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Life of Purpose

by Katarina T. Conrad, PhD

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

~ Friedrich Nietzsche

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

“If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.”

~ Thomas Merton

What allows somebody to bear almost any how, as Nietzsche so eloquently put it, is to know why. In his famous post World War II book “Man's Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, writes about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. He described his psychotherapeutic method developed while an inmate in the Auschwitz concentration camp, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel good about, and then imagining that outcome.

According to Frankl, the way a prisoner imagined the future affected his longevity. He observed that the fellow inmates who had a purpose, something to look forward to--unfinished work, a loved one to see, a place to go to, work to contribute, a store to reopen, a garden or farm to tend to--had more chances of surviving the most brutal conditions and tortures. Frankl concludes that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death.

Most people of the Blue Zones have a simple and clear purpose such as to provide for their families, work to go to, a farm to upkeep, a store or shop to keep, a skill to teach, raising kids and grandkids, a garden and a harvest to tend and complete. And there is not much wavering in what that purpose is.

My grandfather had a limp and needed the help of a cane when he walked, and when traveling distances he had his horse and flat carriage. His horse was not only his companion, but his legs. Whether he was going to a far away store, to a field to plow, to the cows to guide, to sell products in the market, to transport his grandkids places, his faithful horse was there with him to help. The limp in his leg never stopped him from working hard to provide for his family, and not only his own family, but his blind brother’s family too. To this day I have not met a harder working couple than my grandparents. At some point, they owned a lot of livestock, numbering in the hundreds. Many fields had to be tended to and crops to be harvested and sold. They would not rest from dawn to dusk. And every day was the same - providing for the family by taking care of the animals, planting, tending or harvesting fields, and running the household and its numerous chores. They were not ambitious in any way. They were not pursuing validation, status, accolades or degrees, they simply were content with being farmers.

My grandpa was not slowing down even when he reached his eighties. By the time I became a teenager, they sold most of their livestock, except for a couple dozen chickens, a few cows, goats, and pigs and of course my grandpa's favorite companion, Mishko the horse.

One late cold afternoon, after my grandfather returned from the stable putting all the animals in, he went inside the house to warm up and get some supper. Not long after he sat down to eat, there was a knock on the door. It was more of a loud thumping really. By the time my grandfather reached for his cane and limped to the door to open it, he was in for an unexpected surprise that ultimately affected his life for the worse. His horse Mishko broke through the stable’s gate, came over to the door, knocked and went straight for the middle of the front yard and dropped dead after 17 years of faithfully serving my grandfather. My grandfather rarely cried, but that evening when he lost his horse, his best friend and his legs, he did not hide his emotions.

Within days of Mishko’s passing, they had to reduce the number of animals my grandma could tend to. Months after, his health rapidly began declining and he no longer left the house. He soon suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak. After that, my grandma did most of the work and had to tend to him, feed him, bathe him, change his clothes, and carry him to bed. This dependency on her only made him feel useless. Within a year he went from being an active provider with a clear purpose to a heavy burden. He passed soon after.

The story of my grandfather’s rapid decline in health after he stopped being active is not unique. In fact, among the 5,422 individuals that participated in the ongoing U.S. Health and Retirement Study at the Harvard School of Public Health, the participants who stopped working were 40% more likely to have had a heart attack or stroke than those who were still working. The increase was more pronounced during the first year after retirement and leveled off after that.

Furthermore, a recent study on happiness from Harvard shows that people are the happiest when they are at their most productive.


“Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it”

~ Buddha

Women nowadays have it harder finding purpose in life than the women of the past. A modern woman has more freedom to pursue education and career opportunities than our mothers and grandmothers did. This looks like a good thing at first, but with so many choices comes frustration, especially if you don’t know which path to choose. Add to that parenting and household responsibilities and the guilt we hold when wavering between children and work, and we are more likely to end up lost and depressed.

Instead of pursuing the purpose of your life, start paying attention to what makes you feel alive. What is it that you find yourself looking forward to after the day’s work? What ideas and dreams keep you up at night? What makes you get up from your bed? Start becoming aware of the things you most enjoy doing. See if you can combine your passion with work. Also, try new things. Seek to be a constant learner and beginner.

If I had not started practicing martial arts during the writing of my dissertation I would not have found my passion for empowering women through self-defense, and you would not be reading this. So, go on, and start becoming aware of your wants rather than needs. What do you want out of life? What do you want to contribute to the world that will help you get up out of bed every morning? Life is too short. Go and live it. Be brave. Take risks. Fail. Get up. Reset. Try again. Once you are clear on what your passion is, see if you can turn it into your job. I have. And so can you!

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