Self-concept and memoirs: The power of purpose

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

This is the fourth article in my series about using memoir reading and writing to deepen your understanding of your own self-concept. To start from the beginning, click here. Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity,

In his memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” psychologist Viktor Frankl observed that a person who lacks purpose is susceptible to a variety of ills. According to Frankl’s theory, we live to the fullest only when we pursue a goal greater than ourselves. Abraham Maslow offers a slightly different slant on the issue of desire. His famous Hierarchy of Needs describes how our sense of purpose evolves from the most basic physical requirements for food and shelter, up through safety, pride, and recognition. At the very top of the hierarchy are transcendent goals like creativity, spirituality and service.

In many memoirs, and certainly the ones I enjoy the most, these energizing psychological principles leap off the pages. In the beginning of each memoir, the protagonist burns with some sort of desire, and then through the course of events, the character matures and begins to develop a deeper understanding of purpose.

To make your memoir as compelling as possible, search for your central mission. What drove you from day to day? When you find it, you will be giving yourself as well as your readers a gift. The wind in your sails that has propelled you through the years, also propels your reader through the pages.

Viktor Frankl, “Man’s search for meaning.” Frankl keeps himself alive during internment in Nazi death camps by helping fellow prisoners. He also dreams of someday helping people in the world. For the rest of his life, he follows this dream, promoting his system of Logotherapy, based on the notion that finding your true purpose is the antidote to modern ills.

Davis, Jenkins, and Hunt, “The Pact.” Three boys in northern New Jersey band together to overcome the influences of their tough urban environment. They help each other become doctors. Then they return to their community to inspire other struggling young men to follow the same path.

Greg Mortenson, “Three Cups of Tea.” As a young man interested only in climbing mountains, Mortenson finds his true calling when he stumbles into a village where poor people save his life and offer him a place in their homes. He vows to build a school for their children, and his work evolves into an international charity that builds schools for poor children in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Purpose interrupted

In any good story, as in any full-featured life, there are ups and downs. When our sense of purpose stalls or derails, it can feel not only like the death of a dream, but like a small death of the self. How do we get back into the game of life when our best effort failed? The story of resurrecting self after such setbacks reveals the courage and resilience of the human spirit. Many of the memoirs on my bookshelf tell about such complex journeys. These examples may help you discover how purpose played out in your own story.

Dani Shapiro, “Slow Motion.” This author entered a prestigious college, a powerful first step that would set the stage for her life as a writer. Then she hit a snag. A seducer showered her with flattery, gifts, and drugs, and she almost lost everything. The climb back to purpose shows her resilience. In fact, in a sense, it was this call to higher purpose that pulled her out of the abyss.

Janice Erlbaum, “Have you found her?” The author was homeless as a young girl. As an adult she returned to a shelter to help homeless kids. When her good intentions missed their mark, she shows her vulnerability and also gives us the chance to learn about human nature along with her. Her experience makes me wonder about the profound suffering possible in life, the desire to help, the limits of that help, and the degree to which you have to grow wiser yourself in order to heal others.

David Berner, “Accidental Lessons.” The author was a successful radio newscaster who, in mid-life, realized his career had only satisfied him externally. Internally he was drying up. Berner found deeper meaning by spending a year teaching in an inner city school. His memoir offers an example of discovering a deeper calling the second time around.

How did I find my purpose?

Like Dani Shapiro, my life presents an example, of a failure to launch. When my original goal of becoming a doctor fell apart, I fell into a spiritual void. With no reason to do anything, I lost interest in turning the pages of my own life. Stumbling in the dark, I came upon a belief system that prevented my spiritual demise, and I gradually built myself back to mental health. And like David Berner, in my fifties I began searching for a career that would allow me more opportunities to work with people. Eventually I found my calling to people find their story. This mission is providing me more enthusiasm about life than I experienced since I was a teen.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene which shows what you longed for. Did  you find fulfillment at your paid job, or a volunteer job, a hobby, or with your family, or community service. Look for places when your life connected with a larger social purpose.

Link to other articles in this series

Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity

Self-concept and memoir – launching problems and identifying with a group

Recovering self-concept after trauma

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.