Deep Patterns: double justifications
Throughout its long history, the Western world has returned time and again to the same demand: there must be a sense to your life, your existence must have a purpose that goes beyond the measure of life itself. Viktor Frankl has it that this can be something quite individual, but mostly, we are asking for something bigger, something that traverses a whole life. In national movements, for example, it has even gone as far as self-sacrifice. Children are already confronted with the need to declare a purpose in young years: ‚And what are you going to be one day?’ Be useful! Fill your life with a task, a purpose. The message remains the same: What are you doing this for? What is the purpose? What is the sense? Life itself is not enough, it has to relate to something else, something greater.
As purpose concepts are gaining ground, they are pitching that demand right into the heart of businesses. They emphasize their claim: Pick a task, have a purpose! Choose an employer who also has a greater purpose. Be part of a community of sense. The core message is that a successful, fulfilled life must be borne by a purpose. Once you find yourself in your community of purpose, you will be motivated and engaged. That sounds good.
There is a flipside, though, which often leads to disappointment, fatigue, exhaustion, even a sense of failure.
The need to have a purpose in life turns into an interior demand, an obligation. In other words: Justify yourself!
The need for self-justification is one of our deepest individual and collectively shared beliefs. It calls upon a higher instance: a judge to whom we have to justify ourselves. In our individual lives, that role is often given to our parents. Casting a wider arch, it becomes increasingly unclear who will even pass that judgement.
What is it that we have to justify? First, we need to justify the sense, the purpose that we have given to our life or that has been given to us. Is my purpose a good and valuable purpose against an exterior measure? We ask that question of ourselves, but nowadays also of companies: does the business serve a good purpose, is it borne by a sense that transcends its mere task of being an economic success? This is the first step of justification. It leads to a second justification: Do I, do we fulfil our purpose? Once again, we are facing a judge and a jury. (Add to that the images of our culturally shaped background: it’s about heaven or hell.)
In my coaching work, I often encounter people who despair at this obligation and the expected judgement. They lose their joy in life and in existence against the backdrop of the judge’s ruling that they are foreseeing. When coaching addresses mindsets, it creates an awareness for these demands for a purpose. It also lets us experience which judges we effectively project in order to reinforce this life obligation.
A look at the role of CEOs reveals that the jury is cast so much more widely today. While justification used to be due only to the shareholders, it is now also owed to employees and to society. Those are quite differing scales.
The need to justify our life and our actions is surely an opposition to arbitrary selfishness. However, it can also dampen lively spontaneity, stop us from doing things for the sheer will to do so and obscure our own imagination as part of innovative action.
Günther Anders posed a question that provides a fine reason to take a closer look at our own landscape of self-justification.
‚Why do you suppose at all that a life might have to contain something else than just being, or even that it is possible for life to have such another thing – the very thing you call a purpose?‘
‚Günther Anders in Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen‘
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