Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

February 3, 2012

GPS and Living a Life of Direction and Purpose

Filed under: Tools for Life Posts — by Life's Toolbox @ 8:03 pm
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 I have come to greatly rely on what I affectionately call the “lady in the box” – the charming genteel British accented woman I have chosen to direct me while I drive, and to gently chastise my wrong turns with  a reassuring “recalculating”.   It was, therefore, quite disconcerting when on a recent trip the screen of my GPS lost all its roads,  and displayed my car, lost and meandering in a sea of grey.  How dependent we can be on external tools to drive us, when an internal compass is so important for living a purposeful life.

Living with purpose is not a trivial goal.  Individuals in tune with their life’s purpose enjoy better mental and physical health.  One recent study even demonstrated that firm belief in one’s purpose in life can buffer the physiological impact of stress, including lowering blood pressure and heart rate.  How do we develop and maintain our purpose, our direction?

Theorists and researchers exploring purpose in life identify several important factors, the first of which can be remembered with the simple and purposeful phrase Go Be Me.  Go – because the initial ingredient in a purposeful life is having goals.  Interestingly, some of us are biologically primed to make it easier for us to discover our goals in life.  We are wired with two competing neurological paradigms, termed the behavioral inhibition and behavioral approach systems.  Those of us with strong behavior inhibitory tendencies are tentative and shy away from new experiences.  For those blessed with strong behavioral approach preferences, a curious and engaging pattern of interaction with the world is more likely to lead to discovering the affinities and passions that will drive life-long goals.

Goals alone do not make for a purpose driven life.  The GPS asks us right up front to enter our goal – our desired destination.  Then it has to obtain the map system to get us there.  Our map system is the Be in Go Be Me – it is our beliefs.  Whether our beliefs are religious or spiritual, humanistic or ecological, believing in something larger than oneself is critical to move from goals towards purpose.  Closely connected to belief is the Me of Go Be Me – but it is actually the opposite of me-ness, it indicates meaning.  Making meaning entails understanding ourselves and our lives in context, placing a frame around the ordinary and extraordinary events of our days.  How do we see tragedy or success?

Most who study purpose agree that beyond goals, beliefs and meaning, a purposeful life includes accomplishments that serve not just the self, but some element of the world beyond.  Finally, just as the final celebratory comment a GPS issues “arriving at destination”, those who live with purpose experience, along with their accomplishments, a sense of fulfillment.

Developing and living a life of purpose depends on two elements which are often woefully scarce – time and reflection.  I don’t know about your GPS, but even for routine destinations, my lady in the box always requires time to first, locate satellites and calculate the trip.  While it can be maddening as you itch to get underway, on a drive, or in life, how important is it to give yourself time.   Time allows us to locate where we are.  We need time to locate our “satellites” – the goals and beliefs that help us know who we are and where we fit in the world.  Then we need time to calculate – to think about everything required to get where we want to be.    We need to reflect on the obstacles we will encounter, and come to terms with the time to our destination.  We need to factor in the stops and detours we will make and be prepared to recalculate, since we can be at least as flexible as the little box we mount on our dashboard.

What a wonderful GPS we can be for our children and students if we model living with purpose, and our efforts to move in that direction.  Years ago I heard a sermon about collections, and that what we collect demonstrates to those around us what we value (I shifted at that point from an idea to collect cow images and statues in deference to my maiden name – Milch, to collect Psalms, in books and picture representations).  But much of the process of building a purposeful life is internal, and sharing it requires open discussion of our thinking, our choices and our struggles.  Our children and students may be able to infer our goals, beliefs and how we make meaning of the world, but we can go further and share the routes we travel to reach a sense of purpose.

One of the great things about a GPS is its perennially calm and stable voice, even when we err and go off track.  We need to capitalize on the right moments and find the voice to talk about direction and purpose with children, so they can feel reassured that we will be a constant navigational assistant – ready to guide and recognizing that with a couple of u-turns, virtually all detours can be rectified and that additional and important destinations  can be added to even well-planned routes.

My GPS has served me quite well, safely shepherding me to destinations, mundane and wondrous.  When I arrive, and turn off the GPS, it offers a friendly blink and announces that it is charging itself.  Perhaps this is the most critical lesson in living a life of purpose.  That it is a process, that it is in constant need of re-charging, that it is not a destination, but a journey.  I plan on making my travels as meaningful as possible, and enjoying every minute of the trip.

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