I am 53 and I don’t know what I want to do with my life. Every job and every relationship I’ve ever had have been initiated by the other party. I’ve never made a friend outside of the formal structure of work or school. I haven’t developed any real passions or maintained any hobbies. I was content for a while to be defined by my job and my family, but while the job is fine and pays amazingly well it is not a vocation. My marriage ended years ago and my kids are almost adults.
I want to feel as though there was a purpose and a direction to all of this. I want to be able to say that I love my life. How do I begin, starting from here?
Eleanor says: I think you’re asking about something that hums in the centre of a lot of people, especially in midlife, and especially after years in a pandemic. The ties that connect us to what we know and love seem to grow stretched and slack – we want to feel tethered again, embedded, like it would matter if we floated away.
The trouble is, it’s difficult to find purpose and contentment by running directly at them. In fact, the more preoccupied we are with the goal of feeling fulfilled, the less likely we are to accomplish it. We can start to imagine “true happiness” as something mythical and lofty, a condition in which we never feel lonely or lost, and in chasing that ideal we overlook the small glimmers of laughter or quiet moments of repose in which genuine happiness actually lives.
Tomes have been written about how to feel purpose and joy. You could have a lot of fun reading them and coming up with your own personal recipe, but I think a good starting mission is: insist on making your life as nourishing as you can and then find equilibrium with the remainder. Both parts of that mission are hard.
The first is hard because it requires grit and optimism when you might feel low on both. You write you’ve struggled to make and keep friends or hobbies. This is about insisting that can change; that the path you’ve been on has no authority to dictate where you go next.
Things do change – one of my biggest role models couldn’t swim a lap as an adult and 10 years later swims kilometres in the ocean every week. But they change because you keep turning up. Reach out to the people you used to be close to from work and school; think of whatever made you feel most alive as a kid and go back to it in some small way; join a community organisation that makes other people’s lives better and forces you to become part of a collective.
The annoying part is you have to actually do all those things, even when you don’t want to, and even when it feels like they’re not “working”. The goal isn’t to do them until they make you feel life has a point – it’s to populate life with enough experiences and people that happiness creeps in between them, almost while you’re not looking.
That’s what gets you to part two; finding equilibrium with the remainder. Even when we’ve put serious elbow grease into making a life we’re proud of, there will be moments of loneliness and grief and worry. They may even be frequent. It can be tempting then to abandon the changes we’ve made, thinking “why bother?” – as though the things we fill our life with have betrayed us if we still don’t feel full. Resist that temptation as much as you can. Pain is an inevitable part of living; by staying engaged with the world and other people we can come to see that feeling as a companion to joy instead of a threat.
You write that you want to feel there “was” a purpose to your life, but a past tense isn’t in order yet. Start with a change of tense; ask what purpose could there be?
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