‘Having a sense of Meaning & Puropse allows us to cope with suffering and keep going when life becomes difficult and stressful. We meet the need for Meaning and Purpose by being stretched mentally and physically in one or more of three ways:
- Learning new mental or physical skills
- Helping others through commitment to raising a family, working in a team, running a business or volunteering; and
- Having a sense that we are connected to something larger than ourselves, which we have a duty to serve. This might be met through commitment to a religious, political, or social cause, but for some people it may take the form of a philosophical or spiritual quest for scientific or experiential truth.’
Extract from handout, Suffolk PCN
Having lost my sense of both meaning and purpose recently, this is something I’ve been thinking about even more than usual. I say even more because growing up as I did in a family completely divided about religion, and abusive to boot, I had little sense of meaning really, even as a teenager and the overriding message I got from my childhood was that life was about ‘getting through’, ‘coping’ and surviving. I was also firmly given the message that I would manage none of those things without my family, that I ‘needed’ them to cope.
At one level that last statement was true – it’s true for all of us that we need connection and support. Having spent a few years with no connections at all I will vouch for just how important this is, but that wasn’t the way my mother and stepfather meant it: they meant I wasn’t capable of managing an adult life without their help.
I read a lot of Satre during my teenage years, and tried to apply existentialism to my life, but I was probably too emotionally troubled to do so with any success. However it led me to psychology and I read my way through everything my local library had to offer. I didn’t find answers to why I felt so unhappy and confused, but my desire to understand what motivates behaviour and why we are as we are was fuelled. This purpose, plus an incredibly supportive boyfriend was the reason I finally left home and managed to find a place at a University to study Social Sciences.
Since that time I have always derived my sense of meaning (not to mention my identity) from what I do. I have had brief explorations of different spiritual perspectives and have had some interesting experiences, but nothing has ever stuck. This is all well and good when we are fit and well but what happens when we aren’t?
Because I developed ME/CFS slowly I held onto my purpose (understanding why we do what we do, mostly expressed through reading and writing) initially. This also gave me identity and meaning, too. At the same time I had rediscovered drawing, and that too gave me purpose and identity. And as long time readers will know, eventually I started painting, and selling paintings and art gave me everything.
And then that voice inside me started saying she didn’t want to paint anymore. And I got sicker. And she got louder. And there I was housebound with ME/CFS, not painting, not writing, doing very little reading because I couldn’t and no sense of purpose, meaning or identity at all.
Ack. That was a dark time. And it has been intermittently so ever since. I have scrabbled around, trying to find something to fill the void for the last few years. For a while I did manage to hold onto a spiritual perspective, but as I wrote last week I have been divided about this for my entire life: I am a natural skeptic who cannot simply ‘accept’ and believe, and have always been self referential*, I suspect that period would have come to an end sooner or later, anyway.
Some would say of course, that locating my identity in what I do was always a bad move – I need to find my identity in myself. The problem with that is that I have a drive to achieve things – I’m not talking about being ambitious, I don’t mean recognised achievements at all, I mean simply that achieving things I want to do during my day makes me feel good. I love ticking things off lists and I love admiring my results. Here’s an example: yesterday I made a toile for a top I want to make – it was really simple – but I had made some changes in the design so I was delighted when it came out well. I didn’t need anyone else to admire it (though I’ve no doubt I will share the finished item), but every time I think about how well it came out I feel a sense of pleasure and satisfaction. I feel this way when I get less pleasurable things done too – it’s a great motivator.
I think given that, it’s no wonder my identity is tied up with what I do, and I feel lost when I can’t do much. My biggest challenges with ME/CFS has been readjusting my expectations about what I can realistically achieve, so I can get my dose of satisfaction each day without wearing myself out, and finding new ways of creating meaning and purpose.
Hold on a minute Sarah – didn’t you say you found purpose in your desire to know what motivates us? Have you lost that?
Yes – or at least, I got to a point where I knew as much as I wanted to know, where I was sick of looking into myself, sick of analysing myself and others and simultaneously came to the conclusion that far more of what and who we are is driven by biology than I had ever previously believed. menopause was actually part of this – once through it, you tend to realise how hormone driven you were when you were younger. It can be an eye-opener. But it coincided with my loss of meaning, my loss of artistic purpose and, as I wrote last week, the result was the black pit.
The last few weeks though have seen me get obsessed by nutrition (actually this has been an ongoing minor interest for a few years), and commit to blogging – which is giving me purpose. My sense of meaning is still pretty shaky – I hope the Peer Support Network will help with that, and I do have my environmental values of course, though they are something of a double-edged sword as limited energy means I simply can’t do as much as I wish in that regard, and I find the internet doesn’t help by throwing prophecies of environmental doom at me all the time. So I do my best, and try to ignore the rest. And I derive enormous comfort from feeling, as I always have, deeply connected to this beautiful planet of ours.
I’m getting there, I guess.
How about you? How do you create meaning and purpose? How has it changed since getting ill? And if you’d like to share, where do you locate your sense of identity?
*In Psychotherapy this means if I encounter a statement about ‘the way things are’, or the world, or pretty much anything really, I tend to go inward and consider whether that has been my experience. There have been points when I’ve suppressed this, but I can never do so for very long, and always tend to have questions lurking.