On the Value of Finding Meaning and Purpose

finding purpose and meaning

By Troy Headrick

I grew up in a small town and was raised by a very conventional family.  Some might even say my kinfolk were conservative, and certainly many of them were exactly that.

I share this bit of autobiographical information because I think my southern upbringing was pretty standard, with the exception that my parents had an unstable marriage, so I spent a lot of time living with my maternal grandparents who were country people.  In fact, my grandfather was a rancher and my grandmother was the wife of a rancher.

When I was a child, I was surrounded by God-fearing people.  We went to church regularly and l learned the usual religious lessons.  I was taught there was a heaven and a hell.  Good people went to the former when they died and bad ones spent all of eternity burning up without dying, which always puzzled me because I had noticed, at a very early age, that things usually entirely decompose and turn to ashes after fire has worked on them for a time.  At any rate, it was commonly understood that the best way to go to heaven was to know what good is and to do it every single day.  So I learned to walk the straight and narrow and to never deviate.

Looking back now with much hindsight at my disposal, I’d have to say that the basic lessons I learned, via all that pushing of don’t-question-things-and-simply-fall-in-line sort of thinking, was to play it safe, to follow the rules, not to question what I was taught, and to be as much like everyone else as often as I could.  Being an “individual” was frowned upon.  Joining the flock was the best and safest way to live.  Being “Godly” was about following rules, not about straying away from them.

Does this sound familiar?  I think most people are probably raised in similar situations by similar kinds of individuals who push non-thinking kinds of “thinking.”

Here’s the problem with such an upbringing:  It tends to produce a certain type of adult, one who is reluctant to color outside the lines, take risks, or assert his or her individuality.

I bring all this up in the context of the article, written by Mara Gordon and entitled “What’s Your Purpose?  Finding a Sense of Meaning in Life Is Linked to Health.”  The gist of Gordon’s essay is that people who live lives of purpose are far more likely to be healthier and happier than those who don’t.  In fact, research indicates that the need to find “meaning and purpose” is the “deepest driver of well-being there is.”  And establishing this sort of well-being is the secret to longevity.

The sort of upbringing I had did not provide me with the mental tools needed to look inward, discover those things I was passionate about, and go my own way if that’s what I needed to do.  As a matter of fact, I recall, when I was still a very young person, being filled with guilt when I began to question the teachings of the church and to become more secular in my thinking.  It took me a long time to break away from those familial and cultural influences that were holding me back and down.  To find purpose, it seemed, I needed to move away from the teachings of my youth.

Once I finally found the courage to be the person I wanted to be—when I found “purpose” as Gordon defines it—not everyone in my family was happy.  Studying humanistic subjects, turning leftward in my politics, becoming highly critical of some aspects of American culture, and leaving the US to live in the “developing world” were actions many found baffling.  They didn’t get what was happing to me, but that’s because they didn’t realize I was doing something I had to do.  I was finding purpose.

Have any of you reading this had similar experiences?  If so, I’d love to hear about them.

Troy Headrick’ personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy:  Blog & Art.



51 thoughts on “On the Value of Finding Meaning and Purpose

    1. Thanks, Jim. It’s likely that all of us who’ve learned to followed our bliss have had an experience similar to the one I describe here. In fact, to “grow up” simply means to become an autonomous person. I’m surprised, though, when I occasionally meet someone who seems not to have ever moved beyond the kind of thinking he or she did in the eighth grade. How can a person not grow out of childhood? A question certainly worth pondering. Thanks, again, for you comment.

      1. Very well pointed out.

        Adding further – why do they resist ? Because Change is the domain of the Unknown where only the Fearless can dare to enter. As a corollary, this is why people do tend to change when they meet someone else who has already explored the relative Unknown.

      2. Thanks for your insightful comment. I do think it helps seeing others do brave things. I know when I left the US and decided to become a long-term expatriate, it helped that I met other Americans in faraway places. It showed me that such a life could be imagined and lived.

  1. 𝚃𝚑𝚒𝚜 𝚒𝚜 𝚋𝚎𝚊𝚞𝚝𝚒𝚏𝚞𝚕, 𝚃𝚛𝚘𝚢. 𝙸𝚝 𝚊𝚕𝚜𝚘 𝚑𝚒𝚝𝚜 𝚟𝚎𝚛𝚢 𝚌𝚕𝚘𝚜𝚎 𝚝𝚘 𝚑𝚘𝚖𝚎.
    𝙸 𝚠𝚊𝚜 𝚛𝚊𝚒𝚜𝚎𝚍 𝚒𝚗 𝚊 𝚌𝚞𝚕𝚝. 𝚃𝚑𝚛𝚘𝚞𝚐𝚑 𝚎𝚍𝚞𝚌𝚊𝚝𝚒𝚘𝚗 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚕𝚒𝚏𝚎 𝚎𝚡𝚙𝚎𝚛𝚒𝚎𝚗𝚌𝚎, 𝙸 𝚎𝚜𝚌𝚊𝚙𝚎𝚍 𝚝𝚑𝚎𝚜𝚎 𝚊𝚞𝚝𝚑𝚘𝚛𝚒𝚝𝚊𝚛𝚒𝚊𝚗 𝚒𝚍𝚎𝚊𝚜. 𝚃𝚑𝚎 𝚝𝚛𝚊𝚗𝚜𝚒𝚝𝚒𝚘𝚗, 𝚝𝚘 𝚙𝚞𝚝 𝚒𝚝 𝚖𝚒𝚕𝚍𝚕𝚢, 𝚑𝚊𝚜 𝚗𝚘𝚝 𝚋𝚎𝚎𝚗 𝚎𝚊𝚜𝚢. 𝙼𝚢 𝚏𝚊𝚖𝚒𝚕𝚢 𝚒𝚜 𝚜𝚝𝚒𝚕𝚕 𝚊 𝚙𝚊𝚛𝚝 𝚘𝚏 𝚝𝚑𝚒𝚜 𝚒𝚗𝚜𝚝𝚒𝚝𝚞𝚝𝚒𝚘𝚗, 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚝𝚑𝚎𝚢 𝚛𝚎𝚌𝚎𝚗𝚝𝚕𝚢 𝚍𝚒𝚜𝚌𝚘𝚟𝚎𝚛𝚎𝚍 𝚖𝚢 𝚕𝚊𝚌𝚔 𝚘𝚏 𝚋𝚎𝚕𝚒𝚎𝚏𝚜. 𝙸𝚝 𝚜𝚎𝚗𝚝 𝚜𝚑𝚘𝚌𝚔 𝚠𝚊𝚟𝚎𝚜 𝚘𝚏 𝚑𝚘𝚛𝚛𝚘𝚛 𝚝𝚑𝚛𝚘𝚞𝚐𝚑𝚘𝚞𝚝 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚏𝚊𝚖𝚒𝚕𝚢, 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚐𝚞𝚒𝚕𝚝 𝙸 𝚏𝚎𝚕𝚝 𝚜𝚘 𝚘𝚏𝚝𝚎𝚗 𝚊𝚜 𝚊 𝚌𝚑𝚒𝚕𝚍 𝚑𝚊𝚜 𝚋𝚎𝚎𝚗 𝚌𝚛𝚎𝚎𝚙𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚒𝚝𝚜 𝚠𝚊𝚢 𝚋𝚊𝚌𝚔 𝚒𝚗𝚝𝚘 𝚖𝚢 𝚋𝚛𝚊𝚒𝚗.
    𝙱𝚞𝚝 𝙸 𝚊𝚖 𝚍𝚎𝚝𝚎𝚛𝚖𝚒𝚗𝚎𝚍 𝚝𝚘 𝚜𝚝𝚊𝚢 𝚝𝚛𝚞𝚎 𝚝𝚘 𝚖𝚢𝚜𝚎𝚕𝚏. 𝙸’𝚖 𝚝𝚛𝚢𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚜𝚘 𝚑𝚊𝚛𝚍 𝚝𝚘 𝚕𝚒𝚟𝚎 𝚝𝚑𝚊𝚝 𝚝𝚛𝚞𝚎, 𝚊𝚞𝚝𝚑𝚎𝚗𝚝𝚒𝚌 𝚕𝚒𝚏𝚎 𝙸 𝚟𝚊𝚕𝚞𝚎 𝚜𝚘 𝚟𝚎𝚛𝚢 𝚖𝚞𝚌𝚑. 🕊

    1. Wow! Thanks for sharing your very interesting story. Don’t let it and them pull you back in. You seem strong, though, so I think you’ve got the necessary resistance. Your story is so interesting that I think it would make a nice blog in the future. What do you think? Would you feel comfortable about writing about this experience? Admittedly, I felt a little unsettled while writing about mine. Thanks for the comment.

      1. 𝚃𝚑𝚊𝚗𝚔𝚜, 𝚃𝚛𝚘𝚢. 𝙸𝚝’𝚜 𝚜𝚘𝚖𝚎𝚝𝚑𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚝𝚑𝚊𝚝 𝙸 𝚍𝚘 𝚙𝚕𝚊𝚗 𝚘𝚗 𝚠𝚛𝚒𝚝𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚊𝚋𝚘𝚞𝚝, 𝚋𝚞𝚝 𝚒𝚝 𝚑𝚊𝚜 𝚝𝚘 𝚋𝚎 𝚊𝚝 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚛𝚒𝚐𝚑𝚝 𝚝𝚒𝚖𝚎. 𝙸𝚝’𝚜 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚙𝚛𝚎𝚖𝚒𝚜𝚎 𝚏𝚘𝚛 𝚖𝚢 𝚗𝚘𝚟𝚎𝚕, 𝚊𝚌𝚝𝚞𝚊𝚕𝚕𝚢. 𝙸𝚝’𝚜 𝚍𝚒𝚏𝚏𝚒𝚌𝚞𝚕𝚝. 🕊

  2. The more you question, the more you discover and learn. You have all the right to disagree with the church. I go to church daily and I have been that young guy you wrote about. I think questioning ourselves will only provide room for self-development.

    1. You are a wise young man, Shoumik. Many people are afraid to ask questions. Maybe because they’re afraid of the answers they’ll get? There’s nothing healthier than asking questions. By the way, do you blog? If so, why not post a link here so that I and others can take a look at your writing. Thanks so much for the comment.

      1. Acceptance is always the key to a better life. So if we accept challenges as they come, learn from them and move on, most life questions will get answered over the path. That way ‘Fear’ should get replaced with ‘Satisfaction’
        You can read and follow my blog here- http://shoumikpinto.wordpress.com/

  3. This sounds familiar! I have struggled with being able to put it into words and you wrote it so well. I’ve tried, and it just ends up sounding angry I think. There was only one mold to fit into growing up and as an adult as well. Autonomy and individual perspective, voice, thought or action was highly discouraged, and any deviation from “acceptable” was burnt at the stake in the name of “god”. My consternation comes from, not any particular religion, but from people. It’s people who give religions their, at times, unfortunate shape.

    1. Yes, as I mentioned in my blog, I think I was writing about a universal experience that many can relate to. I understand that anger. I think it might soften in the future. That’s what happened to me. I think I learned a lot during that experience of growing up. Don’t get me wrong. I had a loving family but there were expectations that I couldn’t live up to. I think I have sort of walked away from organized religion because I don’t see it making others better people. And isn’t that the purpose of religion? Of course, I don’t want to paint with a very broad brush here, but still, I see many “religious” people who don’t make very good role models. Thank you very much for sharing your story.

    1. Thank you for the compliment. When I was writing this, I had a strong belief that I was talking about a very universal experience. I see you’ve used the word “struggle” here. I don’t struggling with something is a bad thing. Out of that struggle will come great insight and wisdom. You’ll see! Thanks for commenting.

    2. Thanks for commenting. If you read through all the comments that have been left here, you’ll see the situation I wrote about in the blog is something a lot have connected to. I thought, when I was writing this, that it would strike a nerve.

  4. Hi Jim. I feel a kinship with you. I too have moved on from the spoon feeding of my childhood religious teachings. Although I still consider myself Christian, it’s with a much wider lens. I believe in one common light of consciousness, which is hard to explain to those who are not introspective, or chose to abide by their religious values (which is ok). I don’t think one is better than the other, it’s what really speaks to you. Thanks for your post.

    1. And I feel a kinship with you. I can see that you are very nonjudgmental. I try not to pass judgment too, though I sometimes fail at this endeavor. I want to be clear that those in my family who chose to live a certain way were well within their human rights to be who they felt they wanted and needed to be. It’s just that their way couldn’t become my way. We had to part paths. But each one of us has to find his or her own way. Thank you very much for sharing your story. By the way, do you blog?

      1. Yes, I am on Debhead.home.blog
        Agreed, there is basically love in the universe, and if you find it religiously, or on a separate path it’s all good. 😇

  5. Perhaps, this is why your personal blog seems to focus on “questions”.

    The most interesting inference you have drawn here is the impact on character/mindset by the non-questioning attitude/belief. You are very analytic.

    1. Wow! Thanks so much for showing me something about my blog that I couldn’t see myself. Yes, you’re right. Maybe all of my posts, in one way or another, are about asking questions and uncertainty. You have diagnosed me well. I am very analytical, almost, perhaps, to a fault. Thank you for teaching me something about myself!

  6. Well, my father introduced me to God clearly, very clearly. In spite of getting a religious walkthrough, I did ask about God’s existence. In my kindergarten, his answer kindled my garden, of curiosity –
    “Does God truly exist ?”
    “Well, there are two kinds of people – one who believes and other who doesn’t.”

    Now, that’s not a clear Yes or No, but an HONEST answer, despite our “religion” was being familiarized !!!

  7. I’m in that situation currently, I found my purpose and what makes my life have meaning. But I grew up in a family that only has one way of doing things because it always worked out for them. And if you choose a different path that is not in alignment with their beliefs and traditions they believe you are ruining your life and future.

    1. I think most parents want to turn their children into little versions of themselves. I am so happy that you have found your purpose and at such an early age too! That makes you very lucky. Many struggle to find direction and passion. I have a feeling you are a strong person who will find her way and do many great things even if your path is different from the one your family followed. Thanks for commenting.

    1. What is it about parenthood that makes mothers and fathers want to turn their children into little versions of themselves? I suppose that’s sort of a natural inclination. I’m not for sure. What do you think? Thank you very much for your interesting comment.

      1. Yeah…parenthood is it! There is indeed a sort of natural inclination that makes fathers and mothers to believe they have their children to wedge the waters that eroded their coastlines while they sought to find meaning and purpose in their formative years. Like a revenge mission, those children who are unfortunate, while seeking to find meaning and purpose from their own chosen paths, might have their unsuspecting parents cutting in and swaying them to alternative routes that would make them little versions of themselves. Every form of resistance might end up in a lifetime of conflict.

  8. I’m also on a path to finding purpose. More specifically, just to finally align my self, with my soul. I resonate with this deeply. I too, am having to break away from my childhood conditioning and learn to be okay with wanting to be me. I grew up in a household with very similar beliefs and until just recently, I’ve been too afraid to admit that not all of it works for me. Now, to finding out what does.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story. My blog describes a universal situation that all thoughtful people can likely relate to. Good luck on your journey. It’s right that you’ve started it. And it’s right that you continue on the path. I wish you all the best.

  9. For the longest time, I did not have a mind of my own. Decisions were made for me, paths were shown. Once I stepped out of that secure world I was forced to be me. I still have not found the reason why I was put on this earth but I can definitely say I have a mind of my own and am extremely independent. That said, I agree with you that some sort of breaking away has to happen in order to find oneself.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing this. I think that adulthood really has less to do with age and more to do with intellectual independence. The moment one begins to question all the ideas that were drilled into one’s head while growing up is the moment one starts to become mature and begins to leave childhood. Be patient as you look for your “mission.” Some have found that the real goal is not finding an answer to the question “What was I meant to do?” but simply to keep seeking and asking it. Maybe you were meant to be a seeker. That can be more important than becoming a “finder.”

  10. This is so beautiful. I remembered, I was once like that “always following the rules and never question everything”. But later on, I decided to change and instead seek more knowledge. This has always made me feel guilty though, since I felt like I’ve been so ungodly. But as I read this, I know I’m not the only one then (the one who seeks more).

    1. The world is full of seekers! We are members of a very large tribe! You are on the right path. The fact that you started feeling the need to begin asking questions means this was a desire than came from deep inside you. We cannot ignore those deep drives to want to know and question. If we ignore them or suppress them, we do so at our own peril. Good luck in your journey and thanks for sharing your wonderful story.

  11. Yeah…parenthood is it! There is indeed a sort of natural inclination that makes fathers and mothers to believe they have their children to wedge the waters that eroded their coastlines while they sought to find meaning and purpose in their formative years. Like a revenge mission, those children who are unfortunate, while seeking to find meaning and purpose from their own chosen paths, might have their unsuspecting parents cutting in and swaying them to alternative routes that would make them little versions of themselves. Every form of resistance might end up in a lifetime of conflict.

    1. Most parents love their children and want what’s best for them. My family wanted what was best for me and I cannot fault them for the way I was raised. Having said all that, there comes a time when thoughtful people have to make hard decisions about how they want to live their lives and what they want to believe in. Not all can or wish to break away. In fact, I know quite a few people who never grew up (intellectually) after they left home. In fact, in a metaphorical sense, they never left home. They remained the children of their parents and fossilized in their thinking at a very early age. This could never have been my way. I guess I was always considered a “weird” child because I was a contrarian at an early age. Thank you so much for your comment.

  12. The deciding factor, I think, is fear. Are the people who are affronted by your questions afraid of what they don’t know, or don’t know how to process? Or are you more afraid to be something you’re not meant to be? How do those interact?
    For myself, it was expected that I would meet certain “societal standards” – go to college and get my MRS (ok, I accomplished that, but badly) preferably with some other degree involved. I’d be attractive, throw great parties, rub elbows with the who’s who, and so on. Be a “good” socialite wife and mother. Ugh…
    I can tell you, my grandmother’s horror that I wouldn’t join the DAR or Junior League and attend luncheons once a month, at the expense of my job and feeding my kids, was epic. But I had already sussed out that her way of life wasn’t mine. I also suspect, quite strongly, that given her options, it wouldn’t have been hers.
    It’s difficult to create your own path, but the great thing about it is, it’s YOUR path. If that makes others uncomfortable – that’s their challenge.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your interesting story. It’s amazing how many people (in this bunch of comments) have told similar stories. I had the feeling that I was going to touch a nerve when I wrote this one and I was right. I think adulthood is less about age and more about one declaring one’s intellectual independence from parents, etc. I have met many who never moved an inch away from the values and ideas that were inculcated during childhood. In a sense, such folks never became adults. Again, thanks for your comments. I always look forward to seeing what you have to say about things I’ve written.

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