I'm a bit different in this. I don't see each life as any sort of test to be overcome, or anything like that. I see it almost like a game. The point of living being the experience of living in and of itself.
To elaborate: Our souls are connected to the universal whole, but each individual seed of consciousness is unique, and collects experiences independently. That higher self chooses to reincarnate, and what to reincarnate into, and where. This higher self doesn't take all of itself, just the useful parts for that lifetime. Knowing the outcome is no fun and ruins the game after all. So in a way, Life is like the most vast, all encompassing multiplayer game ever conceived.
I believe we have a good deal of freedom of movement, we can combine ourselves with the universal core, or split off to form a separate consciousness, we can incarnate, or we cannot.