MacMillan’s Dictionary defines the word purpose as “the goal that someone wants to achieve, as in serving a purpose.” It’s a simple word, and yet in the years after 60, I have struggled to define a purpose for myself. I ask, “Does my life still have meaning?” As I get up in the morning, I sometimes feel adrift.
I sense I’m not alone. As women in the 60+ season of life, we face enormous transitions from the life we lived even a decade ago. We associated purpose with the things we did, the labels attached to who we believed ourselves to be. “I’m a mother,” “I’m a teacher” “a wife, a runner, a CEO...” Many of those labels have fallen away, those identities clumped together by “I used to be...” Which brings us to the larger question. How do we cultivate a sense of purpose after 60?
I’ve been mulling this question over for a quite a long time, and there are a few things I’ve discovered about finding purpose and a sense of meaning.
Grieve the past and then let it go
Empty Nest Syndrome, anyone? Moving on from the life you led can feel like a small death, because it is. When something dies, we grieve. It’s definitely normal and healthy to feel lost, unmoored, anxious. Someone coined the phrase, “the time between no longer and not yet.” That’s just where we are, and we would be well-served to honor our emotions in this time of transition.
Clean out the garage, the basement, the attic. Too much? Start with a drawer or a closet. The goal is to let something go, mindfully and with intent, so you can make room for what’s to come. A year after I retired I went through my closet. It was filled with suits, the uniform of my working years. I would donate them to Dress for Success (DFS), a foundation that supplies business attire to underprivileged women starting out in the working world. But two things happened... one, I recognized each suit as a moment along my journey, remembering the people, places and events around it. It took some time, sitting there alone in my closet, but it helped me let go of that part of my life. Second, when I brought my suits to DFS, I liked the people there so much I wound up volunteering with them for a year. You see, I didn’t have to abandon my life’s experiences, just find a way to repurpose them.
Reflect on what brings you joy
Purpose will last when it’s accompanied by joy. In my case, I had spent so many years tightly wrapped up in my work, I no longer knew what brought joy to my life. So what did I do? I returned to childhood. Literally, with pen and paper in hand, I made a list of what I enjoyed as a child. Singing was one activity, although I never belonged to a formal chorus. But I did enjoy being in school musicals, especially the camaraderie and the sheer joy of singing at the top of my lungs. Guess what? An internet search led me to an adult chorus at the local community college. By joining these like-minded songsters, I’ve spent many joyous hours singing and making new friends.
Lastly, I’ve learned that purpose is an inside job. The things we seek outside of us bring moments of pleasure, but the real joy comes when you can accept who you are, especially when you’ve been stripped of all the labels. What works for me? Spending time in nature, in stillness, learning to become my own best friend.
The search for purpose is an ongoing practice. Some days it’s harder than others. As humans, we all want to feel as though we matter. The good news is, we do, undoubtedly more than we realize. Speak to trusted friends. Ask them what you bring to the world. They’ll have no trouble singing your praises. Listen to them. See yourself through their loving eyes, then carry that light of purpose into the world.