Photo credit: Ian Schneider
When I was in my 50s, I gave my mother (who was 30 years older) a copy of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. She was in a funk, battling a tendency toward untreated depression, and I thought it might help her. Of course, I hadn’t considered some underlying reasons why that was a poor idea (she was an avowed atheist and often frustrated by her generation’s limited expectations for what women would do outside the home). My inappropriate choice was based on the title, which implied that everyone already has a purpose and our job is to accept and live into it. My mother didn’t read it, so I feel only a smidgen of regret at the gift. But I think that I was dead wrong….
Here I am, almost as old, inundated with a drumbeat of blogs, and aphorisms that urge me to FIND—REIGNITE–CREATE a purpose-driven life, which is typically described with an almost sexual PASSION at the center. A sampling from the web includes:
- “Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire”
- “Life – seize it and make it amazing. Discover your passion. Take chances. Follow your dreams. Today is the day. Don’t pass it by”
- “There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
- “The things you are passionate about are not random. They are your calling.”
Books extolling this certainty for later-in-lifers proliferate –now is the time to find that passion! Directly or subtly, effort is at the core: How to find your passion after you retire. As one website, 60 & Me suggests, now is the time for people to become more purpose-driven and more passionate – and probably do something that looks like work (paid or unpaid):
“The overlap between what you are good at and what you are paid for is your profession. On the other hand, what you are paid for and what the world needs is your vocation or calling. The point where what you love overlaps with what the world needs constitutes your mission. Then lastly, the combination of what you are good at and what you love is your passion.”
THIS QUOTE EXHAUSTS ME, in part because I had to read it three or four times to understand it. MOREOVER, IT MAKES ME FEEL BAD ABOUT MYSELF. Not only do I have to have purpose and passion – I need a mission and a vocation in my retirement! I have no idea where to start with this….
There is a dark underbelly to the mandate of finding purpose at all life stages. I have a colleague, quite brilliant, a wonderful administrator who effortlessly makes things happen within a large bureaucracy, is exceptionally kind, and who suffers from a sense that her life is not meaningful because there is no focused PURPOSE at the center, nothing that DRIVES her daily work. She feels that she is not enough. Her work life lacks passion. Or focus. Or certainty. Or something.
I don’t blame Rick Warren, although producing a book that has sold 30 million copies provides impetus for others to adopt his words (but not his meaning). Warren’s work focused on finding purpose by living fully into beliefs and a community shaped by a particular set of virtues and principles. It has less to say to the self-motivated individual who tries to self-actualize through individual striving. His title was highjacked.
So, back to age, retirement, and a redefined “purpose”. I find comfort in some ideas that I have come across, most of which involve making purpose more “right sized” in our lives rather than the driver of happiness and fulfillment. Dmitri Pavluk talks about self-actualization, which includes insight (think of the Buddha!), awareness and clarity (look around; be observant!), and connectedness (Yay! Other people) – and, yes, something called purpose. In other words, purpose can only be understood in the context of a whole life that has both inner and outer expressions. The elements that he defines as self-actualization are related, fluid, and inseparable. We change. We grow. Life does not always happen on the schedule that we had in mind.
Mark Manson, whose blog often addresses questions of personal meaning, says it more simply:
So when people say, “What should I do with my life?” or “What is my life purpose?” what they’re actually asking is: “What can I do with my time that is important?”
I couldn’t make my mother happy, but I know that she adored her family and made my high school friends want to come over to our house because they felt so welcomed. She exposed me to eggplant in the late 1950s, when no one else in Ann Arbor knew what an eggplant was, much less how to cook it. She enjoyed living in several foreign countries during her adult life. She taught me not to stand on the sidelines when an important political question is on the agenda. I am not an atheist, but her questioning of EVERYTHING has been an invaluable model for me. I remember her (when not severely depressed) as “right sized” and adventuresome.
When I look at Ian Schneider’s photo above, what I see is visual irony: How often do passion-purpose lead us to a place where all we can (metaphorically) see is our tired feet in a featureless landscape? That sense led one of my internationally recognized colleagues to retire earlier than he had planned. However, a year later, as we checked in at a casual breakfast, he described his choices about how to spend his time—to read and think, explore awareness and joy of nature, create new connections with his wife –with a sense of gleeful gratitude
In the end, isn’t caring for a precious asset – time – at the core of purpose? I can do the most important and meaningful things that are available today. And tomorrow. And stop worrying about BIG PURPOSE AND PASSION. …To be continued….