Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Reason to Get Up in the Morning

purpose (n):  the reason for which someone exists
The New Oxford American Dictionary

Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life would most likely approve of this definition. As might the throng of readers who have purchased his book in the ten years since it was first published, making it the second more translated book in the world, second only to the Bible.

This definition and the Rev. Warren's thesis have bothered me since I first encountered them.  The idea that each of us has a single life purpose and that only if we discover it and live to achieve it, will we be fulfilled, flies in the face of my experience.

At first, I thought my reaction was simply because my generation rarely used that word to describe why they existed, or even why they made the decisions they made.  Commitment -yes; responsibility - yes; achievement - yes.  Sometimes, merely survival.  Or the Catholic catechism reason for our existence: "to know, love and serve God in this world and to be happy with Him in the next."   The closest I came to the concept of life purpose was when the nuns tried to convince me that I had a "calling" to become a nun.  (Until my constant questioning convinced them that I would have trouble with the vow of obedience!  Somehow the calling ceased to exist.)

I  recognize that there have been individuals throughout history who have lived lives of a singular purpose.  Think Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, various famous artists. But personally, I have known wonderful people who would have told you they didn't act from any all-encompassing purpose.  I have known happy and satisfied people who would look at you askance were you to ask them to define the purpose of their lives. Plus, I consider myself to be a content adult, only mildly neurotic, who has done some worthy things in and with my life, and I have never been able to declare a life purpose.

Eventually, I settled on merely disagreeing, with little more than an occasional twinge when I came upon another book purporting to "help you discover your life purpose."   

Then, a few months ago, I began to read books and articles about successful aging.  And would you know it, much of the research pointed to having a purpose as an essential ingredient in aging well.  However, the distinction was having a purpose, not Purpose with a capital P.   Simply put, a reason to get up in the morning.  Purpose as meaning.  Purpose as direction.  Purpose as commitment.  Now, this fits with my experience.  

In my late teens, I would have said that what drove my choices was wanting to be the first woman in my family to go to college.  Later it was to be a good wife and a good teacher...good at my jobs.  Still later it was to survive the aftermath of divorce .  With each new change, a different purpose or commitment, a new direction. Sometimes just to weather the transition between what was and what could be. The constant, not a Life Purpose but the life changes that call for different purposes.

I think finding a new reason to get up in the morning may be one of the most challenging aspects of retirement and the ensuing years, especially if your previous reason has been success in your career or acquiring things or status.  Some folks approach this stage of their lives  already knowing what that reason will be - travel, the arts, an interest, hobby or commitment to which they can now devote all their time, their role as grandparent or community elder,  etc.  

Others, and I include myself, need to take some time to explore what might engage their skills and expertise, what new directions beckon to them, perhaps to regroup and soul search awhile.  To remain open to possibilities they may have dismissed when younger or possibilities they never imagined to exist.  

Either way, purpose with a small p.  Purpose as reason to get up in the morning.  Purpose as an ingredient in the recipe for aging well.  

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