all things, and infinite growth of profit over nurturing life. Capitalism can’t believe in nurturing life because it would naturally provide a limit to growth and profit. To nurture life we have to sustainably manage resources, but capitalism uses up every resources in its path (including humans) for today’s benefit without consideration of tomorrow’s consequence (look up the insect apocalypse).
Now that I understand my place within my ecosystem and how ecosystems functions as reciprocal relationships based on generosity, I refuse to believe that my purpose is to play capitalism’s game by turning my gifts into products. I also refuse to believe my partner cannot live their purpose because our circumstances require them to be a UPS driver, a cog in a big corporate machine, for the union benefits that support our lives, my health, and our future. There is enormous privilege in the ability to find one’s “bliss” and tremendous ignorance in believing that everyone can do so within the current system of extreme economic disparity. Bliss isn’t usually a consideration if you come from poverty and have children to support. It may not be a consideration when you have a disabled partner or parent to support, and there may be significant limitations for the disabled or elder person’s ability to work at all. Does that mean a disabled or elder person does not have purpose? Does the entrepreneur who fails to develop a thriving business have no purpose? Between people in poverty and the working class, disabled, elder and trans folk, as well as people who fail to turn their gifts into commodities (most business fail in the first 3 years), there are a lot of people who do not fit into the reigning beliefs about purpose.
The consequences of capitalism’s story about purpose are harmful to most of us. As we untangle ourselves from this brutal economic system, we need to analyze each and every story we are telling ourselves about the world and our place within it. When it comes to work we need to look at the stories we tell about purpose, value/worth, success, and relationship. We need to critique the ways in which we compromise our humanity, and the humanity of others, for the sake of the almighty dollar. We need to look at the ways we commodify the earth that sustains us through generosity rather than transaction. We need to look at the ways materialism has compromised relationship, community, and spiritual life, as well as our future ability to live on this planet.
And then we need to start telling ourselves new stories about our collective and singular purpose – to create and nurture thriving life in everything we do.