In Greek mythology Sisyphus was the king of Corinth, who was punished by the god Hades for his deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity. This concept was perfected as a form of torture during WWII in the Haidari concentration camp run by Germany in Greece. Here, the camp inmates were put to labour in two four-hour shifts each day except Sundays. However, the labour was not intended for any productive purposes, but merely to break the prisoners' morale: they were made to dig holes and then refill them, build walls and then break them down. The tasks were therefore both laborious and futile.
There are many accounts of people who were able to survive these and other kinds of adversity and trauma, because they were able to find some kind of meaning, connect to a form of purpose that they could focus and hold on to. One of the most influential books of all time is probably ‘Man's Search for Meaning’, written by Viktor Frankl chronicling his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps, and describing his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positive about, and then immersively imagining that outcome.
When we are going through very tough times, finding purpose and meaning in our existence is one of the most powerful ways to build resilience. It means that we can endure the pain or uncertainty of daily life, because we are focusing on what is beyond that, what is waiting for us on the other side. Like a ship on route to its destination, we are able to do what is required in the moment on the journey in order to get to where we are going, because we are able to see beyond the current.
Once we have weathered the storm though, it is equally important to embrace the journey that we are on and be fully present in the here-and-now and also find purpose and meaning in that. I particularly like the approach suggested by Shannon Kaiser who advocates purposeful-living, when she suggests that we cannot think ourselves into our purpose, but that we have to do ourselves into our purpose. This means taking action towards doing what we want, and removing those things in our lives that we don't want. She motivates for 3 things that will help us to stop searching and looking, and find our passion:
- Don’t overthink, do. Start doing new things in order to find what you are really passionate about, because clarity comes through the process of exploring and experimenting.
- Focus on what you love. Take time to become aware of what makes you feel happy and inspired. What are those things providing you with moments of joy?
- Forget about ‘the one’. Stop trying to find the one thing you are meant to do and rather explore and find a way to fit in various things you are passionate about.
So, engage fully with where you are right here and now and embrace finding your passions, even amidst the difficulty and the pain. As per Kaiser ‘When we live a passion-filled life we are living on purpose, and that is the purpose of life.’