Finding Purpose Off The Beaten Path


Finding purpose is one of life’s mysterious challenges.

I once drove across the Sierra Nevada mountains and listened to Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections. While my eyes witnessed the distant peaks and followed the bends of the winding road, my mind absorbed Jung’s deepest thoughts and candid musings about life and the human relationship with divinity. Jung’s thoughts became mine, and the mountains faded into the background of my awareness, replaced with scenes from his childhood. Private moments from long ago that he thought no one witnessed unfolded once more, fully visible to me.

Jung described losing his faith in religion as a young man in scornful and splendid detail. His ultimate let down was his first communion, after which it took him a few days to realize that nothing magical whatsoever had occurred as a result of the ritual. Jung felt immense pity for his pastor father, who in Jung’s eyes had devoted himself to a life of mere intellectualizing of divinity, a life devoid of rapture, grace, or any first hand experience of the divine.

Jung suddenly perceived organized religion as offering humans a generic template for behavior, morality, and finding purpose in life. By merely following a social construct people avoided the challenge of contemplating and understanding divine will.

I hear Carl Jung’s notion of divine will echoing the voice of the soul. Soul voice is the thread that connects humans to the source of everything, to the mystery and muse that animates this world. To heed the call of the soul often means exiting the mainstream and surrendering to a wilder current, a current of white water that can move boulders and transform outer and inner landscapes. To ignore the whisper is to sever the thread, to deny what inspires and beckons and makes our blood run faster.

Over a hundred years have passed since Jung pondered the implications of following a scripted path. And in my vantage point from the 21st century I see how my own life unfolded as a result of saying yes to the main roads and sparing myself the burden of questioning where they lead. Through college and work, in marriage and motherhood, I walked the crowded and well-lit streets. I swam with the fishes, until I understood why that meant death.

As I drove over a mountain summit 7000 feet above sea level, it dawned on me that there is a price to pay for taking the generic road. Something vital is betrayed. It is the well worn road, fast and wide and easy to find. But it is the highway that rumbles, roughened by thousands of wheels and torn by snow chains. The rumble is the groan of over use, the haunting roar of the ignored longings.  

The well worn roads are not limited to religion. People travel them to work every day. They lead to common places and familiar routines, to grocery stores and after school activities and the rhythm of the nine to five grind. They are well lit and heavily patrolled and prone to traffic.

The back roads are the proverbial roads less traveled. The fire roads, the nameless paths, the detours from status quo and expectation. Google won’t help anyone navigate the back roads. They demand an inner compass, a voice from the deep or a vision from beyond. The necessary maps and tools are hard to come by and sealed with wax and sometimes taboo to possess.

Finding purpose in life often means traveling the back roads, even if it’s just for a soul-searching detour. It is a daunting and risky undertaking. Living with purpose means knowing what moves us and admitting what doesn’t. It means saying yes to our dormant talents and to what makes us feel alive and vibrant, and recognizing where life becomes lackluster. Ultimately, it means having the courage to create a life that is worth living. And that process often leads to radical changes in how we devote our time and energy. It is certainly not the easiest path, but it is fueled by enough inspiration and bliss along the way to compensate for the cliff-side turns and pitch black tunnels.

One of Jung’s greatest contributions to humanity is the concept of archetypes as a symbolic language for understanding the forces that manifest in the world and in the life of the individual. While archetypes themselves are too numerous and vast to explore here, what I do want to invoke is their intimate relationship with the idea of finding purpose and meaning in life.

The world is full of kings without kingdoms. Warriors without a noble cause. Lovers without something to touch. Magicians unaware of their power to change the world.*

Archetypes beg to be expressed through us in a kaleidoscope of combinations. When roles are chosen that are mismatched to the true nature of the individual, there is resistance, discomfort, and suffering for everyone involved.

Not all women find fulfillment in motherhood. Not all men are meant to exchange their whole life for a paycheck and a sore back. Yet despite decades of progress in gender equality and the rhetoric of freedom that infuses the West, people continue to funnel into traditional roles in droves. Often without stopping to ask themselves, Do I want to go where this path leads?

The silencing of soul voice is not a gendered issue. The death of dreams and passion in life afflicts both man and woman and all shades in between.

Using a social template to design life requires less thought than blazing your own trail. There is satisfaction in meeting expectations, either your own or imposed by social conditioning. Yet the satisfaction is of a different sort, perhaps a feeling of being a “good person” or a comforting sense of righteousness. But what does that feed? The ego or the soul?

The other possibility is finding purpose through deep contemplation of what my unique life and situation demand. To walk this path is to reclaim the voice of the soul and to breathe in enough courage to follow it. To look into the shadows of life long enough until my eyes adjust to the darkness. In the shadows I discover the deer trails, the alleys, the wormholes. In the overgrown tickets and deep forest duff lies what is missing . .  the infinite range of what is possible for a human being.


How doth the little crocodile
    Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
    On every golden scale!
How cheerfully he seems to grin,
    How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
    With gently smiling jaws!

– Lewis Carroll, The Crocodile


* King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine by Robert Moore, Douglas Gillette