Can Passion and Purpose 'Strike'?

Fostering openness to new fulfilling paths at all life stages.

Posted Aug 13, 2020

It’s been a year since it hit me. I didn’t recognize it for what it was—waking me at 3 a.m. and upending my morning routine. It still catches me off-guard, but I’ve learned how to harness its arrival. In fact, it has changed everything I thought I knew about passion and purpose and how I organize myself.

Have you ever asked the universe or some spiritual deity for something to change your life? For good news to arrive? For inspiration to strike? I had been having those thoughts last year when my work was feeling stagnant and I was dragging my feet through the mire of depression. But be careful what you wish for, because the change I was seeking showed up as, of all things, poetry.

I had very little prior interest in poetry. The extent of my poetry education came from the hours of literary podcasts I listen to while gardening—primarily, interviews with writers. Nevertheless, poetic lines began forming and presenting themselves to me like a platter of cheese. Never fully formed, just little tastes arriving at strange times. Clueless as to what I should do with them, I placed myself daily in front of blank pages and let the openness arrange the arrivals.

This all begs many questions. Existential curiosities like: Can we manifest what we need? Can passion and purpose strike us or are they born of dormant seeds? Do we merely wait for these things to happen to us or must we lay the groundwork for their arrival? Can undiscovered passions or purpose arrive later in life or do we reach a point at which we accept it’s just not going to happen that way for us? 

I’m not using the terms passion and purpose interchangeably, although they may intertwine. For instance, we can be driven by a sense of purpose that fulfills certain needs—our job supports our family, let’s say—without necessarily feeling passionate about it. Conversely, we can be passionate about an activity, like a hobby, without it fulfilling our desire to live a purpose-driven life. A dear friend of mine is a reconstructive surgeon who has devoted his life to helping people with traumatic disfigurements. His passion and purpose undoubtedly intertwine.

When I was an undergraduate struggling to pick a path, I was envious of my mom who knew as a young girl she was destined and/or determined to be an artist. One day as a teenager, when her parents weren’t home, she painted humongous flowers and bumblebees on her bedroom walls. My grandparents were apparently not pleased, but it’s as if my mom was making a grand declaration of her intent to be an artist.

Joni Mitchell and Alanis Morissette, two of my perennial Canadian favorites whom I've listened to a lot this past year, similarly knew as young women that they needed to express themselves through numerous creative outlets. As I take the journey from their early music to later recordings, I hear how their art was a tool for working through intense life experiences and one hears the progression of wisdom. Their music elicits emotion, a sign it came from a pure place unencumbered by the pragmatism I've witnessed getting in my own way.

I had never felt that early pull of passion and purpose. As my teens waited on my 20s, and my 20s waited on my 30s, I waited for the universe to deliver me a passionate outlet or a purposeful path. I wanted focus and singularity to slap my dabbling nature out of its malaise. Which is to say, I am very curious and enjoy many things in moderation, but never to the point of going all-in. I lamented, then finally came to embrace, what author Barbara Sher coined as a “scanner” personality. Someone interested in many things, refusing to choose just one.

I still embrace my scanning nature. It keeps life rich and varied, and I am never bored. But what’s up with that poetry? Was that the strike of passion or purpose I had been secretly hoping for? Again, I had no prior interest in it and no experience with it. Yet, as I put those words together and mustered up the courage to submit my poems to some literary outlets, they began to get accepted for publication. Interestingly, even though the “acceptance letters” had a certain reinforcing quality, perhaps in the sense that they are confidence boosters, they had practically no effect on my overall happiness or my willingness to continue with or abandon creative writing.

For whatever reason, poetry arrived in the middle of the night a year ago and I’ve identified how a deep need for self-expression continues to be satisfied by several of its core elements:

  1. Structure. Whereas, before I committed to a daily morning writing practice I could wake up whenever and do whatever until my next scheduled client meeting, I now get up early to write every single weekday. Identifying a way to incorporate structure with an enjoyable and purpose-full activity has been cause for anticipating the start of each new day. I’ve actually had a tremendously satisfying daily writing practice for several years now, with the past year devoted almost entirely to poetry and experimental creative writing.
  2. Outlet. For my entire life, I’ve felt like there was an art within me that needed expression. But rather than devote myself to practicing any one particular artistic medium, I became a collector of supplies. Collecting supplies didn’t carry the risk of failing. You can’t paint an ugly picture if you don’t lift the brush to the canvas. I’ve heard similar behavior from many people. They collect scrapbooking supplies, yards and yards of quilting material, or unused writing journals. I would collect natural specimens (still do) like beach stones, driftwood, feathers, and bones. I have boxes full of someday-I’ll-do-something-with-this. Turns out, all I needed is what I’ve had all along: my laptop or a scrap of paper.
  3. Impact. Without feeling a sense of impact, my writing would be another dabbling hobby. So, here’s where I identify how passion and purpose are different but intertwine. When I write about topics that are deeply meaningful—let’s say a sense of inner healing or a more global urgency such as climate change or human rights—the writing is fueled, provocative, emotional, impactful, and it is a release of something welled up within me. If the work gets published, the energy it contains might contribute to a collective voice of artists who are devoted to creating change via their work. But publication is secondary to my initial experience of the process and product feeling tangibly impactful nearly every morning.
  4. Insight. I have no interest in calling myself a poet. I respond to my current desire to write poetry, and I am open to the possibility, perhaps inevitability, that that will change. But writing poetry in particular has felt like a way to open doors into parts of my brain that have been closed off by internal and external pressures to focus on the pragmatic. Never before have I been able to cross thresholds into such experimental, unconventional, undefined, and unexplored territories of my brain. Flexing that plasticity has allowed me to be a better witness of the microcosm and macrocosm with which I interact and challenge myself to find words to describe.

Can you relate to ignoring curiosities and interests because they aren’t so-called productive uses of your time? Perhaps because they don’t make money. Perhaps because, as a beginner, the output wouldn’t be polished or professional so you don’t want to put in the hours to reach your concept of mastery. These can be painful barriers to self-expression and roadblocks to traveling down potentially fulfilling paths. You have my shoulder. I have many suitcases packed for travel that have never left the shelf.

I originally asked, “Can we manifest what we need?” Is there a practice, formula, or explanation for how we come upon passion and purpose? Aside from the scientific curiosity of how our body’s energy interacts with the universe, my answer is: I don’t really care. My answer is also: I don't need an answer, I just need to embrace the mystery. It can feel tormenting to have a pragmatic brain always chiming in with limiting beliefs of that’s hocus pocus or that’s not going to make money or that’s not a wise use of time. I needed a creative outlet, my mind went to a place of hoping and asking for it, the outlet presented itself in a surprising way at an unexpected time, and it has felt fulfilling ever since. If it disappears tomorrow, I know that I can open myself up to the next new thing. Because here I am at middle age, after believing for decades that passion and purpose probably won’t strike, indeed struck with a new wisdom, that anything wondrous can happen at any moment if we make space to receive its arrival.

References

Sher, Barbara. (2006). Refuse To Choose. Rodale.