Sunday, June 9, 2013

I Think The Myth Is A Myth

I spent a lot of time on the road during the ten weeks that my dad was sick, driving between my house and my parents' house and between my house and the hospital or the rehab center.  During much of the time, I listened to talk shows on radio stations like "NYU Docs."  Early one morning when I was on my way back home after having spent the night with my dad in the rehab center, I happened upon a talk show on the topic of the emotional aspects associated with aging.  The conversation broached the subject of terminal illness, and, before I really realized what I was doing, I had called in to the show and was on the air.  

"Stephanie from Tennessee is interested in finding out how to help her father who has recently been diagnosed with brain cancer," the host said as a way of introduction, and somehow I found myself on the air telling the short version of my dad's illness and asking for advice on how to address the emotional issues that were coming along with the changes and the challenges he was experiencing.  Right away, the host started talking about how we should be helping my dad to identify the legacy that he would be leaving behind.  As I listened to her talk, I felt a burning sensation in my gut for which I could not immediately identify the source; as the host made a few more statements and then closed the conversation, though, it hit me: she thought I was asking how to help him cope with his impending death.  I wanted to call back to tell her that my question was aimed at helping him have the best life he could, not the best death, but at that point I was crying so hard I knew my words would not be able to be understood.  I wasn't nearly ready to go to the depths of that subject yet, not for even a second, not on any level.  

Several days later I thought back to the words of the radio show host and thought that maybe I should remind my dad about some of the important things that he had done in his life so far - and also talk to him about his goals for the future related to accomplishment.  We'd had lots of conversations since he'd gotten sick about things he wanted to do (his Revised Bucket List), but maybe it was a good idea to broach the subject of what he felt he needed to get done, in whatever time he had left.

Looking back, that seems kind of ridiculous; knowing my dad as I did, I should have known that he would see that type of thinking as way too philosophical.  He was much more of the "just do it" mentality than the "talk about it/plan it out" type.  And he would probably never have been done; he would never have allowed himself to run out of items on his "to-do" list.  I can not at all picture him kicked back, thinking, "Well, I've done all that needs to be done in life; I'm just going to relax and do nothing for the rest of the time I have."  There would always have been one more challenge that he would have assigned to himself; that's just who he was.

The thing that made me remember back to that radio show and the conversations and thoughts that followed was an article that I read this week called The Myth of Finding Your Purpose.  I was expecting the article, written by a woman who had gone through cancer treatment, to be thought-provoking, and it was - just not in the way that I expected.

"Your purpose has nothing to do with what you do," the author says, and she goes on to explain that she thinks one's life purpose "is about discovering and nurturing who you truly are, to know and to love yourself at the deepest level and to guide yourself back home when you lose your way."  Reading these words, I feel that same burning sensation in my gut that I felt from the response of the talk show host on my interstate drive that day nearly three years ago. This time I can identify the source of that burning easily, though: it's anger, annoyance, and aggravation.  It's a fervent desire to dispute what she is saying, because I feel to the depth of my being that she is wrong.  She is wrong.

The purpose of life is connection; it's doing good, in whatever way and on whatever level works for each person.  It's erring on the side of kindness; it's experiencing gratitude; and it's doing what we can to leave the world a little better place when it's our time to go on ahead.  

The point she makes about the danger of only being able to feel worthy based on the feedback from others isn't new: that's called codependence.  Reading back through her article makes me want to get out my red pen and write in my own comments and corrections: for example, when she says, "When our purpose is external, we may never find it. If we tie our purpose or meaning to our vocation, goal or an activity, we're more than likely setting ourselves up for suffering down the line," I want to draw a little caret symbol in between the words "is" and "external" in the first sentence and insert the word "only," and I want to do the same thing in between the words "tie" and "our" in the second sentence and insert the words "all of."  While I'm at it, I'd like to do the same thing just before the word "goal" and squeeze in the words "or to the achievement of a specific" so that the declaration becomes "When our purpose is [only] external, we may never find it. If we tie [all of] our purpose or meaning to our vocation, [or to the achievement of a specific] goal or an activity, we're more than likely setting ourselves up for suffering down the line."  My point is this: despite the fact that people are going to disappoint us, that there will be times when we will feel that our efforts have gone unrecognized, and that sometimes we won't be able to do what we set out to do, in my opinion we need to do our best to, well, do our best to leave a positive mark - yes, an external one, because when we're gone, that's all that will be left of us.

Reading the rest of the article really only exasperates me even more.  To me, the platitudinal (not sure that's a real word, but if not it should be) bullet points about mindfulness of one's self, releasing all shame, and elevating one's own energy sound empty, or made-up, or both.  "To remember your holiness and treat yourself accordingly ... "  REALLY??  If I were buying what she's selling, I'd spend the rest of my days sipping a cold drink on a sunny beach and nothing more.  I'd be full of inter-connectness with myself, all right, but that's about it.

And to her last point: "What if your purpose is to bear witness to your suffering?"  As my dad would sometimes say in a Scooby Do voice, "HUH??" 


Unlike the author of this article, I don't think that suffering is "essential;" I think it's most likely unavoidable, but those things aren't the same.  As I've said before, my family didn't need my dad to have to suffer in order to appreciate our lives or to love each other fiercely; we already had that going.  I'm not disputing her point that a person who feels fulfilled and loved is much more likely to be in a position to give back to others, but I just can't agree that a person's purpose is "about finding and nurturing yourself ... not an external ... accomplishment ... even if that ... is the most important discovery of all time."  I don't like the way she refers to some of the people she's met ("brilliant and effective activists," at that) as "messes;" my god, aren't we all in some way or another??  

As anyone who has read pretty much any of this blog or talked to me for any amount of time about perspective probably knows, I don't dispute the fact that inner peace is an important goal, one that can often be reached through having a certain perspective and by making choices about how our circumstances are viewed; I just don't think it's the most important goal in life, and I certainly don't think it's my only true life purpose.

For more food for thought, here's a video of a presentation by a speaker I think is very insightful and interesting: