This week, five books that have the potential to profoundly change the way you understand yourself, others, and life.
‘Discover your true purpose’ they tell me, ‘and everything will be well. A life of effortless ease, happiness, and joy beckons.’
Some go further and include the promises of financial reward and security too.
I’ve long thought such promises to be rather empty and hollow. Yes, sometimes it works out this way for people. But often when we find something approximating a ‘purpose’ that moves us, we find it takes us away from any kind of easy certainty. It might have us give up possessions, relationships, and a tried and trusted sense of personal identity in order to respond to something new and alive.
More often, our attempts to work out what kind of purpose might fit us turn up little of note. We draw on the same old stock of possibilities handed to us by our families or education, and nothing seems to fit. In this case, we’re struggling because in a way we have it the wrong way around. We’re approaching ‘purpose’ as a way of getting what we want from life – an easy life, a happy life, a secure life – rather than asking what life wants from us. It’s when we turn towards life this way that it becomes possible, for the first time, to listen for a future that meets our uniqueness, responds in a more open and wholehearted way towards the world, and gives us a chance to contribute.
‘Purpose’, then, or ‘calling’, becomes an opportunity to discover what the world is asking for, and mustering a suitably creative and life-giving response.
Stephen Cope’s book ‘The Great Work of Your Life‘ is a practical guide to all of this, in particular to what it takes to create the conditions in life from which a calling or purpose can be heard and responded to. The conditions in which we can respond to our deep desires and fears. The conditions in which we learn, as Thomas Merton so eloquently put it, that holding back what is in us ultimately destroys us; and that bringing forth what is within us has the capacity to save, in many profound ways, our lives.
The book is filled with examples of both well-known and more ordinary people who found themselves called to do something beyond their original conception of life, and many suggestions for reflection and practice. And it’s well placed for anyone who is opening to the idea that there’s something profound and important worth doing with our lives, beyond the narrowly conventional ways we’ve defined ourselves.