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Seminar on Purpose for Persons Approaching Retirement

Project Purpose is a seminar for middle-aged people developed jointly by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing and the Inventure Group, a Minneapolis-based consulting firm. For $125, an individual who wants to explore alternatives to conventional retirement can participate in seven hours of instruction and discussion concerning their life’s true purpose, receiving also seminar materials and lunch.

The idea is that many people realize that they may not have made the right career choices. Instead of getting out of bed each morning with energy and enthusiasm to start the day’s work, they “find themselves in despair ... They’d like to make changes but lack either the courage or the know-how to make it happen,” said a conference facilitator.

Persons approaching retirement age “hunger for new ways to age, new ways to retire, and new ways to stay vital.” The old model of vigorous career activity in the first part of life followed by unstructured activity in the second part may not suit the needs of the baby-boom generation in which large numbers of people are living many more years than their forbearers did. If the retirement years lack purpose, individuals are apt to atrophy and die sooner than otherwise. The brain needs to remain actively engaged in the world.

For some people, retirement can bring the opportunity to start a new career. For others, a life of service can be more fulfilling. Each individual needs to find his or her real purpose. “It’s about finding where your gifts and passions meet the needs of the world,” said the project co-director. The other co-director added: “The bottom line is to find a balance between making a difference and extending yourself for the sake of others and also taking care of yourself ... I truly think that we’re living in the age of purpose.”

The years of activity in a career bring a sense of purpose. Individuals seek job positions that match their interests, talents, and experience so they become valuable to employers. The other purpose, of course, is to earn money. Here purpose is clear: A job which pays more money than another is more desirable. Career purpose is a blend of the monetary rewards, power, and prestige and the inner satisfaction of being needed and performing the job well.

In retirement, however, it is assumed that one’s financial needs are satisfied. The retiree can pay strict attention to the “inner satisfaction” of activities and events that fill each day. Many are dumped into this situation without preparation. They drift into a life of inactivity and despair. The idea of the seminar is to let people begin thinking about who they are and what they want to do so that they can fill the hours and days of their retirement life with meaningful activities and, perhaps, enjoy a healthier and longer life.

To steer an individual toward purpose in life, the seminar poses these questions:

“What gives you a feeling of satisfaction, inspiration, joy, or openness?
Does your life reflect these beliefs and values?
What keeps you from living your life with purpose?
How do you serve or contribute?
Who are your mentors, teachers and role models?”

Some tips for embarking upon retirement include these principles:

“Be reflective and courageous enough to follow your passions.
Instead of withdrawing from life, push out your boundaries.
Find fulfillment in helping others.
Pass on your wisdom to the world around you.
Create a dream list.”

The recommended approach is summarized in three central steps: “being reflective, raking risks, and being clear about your purpose.” Most religions and philosophies pursue purpose in this way.

How has the seminar helped people? A man who had practiced law in South Dakota for three decades decided he “needed a change - something in his life wasn’t quite right. He was missing a sense of fulfillment.” After attending the seminar, he spends his time “as a consultant to lawyers, judges and law students seeking to improve their lives and professional skills” rather than spending the time in court. In fact, he became a facilitator for the Purpose Project seminars.

“What the workshop caused me to think about a lot was that while I loved most of my career as a trial lawyer, there were also many things I didn’t love,” said this man. “But it allowed me to reassess and realize that I can take the good from the practice of law ... and apply it in a way that I can continue to help people.”

Adapted from “Making life fulfillment less elusive” by Cati Vanden Breul in the Star Tribune, February 24, 2007, pages E1 & E3.

**** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** **** ****

Purpose is, of course, an aspect of personal identity. The modern approach to such questions is not to propose solutions or answers that apply to everyone but to encourage each person to seek answers inside himself or herself. This is the approach of Socrates: Know thyself. Each of us is a unique personality. We each must find our own sense of purpose.

In this case, the seminar organizers have found a niche that allows its message to be propagated effectively. Personal purpose is an issue affecting people close to retirement. There are many such people and they have money. Therefore, it is not out of the question to charge $125 for a seven-hour seminar that imparts understanding in the area of personal identity. Conceivably, some employers might be willing to pay all or part of the cost.

This web site approaches the question a bit differently. It does not propose a new enterprise that would allow its organizers and instructors to earn money. It is sponsored by no academic institution. Instead, the idea is to provide reading materials free of charge that are available on the Internet at a person’s leisure.

Like the “Project Purpose” seminar, those materials may inspire some to begin thinking productively about questions of personal identity. The payoff would come when communities of like-minded persons are formed who have access to cultural materials that address their particular interests and allow each person to pursue those purposes in the company of others. That way, our life experiences are enriched.

The web site also has a political dimension. In a society filled with exploitative messages, people need personal space to decide who they are and what they truly want before the exploiters intrude with their insistent messages. If we are Americans, we want to pursue our own vision of what America is and is meant to be. We need strength of conviction to say “no” to those who would misrepresent our national interests or define us in ways that serve a narrow partisan end.

We may decide, for instance, that is not “the American way” or in America’s best interests to spend hundreds of billions of dollars and support the maiming and death of thousands of our fellow countrymen in order to “bring freedom and democracy” by force of arms to Iraq or to Iran. Maybe George Washington’s parting advice to Americans to avoid foreign entangling alliances was not so benighted.

Maybe the founder of our country knew something that today’s pundits who sneer at opponents of U.S. “exceptionalism” as being “naysayers” and ‘isolationists” do not know. Compared with the talkers who urge the squandering of our resources and traditions to chase imperialist dreams, Washington actually did something. His example of caution and self-restraint gave us a future.

But the question goes far beyond the political questions of our day. It gets at the spiritual roots of our nation. Identity is at the core of national purpose. It may help to set a political and cultural agenda that strengthens our community and invigorates our personal lives in the long run.

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