Sermon: Living Out One’s Life Purpose
The Reverend Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
From the very beginnings of our religious movement worldwide, there has been an emphasis on living our lives with purpose and to infuse our daily decisions with meaning. We, as religious liberals forthrightly state that most of us refuse to settle for being defined by only our social roles. We have chosen to draw our own conclusions- usually from our personal sense of purpose, mission, ethics and values, that derive from our personal search, and from our own life experiences.
So I propose this morning that asking the questions of meaning and purpose are universal human needs… In fact, I would say that we are known, defined or revealed by the depth and quality of questions we are willing to ask ourselves. Following in the Socratic method that disdains an unexamined life, and our Humanist tradition of free inquiry and rational examination, I would assert that to periodically appraise one’s life is a necessary part of any personal evaluation… Then, again I am someone who believes in scheduling checkups… not just annual physicals, but emotional, mental, relational, and spiritual checkups, too!
In academic discipline of theology, Western and Eastern, there are two contrasting concepts that generally focus on meaning and purpose. These concepts will frame my discussion today.
They are: In the West, life as Teleology and in the Eastern traditions, there is following the Dharma. Philosophers and religious teachers, East and West, have all written about the importance of having faith in one’s future. In simple terms, that our time on this earth is a gift from God, what we do with the life we are given is our gift back to God, to humanity, and to life.
This morning, I will explore each term briefly, and then I will share some of my personal experiences with trying to understand my purpose for my life. Lastly, I will focus my attention on the question of aging… and the difficulty found of living too long or feeling that one has already lived out all purpose they thought they had.
First, then is the concept of teleology. This is the Western philosophical and theological assertion that life itself has a purpose. Teleology postulates that an abiding trust and an earnest devotion to lifelong ideals will reveal one’s purpose.
We are to have faith in those ideals in order to empower them or to make they real and workable; then we are called to follow through, acting on them and being responsible for them.
It has been postulated that once a person goes beyond meeting their basic human needs and social roles, our next most important task in our lives becomes the creation of a cogent philosophy or system of lasting values for our lives.
Teleological reasoning states that merely existing is not sufficient reason to go on living… That the next evolutionary step in awareness moves a person to examine their motives for doing anything beyond what is regarded as absolutely necessary.
Now I do not wish to sound too naive or overly idealistic here… I am fully aware that many people never get around to asking these probing or motivating questions… and most often, there is no fault that the demands of basic life has kept them from asking these questions. However, it can be the suffering inherent in the struggle for one’s basic existence that often starts the process of serious questioning. Conversely, affluence also can act as a deterrent to asking about one’s inner truths.
In our modern world, we appear to be driven to distraction! A person can become too busy with technology and with the social demands of society to ask the questions about ultimate responsibilities- they avoid asking such probing questions because it might threaten their lifestyle and the accumulated status quo. Teleology tries to inform us that purpose, meaning, or one’s sense of faith, hope and love are linked, or I would say, they are indissoluably connected. Through the daily process of faithfully living out one’s values, attesting to one’s virtues, and reaching for one’s aspirations and ideals, our lives become truly enriched and more complete.
In the East, there is a whole different or contrasting approach. Within the teachings of the two most prominent religions that began in India, the religions of Hinduism and its major offspring, Buddhism, we are given an imperative called “following the Dharma. This dharma can be generally understood in various ways. …
As it is simply defined, one’s dharma is one’s duty to learn the wisdom of the Sages, learn and embody the wisdom of the Ages, and then practice this wisdom as one’s own guiding and fulfilling direction, especially as they are laid out in the Vedas and the Upanishads of Hinduism. (One such direct reference is found in the epic, symbolic battle, The Maharabita. This is the lifelong struggle; When Ajuna asks Krishna to speak about the meaning of psychomachia- the battle for one’s soul, or what is the true purpose and meaning for one’s existence… (Film version!)
The emphasis here is how we can overcome previous misdeeds, the traps of selfishness, negative passions, and our chronic problems of health, emptiness or unhappiness… for it is firmly believed that without intentionally working on these issues in this life, you will be doomed to repeat them in the next- The Dharma teaches that whatever we resist, persists…
In classical Hinduism, if we refuse to learn, we can descend the evolutionary ladder and become either sick, or infirmed by our ignorance- and in some of the more fatalistic transmigratory teachings, if we are stubborn and remain unyielding to truth,
In the next life, we leave being a human and descend the evolutionary scale to wind up a hyena, a cockroach, maybe a slug or a patch of kudzu-simply something less than desirable!
The Dharma for Hindus is more strictly connected to a more inflexible doctrine of reincarnation; for Buddhists, however, while reincarnation remains a central teaching, the practice of Buddhism itself is more focused on ethical and daily teachings that embody wisdom, and help one to attain one’s own Buddhahood or enlightenment. This is the very core of being a Buddhist practioner, which are the comprehension of the
four noble truths, living out one’s life along the eight-fold path- and accepting the disciple of the five austerities, choosing to seek refuge in the Sanga, or community and in the Vajrayana and Mahayana schools, taking Bohdisattva vows. Knowledge and daily practice of these teachings in both Hinduism and even more centrally in Buddhism, is the way to our sense of life’s meaning and purpose … It is also the way to release one’s mind and body from suffering, and one’s soul from past indebtedness.
This knowledge is self knowledge. It is not simply a gracious or free gift, but it is a freeing gift- what frees or releases you from the all of its hang-ups and fears, and it frees you from whatever has caused old painful patterns, habits, desires and expectations that can consciously or unconsciously hold or imprison you in want, need, illness, etc.
These new patterns of thinking and feeling result in the soul’s freedom and the ability to understand one’s purpose in life- to mirror the values and embody virtues of enlightenment and compassion. In these wisdom teachings, we find that all true knowledge, conveys a responsibility to use it ethically, and to employ knowledge in compassionate service to humankind is the best use of one’s awareness and skill. Therefore, when practiced and more fully understood, sincere and diligent practice can frees us from the eight worldly conditions- gain, loss, honor, dishonor, blame, praise, misery or happiness.
While radically different, Teleology and the Dharma agree on the issue of recognizing one’s indebtedness to others and then choosing to respond to the truth of our interdependence on others with a personal gratitude and with greater compassion.
As a ethical consequence, we can erase or reduce our indebtedness by acting with kindness, by being wise, and unselfish. Anne Lamont, Episcopalian writer and poet looks at it this way: She says that enlightenment is found in the struggle to be unselfish and kind. The Dalai Lama asserts, Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. If you cannot help them, at least, do not hurt them.]”
First some caveats and some admissions… It is possible to live what some people would call a successful life, a positive and productive life without fully discovering their spiritual and heartfelt purpose. However, it has been my experience in counseling to see a lot of unhappiness and self-defeating behaviors among very bright and successful people.
Conversely, I have also seen genuine contentment among those who are truly humble and who choose consciously not to strive for any goal or desire that cannot be attained without ethical surrender or a soul debilitating sacrifice….
I feel that of all the definitions of a lifetime of success as it relates to life’s purpose and meaning, words attributed to Emerson stated it best when he said:
” To laugh often, and to love much; to win and hold the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of little children; …. to appreciate beauty always, whether in the earth’s creation or human handiwork, to have sought for and found the best in others and to have given the best oneself, to leave this world better than one found it, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, a cherry letter, or a redeemed social condition; to have played with enthusiasm, loved with exuberance, and sung in exultation… to go down to your dust and dreams, knowing that the world is a wee bit better, and that a single life breathes easier because we have lived, that is to have succeeded. …
And of course, I would wish each of you that kind of success, that kind of lived expression of purpose and values.
Next, concerning those vexing and unsettling questions we ask ourselves about our lives… I feel that it is a normal and natural process of maturation to experience certain, and sometimes serious places of despair and disillusionment during certain times in our lives. … After all, it is only the mediocre person that is always at their best!
Whether it is with our choices such as career, the depth and quality of our relationships, or almost any goal or ideal we had when we were younger, there is a very human and an almost inevitable process of comparison that goes on between the ideals we hold and the real experiences and attainments in our lives.
I prefer to see these times in our lives as a creative crisis, the opportunity to receive a calling- an intuitive or spiritual new message about where we need to go next or what we need to do that doesn’t respond to logical analysis or diagnostic tests. The effort then to fine tune our lives, usually through some inspirational cue or clue-often found in art, music, prayer, dreams, films and other seemingly unlikely sources, can point us in new directions our souls need to pursue… that is, if our ego and our fears will let go long enough to do so….. As it has been said about the holistic process of aging and discovering one’s purpose: “What the soul conceives, the mind creates; what the mind creates, the heart carries out, and what the soul, mind, and heart provide, the body experiences.”
Another caveat… I do not necessarily recommend that you become more like me- described by some of my tongue in cheek friends as a terminal idealist, a Magoo-like visionary, or the Don Quixote of liberal religion! It seems that I have been continually pursuing spiritual questions and pushing myself to find the highest spiritual, religious, and ethical answers for most of the last 35 years …. So much so, that I can frustrate friendships and partners and certainly any chance of material security. When I have shared my areas of discovery, doubt, disillusionment, and defeat with some of my less spiritually minded colleagues, that have said to me… “You know, Peter, what the trouble with you is…” (Don’t you just love how your family and friends start their advice with phrases like this!!)….
“The trouble with you Peter is, you believe what all the mystics, saints, prophets, poets, and progressives have been saying! Rather than just think about it passively, and then talk about it politely, you take it to heart, you urge personal and social change, then you go out try to fully experience it! That is a great way to be miserable or feel that you do not fit!”
Of course, I prefer what one of my more compassionate and insightful colleagues said when he stated that you remind me of the advice and outlook that Martin Luther King Jr. gave to all the liberal clergymen who questioned why he was making such a fuss about civil rights.
In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, he stated that a call to living as if God, Spirit, and one’s ethical convictions truly matter is very dangerous to your security, to the status quo… King implored people who choose to call themselves liberals to become creatively maladjusted- maladjusted to society in order to truly change, uplift or heal it!
“That’s what’s wrong with you Peter, you are creatively maladjusted!” And all this time, I thought all I was being was a good Unitarian-Universalist… Who knew?
Maybe one’s purpose in life is to be the best maladjusted person you can possibly be…. and since being a U-Uist already shapes you into being a square peg in the round hole of religious beliefs, maybe you, too, will risk becoming your true self, and join me in being creatively maladjusted- being in conflict with anything that is cold hearted, unjust, disrespectful, or demeaning. But beware, as Emerson stated, “[you can have truth or you can have comfort, you can have truth, or you can have security… you have to choose which ideals will live in your heart, which gods you will worship,or what motives for your life you will serve.]”
OK, let me see now, where was I? Oh, Yes, our purpose in life….
Now, this active pursuit of meaning and purpose, this living out one’s Dharma and its virtues, can last throughout one’s lifetime… but what if you have chosen to define yourself by certain time-bound expectations you have assumed rather than the truths that you choose to live? This is a particular dilemma for many seniors who feel as if they have lived too long…
That is, to their own estimation, they have lost their value to others because the are too old to work, and their friends have died or moved away, too old because even their grandchildren no longer need them in some important way…
How do we help them to continue to feel as if their life matters, and that there is still a valuable purpose for them in this life?
We all need to be needed… loneliness, isolation, alienation are great demons to have to slay at any age… and if we feel that our sense of value or purpose is gone, we can be left facing despair and the questions of feeling useless… Because we, in the West, assume that life is linear… it has a beginning and that it will end, when we arrive near our perceived end with nothing left to do, we can experience profound depression.
How do we address this concern for seniors who think of themselves as living too long to be of no earthly good to anyone?
The most useful and easily understood concept I have found is Stage 8 of Erik Erikson’s eight stages of human development where the emotional and spiritual natures of the individual are focused on and evaluated. His stage 8 was entitled Integrity vs. Despair”…. and it involves looking back over one’s decisions and one’s perceptions, choices and directions, and through a compassionate inventory of what has been done and what has been left undone, we can arrive at being at peace with our lives in our preparation for our death. (By the way, this is also a very Buddhist concept which states because I am aging, I no longer can ignore death, so I had pay better attention to my life.)
Let me offer a personal example…. One of the ways my idealism has functioned was to Co-own and co-operate a home based hospice for two years. During that time, we were the private duty nurses and counselors to two ladies- the younger, Marion, was 88 years old and deaf, the other Eva, was 99 years old and blind. Marion never married, and taught school for some 45 years…
Eva was a classical matriarch, whose children were already in their 70’s ! To say the least, this was more than a full time assignment, and our only day off was spent as volunteer prison chaplains, but that’s another story!
Eva, at 99, would fret about her use in the world…. and even though we arranged for talking books, and other ways to engage her mind that was slipping away, the most cogent and most favored approach we tried was to have her pray for the world, for her grand and great grandchildren… to see herself as useful because the world still had need of her caring, her empathy….. This brought her much peace and feeling of fulfillment… As the statement from Helen Keller puts it, “As long as I can sweeten another person’s pain, my life is not in vain….”
Discovering and keeping one’s sense of meaning is a lifelong search. It requires being open to change, to be willing to ask troubling questions, being open to risk and rejection, and simply being faithful to those inner messages as long as they speak truthfully to you… I feel that waiting until one is advanced in age to ask probing questions about one’s life might be waiting too long…. yet, whenever one’s questions about life do demand knowing and growing, then it is the right time for one’s soul… “Happiness”, said Chamfort,”is not easily won, it is hard to find it in ourselves and it is impossible to find it anywhere else.”
So, my last words on purpose comes from the Unitarian historian, Will Durant. Durant was asked how does one maintain one’s happiness, identity and sense of purpose.
He said: “[Do not stop cultivating your garden… Do not depend on your teachers to educate you… follow your own bent, pursue your curiosities about life and about yourself bravely, express yourself truly, make your own sense of harmony…. In the end, education, like happiness, is individual, and must come from our inner selves. There is no other way …
So today I affirm and recommend this: May your search for indiviual meaning and a lasting sense of purpose be timeless and ageless, and begin today! So Be it! AMEN