Some people assume that individual members of other species do not have unique gifts or destinies, that whatever uniqueness there is exists on the species level, not the individual level. One flower or frog or fox, they might say, has exactly the same ecological place, niche, role, or function as any other individual of their species, more or less. If so, why would it be any different for us?
But one thing we know about evolution is that life grows ever more complex, diversified, and differentiated. This is a universal principle. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry put it this way:
In the universe, to be is to be different. To be is to be a unique manifestation of existence. The more thoroughly we investigate any one thing … the more we discover its uniqueness. … Ultimately each thing remains as baffling as ever, no matter how profound our understanding. … The universe comes to us, each being and each moment announcing its thrilling news: I am fresh.
As life on Earth evolves, speciation accelerates. Intra-species differentiation increases as well. From four billion years ago until less than a billion years ago, there were only single-cell organisms on Earth, although innumerable kinds of them. Now, in addition to countless species of bacteria and microbes, there are millions of complex, multi-cellular species and untold variations within species. Among mammalian species, there are a variety of social roles within any family or extended group. While our own innate human capacities seem minimal at birth, compared to other species — we’re born, after all, remarkably vulnerable and helpless — we make up for that by possessing perhaps the greatest intra-species differentiation, something that becomes increasingly evident as we get older. Even within the same culture, even within the same family, there ends up being an absolutely astonishing degree of variation among us in talents, personal style, taste, personality, values, personal goals, and even gender embodiment.
But our individual uniqueness is not only on the social-personality-vocational-gender level. It is also, and more importantly, on the soul or ecological level. We’re each born with distinct and differentiated destinies, our own unique ecological place or niche in the world, our own particular genius. This is a very old idea woven into the myths and sacred stories of all cultures. It is most likely true for all species to some degree, but it appears to be comparatively truer for us. For good or for ill.
Whether for us or any other species, the unique ecological niche for each individual creature is specific to its particular place in a particular environment. The niche of a specific fox, for example, has everything to do with the precise swath of forest in which she roams; with her relationship, for example, to the pattern of bird nests in those climbable trees and the location of rabbit warrens and rodent tunnels, as well as with her relationship to other foxes in her pack. But her individual niche is not simply or primarily a matter of how she “makes a living.” It is also about how she uniquely participates in and enhances life in her forest and about the effects and influences only she can have on the local habitat and the other species there.
All this is true for us humans as well: we each have a unique set of relationships and potentials within both our local and global communities.
Soul: Your Place in the Greater Web of Life
Here’s the most important thing I know to emphasize about underworld or soul purpose: This knowledge of what it is to be fully and uniquely yourself, of the gift you were born to bring into this world, can never be identified or described in any social, vocational, political, religious, or other cultural terms. No one is born to have a particular job or role in a particular human community. Rather, like all other species, we’re each born to take a specific place within the Earth community, to fill a unique ecological niche in the greater web of life, to provide a suite of unique ecological functions. And that place is what I mean by soul, and occupying that psycho-ecological niche and providing thosefunctions is what I mean by soul purpose. This is the realm of purpose nearly absent from contemporary discussions and most all contemporary practices and methods for uncovering and embodying purpose. And it is the most essential of these realms, especially in this time of radical, global change.
Next week, we’ll explore answers to these questions: How can we recover our innate knowledge of our unique ecological place in the world? How do we discover what it is when it exists at a deeper level than the ego-consciousness that dominates our experience and sense of self by the time we’re in our early teens? And how do we linguistically identify it to ourselves and others once we experience it consciously?