Dose #20: What is Your 'Why'?: Today's Quest For Meaning And Purpose
Note a: A dear friend sent out a group message to friends asking them to visit, "In Small Doses". Happily, more than 10 new readers signed on. Every reader's interest inspires me to notice the world a little differently, and the shared experience of seeing it through your eyes as well as my own, enriches my life. Thank you for your kind support.
Note b: "In Small Doses", as the title suggests, are posts meant to be short and to the point. This one, bigger than most, comments on several separate articles published almost simultaneously in late February. One after another, the focus was the same: meaning and purpose. Since purpose changes with time and the need for meaning grows with age, it may be useful to ask what we're about and if the life we're currently in is as fulfilling as we would hope. Authors as well as people I spoke with had something to say, resulting in a long read. I hope not too long.
"He who has a why to live for can bear almost anyhow."
~ Friedrich Nietzsche
Wednesday mornings, for the short twenty-five-minute leg of the trip before the Grand Central transfer, I often share a seat with a woman from Ireland. This week a comment about 'attitude' differences between Americans and Europeans, caught my attention. "What do you mean?", I asked.
"Well...Americans are more materialistic". Curious, but not surprised, I pushed on... "How else do you think we're different?".
"Americans are less friendly. They rush through life, rush through meals...they don't enjoy the long conversations we enjoy over a cup of tea." Growing up in a first-generation English, second-generation Irish household, I agreed. There were many long sittings at the table - a "nice" cup of tea in the afternoon, time set aside for gossip, laughter, strong opinions and assessments of the day's challenge. Then, seen through the impatient mind of a child, the same unnecessarily drawn-out themes were re-examined at dinner. All these years later I understand. Those talks had little to do with content, everything to do with kinship and love.
My companion continued. "Americans live to work. We work to live. We spend more time outdoors. We like time off - here people get very little time away from their jobs and seem to worry about it when they do." She added, "What you do is more important than who you are." Wow. By then I was feeling a little smaller, still, couldn't disagree.
I added that on visits to England, meeting the same people during day-long field hikes, enough times to learn their names, the names and breed of their dog(s), the village they live in, their spouse's names, where they were headed, where they planned to have lunch - and - their thoughts on the American political landscape - some would ask where I was from, but no one asked what I do. Not once.
During a similar walk in Central Park one of the first things someone I would spend a few minutes with is likely to ask, "What do you do?" (sub-title: "Are you educated, how much do you make?"), and, "Where do you live?" (sub-title: "Roughly how much are you worth?" "Do you live in a good neighborhood?"). I don't mind. It's a New York 'thing'...we all do it.
Things come in bunches. The same week, a New York Times article, "America's Professional Elite: Wealthy, Successful and Miserable", written by prize-winning author Charles Duhigg, ("The Power of Habit."), carried like themes of meaning and life-satisfaction. The heart of the story begins with Duhigg's 15th Harvard Business School reunion where attendees, who in spite of position and wealth, report feeling disappointed, disaffected, and chronically pressured to up their game.
Classmate's comments reveal purposeless lives and meaningless work making it impossible to flourish, weighted as they are by the ugly underside of the greedy, disloyal, and self-serving accomplished they encounter as they go about their lives of 'privilege'. In such a climate, the need for self-protection dims the light of earlier good intentions, gradually replaced with emptiness and mistrust. Life tolerated and survived, not exactly lived.
I wonder, is the man of simple means, lower expectations, underpaid and exhausted, with the needs of a loving family his beacon...is he more at peace with what is? Does he overlook the insult, tolerate those who pass him by, little time for questions of 'purpose', devotion his true and primary 'meaning'? I think he does, not due to ignorance, but unlike many of us, he's sure of what needs to be done and for whom. His 'why', tucked carefully under his heart, carries him through the grueling day. One might argue, with fewer options we enjoy greater certainty.
There was more. At this point, I'm not sure if what I was finding was the red convertible phenomena - when we think of buying one, they're suddenly everywhere. Or is this theme of meaning more pressing on the psyche these days, driven by growing unrest in a money-minded, data-driven, fast-moving, frequently combative culture? A culture where, in spite of living more years, we're seen as irrelevant younger? Is all of this making us less certain?
Whatever it is, the subject is on people's minds. On the second leg of the trip that Wednesday morning, I opened my phone to find a blog post by author, Michele Weldon, "Finding My Purpose: Is That All There Is?". A cancer survivor, turning 60, referring to Peggy Lee's song, "Is That All There Is?", "...viewing life as more finite.", Ms. Weldon is on a quest to understand, "...the point of it all."
Ms. Weldon's focus may not be purpose as much as it is 'having' and self-worth. With a number of high-status positions under her belt, several books published, the mother of three boys, she asks, "...is it enough?". "Am I enough?".
Hmmm...is this thinking a reflection of the American values observed by my train companion? Have we failed to understand what it means to be satisfied? Is satisfaction confused with resignation? Do we avoid letting it in thinking it signals the end?
More in the bunch. On February 20, the New York Times published an award-winning essay by writer, Avram Alpert - the theme, "The Good Enough Life." A wonderful piece.
To begin, Mr. Alpert ponders the idea of greatness within our political system, "The Great Society", "Make America Great Again", saying we're presented with visions of what greatness is, failing to question, is greatness the right thing to pursue in the first place?
The article clarifies, to be 'good enough' is not to be average, but to master the difficult in life, to live more in the middle, "...neither excessively materialistic nor too ascetic." Balance.
Does he mean placing enough importance on our lives and the people in it to take time away from work, linger over a cup of tea, live whole days without the pursuit of excellence?
Mr. Alpert talks, too, about the "Romantic poets and philosophers", thinking of 'good enoughness' as the ability to find joy in the 'ordinary', the 'every day'. I'm a believer! Yes, to see the extraordinary in the common - the beauty and wonder of the bird, the tree, the face, the word, the life in the eyes of someone you stop to help - is to know aliveness.
He quotes from George Elliot's Middlemarch...one of the closing lines - words that make me cry - "...that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs." Eliot reminds us of true greatness - of the simple, the barely noticed - those who quietly manage and support the world as they wash the face of a child, sit all night with a dying parent, walk when they're weary to meet a lonely friend, plant flowers every spring, wait to be served while serving others.
The average, ordinary, whether haves or have nots - move the world with kindness and generosity, then are forgotten. Perhaps not so bad if we're rewarded with the gift of meaning - for with the 'why' we 'can bear almost any how'.
And, finally...on the same Sunday Duhigg's Times article was published, brilliant blogger, Maria Popova, ("Brain Pickings"), revived an archived post complementing the theme, "Nietzsche On How To Find Yourself".
Questions Popova includes, posed by Nietzsche more than 100 years ago, meant for those at the start of their journey, relevant today and relevant no matter where you are in life, ask us to recognize the clues to a certain life 'rightness', clues in the form of what touches us most, what enlivens, what lifts.
"What have you loved thus far?" "What has ever uplifted your soul, what has dominated and delighted it at the same time?"
What will you answer? Is this where you would be your most true...where you find your 'why'.
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