Feeling useful – The healing nature of purpose


The German phrase “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free) has been polluted in recent history by its soulless and brutal welcome above the gates of second world war concentration camps. Thereafter it has been lost, consigned to the bucket of things labelled “evil”. The phrase itself long predates the Nazis, it used coined in the 19th century by both German and French philosophers.

But what does it really mean? Does our toil and labours in the name of a wage really offer us liberty?

I suppose in a modern self-focused consumer-world it means that through our work and supporting rewards we find ourselves free to make the choices of our age: the house, the car, the holiday etc. – this list is endless in our “modern” first-world model. Interestingly, neuroscience has managed to quantify this as a contributor to our overall “happiness” – such choices have no more than 10% influence. If this is not happiness, then it is certainly no freedom.

So why would we come up with such a phrase? Recent events have driven me to look deeper. And on a more personal, it has helped me to understand my own journey.

I had the privilege of being part of a small conference on the benefits nature based therapy. I had been invited to talk about the support that could be done through mindfulness and the benefit of supporting interaction with horses, but in the end, I have found myself contemplating some of the broader themes that arose through those discussion.  

The provisional of the therapy seemed to reflect two categories: experience or practical activity. If were to refer these to the human-horse world they might be, spending time with a horse in its stable/field or learning how to groom and care for a horse. Both activities I contest are real heart-based engagements, but the second creates a value of personal worth and/or achievement.

The addition of “work” creates an additional “reward” – in neuro-chemical terms the experience approach provides a valuable Oxytocin hit that comes from the social bonding, but the latter (including activity) also provides the Dopamine hit, the brain-candy reward arising from doing something useful.  

And from that a pride of achievement – the creation of something tangibly useful – be it a beautifully groomed horse, or some personal creation, like a hand-carved wooden ornament from the workshop.

Whilst the experience approach provides a place of escape, which can often be so necessary in today’s frantic world, it is in the practical activity that we find the means to build something stronger, something more robust and resilient.  

We know that being in the presence of horses (or nature, such as Shinrin-yoku) is incredibly good for the soul, but what is there a need to eventually offer purpose – for either party – ultimately does there need to be a something tangible. I think in simple terms this is probably about the difference between active and passive engagement.

Personally I also meditate or drum – for me this is active “being” – beyond simple passive engagement; in so doing I create a common space for us – a shared reason for that space.  As I constantly point out mediation is an active, not passive, state. If we are to help each other then we need to create a framework of reason – mindful awareness demands that we also know “why” we are undertaking something. Creation and purpose helps outline a journey for us, and it is within that journey that we learn, heal and move-ahead.

It is not necessarily about “work” in the context of salaried-employ. But for work, read meaningful activity. Meaningful activity does make us free. It gives us that purpose to get up, to get going, to not just turn on day-time TV and vegetate. Denied the activity, we deny ourselves a framework to measure ourselves. That activity draws us to other beings, engages us; builds bonds of friendship and camaraderie – constructing the “social” so necessary for a social being.

This epiphany has shone a light on some of my own apparent dysfunction(s) – I am driven by the need to create and serve – be it setting up CICs, coaching or healing – or even simple employment (I am a great employee!). These things bring me to life, I can almost feel myself drunk in the rush of positive brain chemistry; it makes me so content that I no longer seek the more material outcomes of our age. But this is highly laudable I here you cry!

Some of you readers will have struggled to understand my behaviour when you have worked alongside me. And some of you will have heard the rambling “but my head thinks it is doing what it should, so I am not seeking anything else” explanation.

The trouble is, all this makes me dysfunctional in the current “framework of human endeavour”. It seems I am happy without the rewards necessary to exist in this society (and with each day more so), but I have a massive dependency upon them.

And so conflict – and with conflict, unhappiness. I am still trapped in the seeing myself as I think others might see me. And I still judge myself against the norms of wider society. And when I do, I drift to binary judgement – success or failure, good or evil …. You know the choices.

And so in practice, I have found true solace in “being useful”; the “work” that I do creates real heart-based rewards, I feel congruent to my calling, I am chemically rewarded by my brain, and I smile with my whole being. And so I am free.

Well right here, I say that it is true: “Arbeit macht frei”.  

And yet with every reward I still beat myself up!

Go figure.

At the end of the day it seems it is that “being useful” is a massive human motivator. We can therapize our problems until the cows come home, but it is in that space of meaningful activity where we develop our vision of personal value and achievement, and so build the much needed foundation resilience and self-worth.