Purpose

purpose_03I’ve been walking the méseta for two days. The distance between villages is greater and the terrain is, almost entirely, flat. It’s like walking across the prairies.

We are walking on senda now. Brierly, the author of the guidebook everyone from the English speaking world is using, calls it a soulless surface. I call it blissfully level and not overly covered in loose, treacherous stone. Hallelujah! For the first time in weeks, I have been able to look up from my next step without fear of breaking my neck.

In the beginning, when I would look up, I might see two or three pilgrims, interspersed at intervals of a few hundred feet. Now, I can see dozens of walkers, stretched out over miles. The clusters are closer now, and the groups are more numerous, as though in the midst of this vast expanse, we intuitively turn to each other for reassurance and motivation.

I have been humming and thinking a lot. The humming starts first. Usually, an unexpected but happy song pops up. Yesterday it was « Young at heart ». Turns out, I miss George Burns. Who knew?

purpose_01The thinking comes after a few km. For the past two days, I’ve been thinking a lot about « purpose ». What gives us a sense of purpose? How do we define it? Nurture it?

Out here, few things give as clear a sense of purpose as primary needs. If I don’t find food and water every day, I will go hungry and dehydrate quickly. This is counterproductive and incites one to make a certain effort. Likewise shelter. If I do not make it to the next town with a bed, I will sleep outside. This incentivizes walking, to be sure. It may be that the Camino has recallibrated my sense of purpose, in keeping with the evolutionary need to survive. But there’s more to purpose than that.

purpose_02I have frequently been awed by friends and family who draw their deepest sense of purpose from the need to provide not just for themselves, but for those they love. This must be what drives parents to get up repeatedly throughout the night with their newborns. I know the need to provide was a driving force for my parents, and continues to be for my siblings. Surely, the drive to nurture life, to foster a young person as they make their way through life must also be a substantial source of purpose.

Many of the people whose paths I have crossed on this walk are hoping to discover or renew their sense of purpose. This is a tall order. A lot of people undertake the Camino in search of an epiphany. They’re hoping to hear a little voice tell them something along the lines of « You’ve been wasting your time. Quit your desk job and follow your passion. Become a surfer! Post haste! » Many of them, regardless of the epiphany, will come to a decision and make a change of their own accord. The road will give them time and assurance to make a change. What’s this say about purpose?

I think it stems from a sense of self. From a knowledge and understanding of our innate strengths, weaknesses, passions, of what gives us joy, of what can derail and discourage us. The Camino gives us time and space, and spontaneous encounters with people who aren’t just geared at small talk. They’re open and willing to encourage those they meet along the way to fully realize their potential.  And that, I think, is one of the fonts of purpose: our inherent need for fulfillment.

Whatever talents or gifts each of us has, we all feel better, happier, more complete, when we find occasion to let these strengths shine through.

I see many kinds of walkers on the Camino. John spends hours planning for he and his wife: where to stay, when to leave, how long it should take per km, where to find water, fruit, etc. He’s got drive, and logistical skills, and purpose aplenty. Helen gets up early, sometimes working on little sleep, and just walks till she’s tired, or spots a place she’d like to visit. Does she have any less purpose?

On the Camino, Purpose, I think, isn’t just about achievement, or results. In fact, those who focus principally on results tend to grow frustrated or disappointed over time. Life, and the Way, have funny ways of surprising you and throwing you off your plan.

Here’s the thing: Grant reports, and I read thousands through the years, attest to the fact that you can achieve regular, substantial results, without finding fulfillment… We tend to neglect process and long term, lasting change when we’re shooting for short term outcomes.

I suspect there’s a comparable proportion of purposeful over and underachievers. So what’s that mean? I think it confirms the notion that titles, salaries and track records don’t substantiate purpose. It comes from within us. It stems, somehow, from what is most profoundly meaningful to each of us. I suspect that investing a bit of time and energy to figure out whatever those factors are to each of us, at different moments of our lives, may be worthwhile.

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