Part One: Purpose and Meaning

By |2020-03-30T09:18:52-07:00March 20, 2020|

During this pandemic, everyone is properly worried about making sure that people’s physical needs are met. But our research in Peace Literacy shows that people have many non-physical needs that are as important, if not more important, than their physical needs, especially during times of crisis. We’ve put together this series to discuss what these non-physical needs are, how people can meet them (and help others meet them) in healthy ways, how people during a crisis can become more vulnerable to tangles of trauma such as mistrust, rage, alienation, and helplessness, and how we can deal with trauma constructively rather than destructively. Each entry in this series will focus on one of humanity’s non-physical needs, along with practical ideas to help us create stronger relationships and communities as we navigate through this struggle together.

Purpose and Meaning

In the military I learned that during a crisis, when people are afraid, having purpose and meaning in their lives is not a luxury. It is a necessity. Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” lists physical needs such as food, water, and safety as our most basic needs, but this hierarchy is flawed because it does not recognize how purpose and meaning serve as a foundational need that increases our courage, motivation, and resilience during a crisis, enabling us to more reliably meet our physical needs. In this way, our physical needs are like a destination, and purpose and meaning provide us with metaphorical fuel that helps us arrive at that destination, especially when it seems so far away that people are at risk of losing hope.

We can have many purposes in life, such as getting a degree or improving our health. However, thousands of years of history documenting effective military leadership, along with thousands of years of history documenting effective peace leadership, all reveal an essential truth. When people have to perform courageously and to the utmost of their ability during the most dangerous circumstances, having a “higher purpose” – a purpose that goes beyond yourself – is essential.

If you can think beyond yourself during a crisis by having a higher purpose, such as serving your friends, family, community, coworkers, strangers, country, humanity, or making sure that your dog or cat is well taken care of, this will give you greater courage and strength in the midst of adversity. And if you have a purpose such as getting a degree or improving your health, connecting this purpose to a higher purpose will increase your courage and strength when striving to accomplish that purpose. Examples of this can include connecting the purpose of getting a degree to the higher purpose of serving your community or joining the fight against injustice, or connecting the purpose of improving your health to the higher purpose of being better able to serve your family and be there for them long-term. If you need to give a public lecture and want to reduce your fear of public speaking, speak from an attitude of higher purpose.

Nearly twenty-five hundred years ago, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu discussed the power of having a higher purpose, in the form of love that motivates us to serve others, when he said: “By being loving, we are capable of being brave.” More recently, in the Commandant of the Marine Corps Trust Study, Jonathan Shay discussed how love is a source of courage: “The importance of mutual love in military units is no sentimental claptrap—it goes to the heart of the indispensable military virtue, courage . . . As [military strategist] von Clausewitz pointed out almost two centuries ago, fear is the main viscous medium that the Marine must struggle through . . . the urge to protect comrades directly reduces psychological and physiological fear, which frees the Marine’s cognitive and motivational resources to perform military tasks.”

What is your higher purpose during this crisis, or in life? Do you have more than one higher purpose? How can your higher purpose strengthen the relationships and communities that you are a part of? If more people in the relationships and communities that you are a part of had a greater sense of higher purpose, what would be the advantages of this? Are the purposes in your life connected to a higher purpose? If so, in what way? If you are in a leadership position, how can you inspire in others a sense of higher purpose?

As an exercise for this week, invest some time in reflecting about one or more of these questions (journaling might help), or discuss these questions with your friends and family.

Higher purpose by itself will not give you the many strategies and skills that you need to overcome adversity (we have a lot of ideas in our Peace Literacy curriculum to give you these strategies and skills). But having a higher purpose will increase your courage, motivation, and resilience – your fuel – so that you can use these strategies and skills to the best of your ability during a crisis, and create stronger relationships and communities as you navigate through the storms of life.

Peace Literacy

To learn more about the importance of non-physical needs and how they can become tangled in trauma, visit our Peace Literacy website at On the main page you’ll see a video on this topic titled “A New Peace Paradigm: Understanding Our Human Needs,” (23 minutes) along with two essays available for free download that go into much greater depth. These are “A New Peace Paradigm: Our Human Needs and the Tangles of Trauma” and “The World of Electric Light: Understanding the Seductive Glow of Screens.”

The kind of leadership that is needed in times of crisis, at all levels especially the community level, is leadership that reduces tangles of trauma and helps people meet their non-physical needs in healthy ways.

You can also read part two of this series on Nurturing Relationships.