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What to do when purpose turns toxic

Luba Kassova | December 07, 2023
What to do when purpose turns toxic What to do when purpose turns toxic
When I was younger, I was larger than life. Even losing my mother in my late teens didn’t dampen my gregariousness. In my late twenties, I remember experiencing pure joy on a long weekend spent in Madrid with a university friend. Anyone who has walked the streets of Madrid at night knows that at 2 am the city centre is as packed as London’s Piccadilly Circus at 7 pm on a Friday. On one such late night, after a delectable evening of tapas and wine, impeccably served, I opened my arms as wide as possible in the middle of the busy street and screamed at the top of my lungs: “I LOVE LIFE!”. My friend locked her arm in mine as we walked to our next destination as if to make sure I would not take off into the sky like a paper plane. People around us were smiling in harmony or laughing outright with us. I could not contain my joy. All I wanted was to share that joy with the world. The joy of spending a fun evening with a close friend, of being in a place bursting with energy, of being alive. In those years I frequently had bouts of profound appreciation for the fun parts of life and for life itself, not least because I was also acutely aware of the ever-lurking loss. I had not only prematurely lost the person I had loved most in the world, but also a dear friend who had passed away at the tender age of 21. 
As my life unfolded, with the years behind me and my responsibilities accumulating, my gregariousness became a baggage carousel at a holiday airport carrying fewer and fewer pieces of joyful luggage, until around a decade ago the carousel stalled. That coincided with my decision to bring more purpose into my professional life – to focus on meaningful work that aimed to shine a light on the struggles of the underprivileged and the silenced.  My consultancy co-founder and husband, Richard Addy and I wanted (and still do) to make the world more gender and racially equitable; journalism more inclusive; children freer and happier; the planet better looked after. It felt great to have aligned my personal values with my work and so I threw myself into each and every project. Four years ago, my professional drive ratcheted up to the next level. I had found my calling and passion: to write. Between 2019 and 2023 I wrote the equivalent of three PhDs, numerous articles and over 50 blog reflections. Three of my reports and one article received five awards and a high commendation. Previously much desired, these awards were a unique career highlight as I had never been awarded for my work in the past. I felt proud, yet, strangely, not joyful, nor more successful. Why did these professional accolades not bring me joy? I realised that my loyalty to my purpose, combined with the heaviness of the global socio-economic and geo-political challenges of recent years had led me to completely squander my feelings of joy. I felt guilty, privileged, and spoilt every time I felt even the merest hint of joy. How could I feel joy when one in three women would experience violence at the hands of men in their lifetime? How could I feel joy when people in local communities, Afghanistan, The Middle East, Ukraine, Yemen and so many other places were literally or figuratively bleeding at that moment? How could I feel joy when our planet is dangerously over-heating with no resolution in sight? The list went on and on. 
I eventually felt completely burnt out. Purpose without joy turns toxic, as does joy without purpose. Purpose without any joy in one’s life becomes hopeless, burdensome and exhausting while, if one has no purpose in life, joy is self-indulgent, hollow and self-alienating. Professor Paul Dolan in his book Happiness by Design found that happiness consists of two key elements: pleasure and meaning. Take away one and you are staring at unhappiness. According to APA research, “burnout and stress are everywhere”. 8 in 10 US employees had experienced work-related stress in the month preceding the survey. 
Finding the balance between purpose and joy has felt impossible for me. I denied myself joy for too long and in doing so I weakened my drive for purpose. I became exhausted and gradually more cynical, spotting the barriers to progress much more readily than the opportunities for advancement. Increasingly I felt too small and insignificant to make a difference in a world riddled with wars, dysfunctional power struggles, growing inequality and suffering. Study shows that 57% of managers who believe that they should be modelling healthy behaviour, do not feel empowered to do so. My loss of hope was fed by my 24/7 indiscriminate news consumption and social media addiction. 
My burnout peaked towards the end of 2023. I found writing articles about the under-represented or the silenced overwhelming because I no longer felt empowered to make a difference. It became clear to me that I had no choice but to take time off work to rebuild myself. Learning to feel joy again quickly became a necessary part of my recovery. But how could I feel joy when my internal guilt acted as an army of medieval knights protecting a castle of joy which seemed reserved exclusively for my children? It didn’t help that going out and screaming on the busy streets of Madrid at 2 am no longer seemed that joy-inducing. Those moments of joy were irrevocably gone and holding on to them with nostalgia made me feel like a poor reproduction of a famous artwork. 
I was completely stuck in my search for balance between purpose and joy until I read Emma Gannon’s newly released book, The Success Myth, where she deconstructs the socially accepted definition of success based on her own experience of burnout and on interviews with hundreds of famous people. Reading her book helped me realise that our definitions of success and joy are not static but dynamic – they evolve in the course of our ever-changing lives. It struck me that what I found joyful in my twenties and thirties probably differs dramatically from what I find joyful nowadays. 
However, before fully exploring what joy meant for me today, I needed to defeat that guilt-induced army of knights denying me access to the castle of joy. The victory there came from a profound conversation I had with the facilitator and meditation guide Melissa Colon from Breath Body Earth, who argues that experiencing joy is not only a spiritual but a moral imperative, particularly in challenging times such as our current historical period. She quoted to me White Eagle, an elder of the indigenous Hopi tribe, whose wisdom arrested my attention and reduced me to tears:  “There is a social demand in this crisis, but there is also a spiritual demand. The two go hand in hand. Without the social dimension, we fall into fanaticism. But without the spiritual dimension, we fall into pessimism and lack of meaning. You were prepared to go through this crisis. Take your toolbox and use all the tools available to you. Learn about resistance with indigenous and African peoples: we have always been and continue to be exterminated. But we still haven't stopped singing, dancing, lighting a fire and having fun. Don't feel guilty about being happy during this difficult time. It does not help at all being sad and without energy. It helps if good things emanate from and towards the Universe, here and now. Stay present and remember: It is through joy that one resists…"
More open-hearted, I now turn timidly towards joy. What does joy mean to me these days? Well, it is listening on my headphones to a new sensual song on Apple Music at 6 am when everyone else is sleeping. It is watching my children banter while loading the dishwasher after dinner. It is walking in the local park with my husband on a sunny autumnal day, going over our day’s fun moments and annoyances. It is chasing trains with my friends’ seven-year-old son, waving at them wildly from a bridge over the tracks until a kind driver rewards us with a honk, unleashing pure unadulterated happiness in my seven-year-old trainspotting buddy and me.  Joy these days means simply having the space to experience the little moments that make up our lives, without retreating into my head to overanalyse my behaviour in the context of the suffering world. Joy is collecting these little moments that inject momentary happiness (as if there was any other) and strength to keep going. In the end I realise that those little moments pave a new path towards the sunny side of purpose where every little act of generosity counts as progress.

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