Pablo Picasso once observed, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” In all fairness, there’s some debate about who actually said this, but the notion of Pablo sipping tea, hands stained with paint, waxing prophetic in Castellano feels romantic to me, so we’re going with that.
In any event, I’ve been thinking about purpose a lot lately.
Twenty eighteen was unquestionably the single most challenging orbit of my entire forty-three years. And it’s got some serious competition: emergency dental surgery when I was 2 years old; a 1985 cycling accident that nearly took my right arm and required two excruciating surgeries to fix; a massive overdose in 2007 that killed me for just over 3 minutes and left me in a coma, followed-up by a divorce in 2008 that sent me spiraling back into several more months of powdery, self-destructive depression. The list is longer than I care to admit.
The concept of bone fida true purpose didn’t exist in my universe until another round of addiction landed me back in the hospital–twice–and finally in-patient rehab in early 2018. Despite my deep affinity for learning, it’s apparently not always my strong suit.
An Unexpected Moment of Truth
I was sitting in a meeting not too long ago, one of those “Hi, my name is Kris…” sort of meetings. One of the old-timers shamelessly recounted, “I was like a tornado moving through everyone’s life around me.” Twelve-step dogma is full of these types of–sometimes paradoxical, sometimes circular, sometimes profound, frequently all three–one liner idioms.
A sudden surge of heat shot down my neck and into my chest, landing squarely in my stomach.
Wait, that’s me.
It was in that very moment I realized that for most of my adult life I’d done little–if anything–to enrich the lives of the people around to me. Even worse, those closest to me had most certainly been worse off having me around. Was I a sociopath? A piece-of-shit, like for real a piece-of-shit? The rush of blood to my stomach quickly turned to knots, then intense nausea. Sweat beaded on my forehead as I fought the urge to pop. The cheap metal folding chair creaked underneath me as I rocked uncomfortably, and my new friends were starting to take notice.
Cue the Goodrs. Exit stage left.
Why Can’t You Just Be Happy, Dammit?
Cultivating my own happiness had been my primary inward focus since my quiet return from six weeks of rehab. Conventional thinking said that I had to make myself happy before I could expect to make anyone else happy (which in theory is true, but in practice is not quite that simple). This would be the key to keeping myself out of an early grave and repairing some of the damage I’d left in my wake of self-destruction. Regardless, I had loads of nagging questions that recovery had yet to answer for me, but there were four in particular that had been keeping me awake at night:
- Had I ever been truly happy?
- What did I need to change about myself so that I could be happy?
- What things could I do to be more happy?
- What was happiness, anyway?
All the wrong questions, it turns out.
Still, I dug. And I found answers. Miraculously, those answers still managed to lead me to the right place.
Had I ever been truly happy? Once, for almost a year, starting in late 2016. I thought I knew why, but in hindsight I didn’t. I couldn’t have–I simply didn’t posses the knowledge that would have allowed me to understand. I was on the right track, but try as I might, I just couldn’t qualify it.
Because of what turned out to be the answer to the last question: I had no fucking clue what true happiness was.
Cue the Professor Brain
Surely I can research my way out of this predicament.
Not so fast.
Curiously, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, colloquially the DSM–the guidebook mental-health professionals use to help them diagnose mental illness–doesn’t define converse conditions. In other words, it defines, say, depression, but not its opposite. Seems odd, but okay, fine. “There is no normal human condition” scolded friend, runner, and psych doctoral candidate Thomas Phillips when I asked him about this. Asking the wrong questions again. Dammit.
Turns out that in the end, it doesn’t matter that much. I have some bad news here folks. Happiness isn’t definable and it’s not actionable.
That’s right, you can’t just go be happy, at least not in the active, Bobby McFerrin sense: “Oh, I’m going to do happy at the trail, then maybe I’ll go happy at the coffee shop and get some work done. Yaay!” Just doesn’t work like that. Happiness is more-or-less an acute condition. Either you have it right now or you don’t. That’s not to say that you can’t choose happy. You can. And this distinction is very important, because the mode of action is very different. And just to be clear, I’m not talking about being “happy” because you-just-bought-that-new-eighty-inch-TV type of moment. That’s actually not happiness, it’s something else altogether.
So what does this all mean?
For me, it meant that the answer to my third question was quite literally “nothing.”
Well, kind of…
The experts were right, I needed to make some major changes, but not in the way that I originally thought. Certainly not the way I had been taught in rehab, twelve step, or by sympathetic friends and family eager to offer (mostly unsolicited) advice but who hadn’t the foggiest clue what they were talking about or what I was dealing with.
Changing my environment, the things I owned, my work, my house, my location, my friends, my morning routine, my moral compass, or any of the myriad tedium one takes for granted every day wasn’t going to bring me any closer to legit happy. Ditto for anything outside my sphere of direct, autonomic control. That is, changing you or anyone else isn’t going to make me any better. This toxic thinking is called codependency, and it’s like the Bubonic Plague for relationships. Insidious, contagious, destructive. You don’t want anything to do with it.
Instead, I would have to change the very essence of my being. My understanding of compassion. My expression of empathy. My long deceased, decaying sense of self respect. An overdose of careless, self-indulgent, self-sabotaging behavior had atrophied not just my body, but also my soul.
What I eventually figured out was that I really needed to change was my relationship with myself. And that meant finding my finding my true purpose.
The Pursuit of
the Impossible True Purpose
There are some things in life that, well, they just come to you naturally. Physical attraction, danger avoidance, breathing, morning wood. They’re all controlled by the brain’s limbic system, sometimes called the “lizard brain”. More-or-less automatic, much like the transmission in your car. Blindly push down on the gas pedal and shit you can’t really explain happens under the hood. Neato.
Purpose is a higher-order concept, however. It’s not in the limbic domain. It lives up front, where all that conscious thought happens (the pre-frontal cortex if you actually care). Sorry lizards.
Purpose, then, must be cultivated with intention.
At first, I confused purpose with activity. For example, “My purpose in life is running.” No it’s not. Running might be your passion and it may be how you express your purpose or the catalyst to finding it, but running is just an activity. A means to an end. Yes, realizing true purpose requires direct action (we’ll get there soon, stay with me here) but they’re not necessarily synonymous.
The kicker? You can’t attach action to purpose without meaning. If you run because you want to lose weight and you hate every single step of it (me back in 2008, but I kept going anyway and got lucky), then there’s no passion and it’s unlikely you have any sort of associated meaning. And that’s okay. Sometimes you have to do shit you don’t want to. Does cutting the grass have significant personal meaning to you? Probably not.
Case in point: you’ve probably heard runners (maybe yourself?) claim they’re running away from something in their past or towards some unknown, enlightened destination or, almost always, both. That is their meaning. They might not be able to explain it, or even realize that they’re on the verge of discovering something magnificent and incredible about themselves, but deep down inside, it’s there.
I caught up with ultrarunner, navigation expert, and author of Quiet The Noise: A Trail Runner’s Path to Hearing God, Rami Odeh at his gym in an Atlanta for his thoughts on finding true purpose through running.
“I believe everyone has true purpose. It’s just a matter of zeroing in on it, and not confusing purpose with your passion.” Rami’s one of the lucky ones. “I discovered my purpose a long time ago.” He was wise enough to actually be looking for it, so when it appeared he was ready to take meaningful action.
The magic formula therefore goes something like this: your passion is what gives your life meaning, purpose is what you do with that meaning, and happiness is what you get in return. Do this enough and I suspect you might even find yourself with something called fulfillment. I’m still working on that one.
No happy? You haven’t quite figured those other two variables out yet. It’s a process. There will be steep, off-camber climbs and rooty, rocky, technical downhills. You’ll fall on your face, maybe skin a knee or two. Stand up. Keep going. That next aid station is just around the corner, I swear.
Okay, How Much Further?
So, what does this all have to do with running?
Maybe nothing, maybe everything.
For me, running–trail running specifically–is what eventually got me to my purpose. For you it might be something completely different. What’s important is that you learn to recognize it when you see it. Missing it could easily be the biggest mistake of your life, and you might not even know. And this would be a personal tragedy of immense proportions.
Let’s tweak our painter friend’s quote just a bit: The meaning of life is to find your passion. The purpose of life is to use your passion to improve the world around you. Whatever that may mean to you.
In other words, if you’re lucky enough to find your true passion–and if you’ve read this far, it must be running–your life will have substantial meaning. A great start for sure. If then you happen to figure out how to use this (warning: this is hard fucking work) to enrich the world around you–people, animals, the environment, wherever it is that meaning aligns–then you will have found your true purpose.
Cue genuine enlightenment.
And guess what. If you do all of this, you will almost without effort become truly, blissfully happy.
How do I know? I accidentally stumbled upon my true purpose back in 2016. I didn’t realize it at the time, but by some immense measure of pure, dumb fucking luck, I lived long enough to figure it out.
What’s my purpose?
Go find yours and then you’ll know.
See y’all on the trails!