The Paradox of a Purposeful Life- Kim Rosen
Today there arrived in my inbox a missive announcing a film festival on aging. Describing a series about challenging traditional stereotypes, it read, “These rockstars of aging are still giving 100% in their careers or fearlessly volunteering their time for others – all of this ‘approaching 80 years' — and over!” So many celebrations of aging seem to actually be celebrations of not aging, like these films and the viral YouTube videos of nonagenarian marathon runners and weight lifters. Held up as models of positive aging, these people are actually succeeding, against the odds, in not letting go.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that, for the vast majority of us, our 89th birthday is not going to be on the day we run a marathon or pull off a great professional coup. In my opinion, the most courageous among us will celebrate by gazing, steadily if not fearlessly, into the reality of what we’ve lost and how gracefully we’ve lost it. Some of us, the truly courageous, will be able to say, with the poet Mary Oliver, that we “step through the door full of curiosity” each time we become aware of the next letting go – to discover who we are without it.
A few days before my father died, his body gaunt and weak from starvation due to a disease that took his capacity to swallow among other things, he said to me, “I have always believed that the point of life is to do things for other people. Now I can’t do anything for anybody. There’s no purpose to my life. I might as well die.” Paradoxically, even then, he was giving to me. He was inspiring me to discover who/what I really am – beyond my roles, my doing, my creations, the way I am reflected in the eyes of others – before life strips them from me.
Many people, of all ages, feel the way my father did. “I want to make a difference in the world…” or “I need to find my life task…” or “I’ve got to find my purpose.” Sometimes, embedded in the texture of the statement, I hear years of suffering because of the unspoken words under the words: therefore, who I am now, what I am doing, what I am creating, doesn’t matter.
If you scratch at the surface of the need to “make a difference” a bit you often find that there is the assumption that a life purpose will look like some form of doing good for other people. And often if you dig a little deeper you might find a fantasy that such a mission will provide a sense of value and meaning to the doer and avoid a sense of worthlessness, helplessness and emptiness. There’s a big market for it. Having a clearly commendable life mission is one way to calm, or at least distract from, the gargoyles that can show up at the threshold of the temple of the true self.
The urgency to “find my life’s purpose” or “make a difference in the world” often seems to come from one or two (usually unconscious) realms. The first is the unquestioned programming – whether it be Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Wiccan, family, etc. – that doing for others is good; and its corollary: we should do good. Do we dare question these most basic of assumptions? The second is the inner child’s urgency to make her family (now projected on the world) what she wishes it were: some version of peaceful, happy, healthy, loving and … fill in the blank.
Both avoid the direct experience of holy helplessness that is woven like golden thread through this human earthwalk, and which can be a portal to the true self – with the added perk of a juicy dose of human vulnerability, and thus communion with others, on the way.
In addition, the paradox of donning a mission-driven identity is that it actually increases suffering. Because it’s not who we really are. Because it’s about trying to get away from the feelings we don’t want and get the ones we do. Because, for some of us (myself, at times, included), it leads to the pathological busyness that rampantly afflicts our culture. Because we are romancing the gargoyle at the threshold of the temple and never getting into the inner sanctum, which is, as Rumi says “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing”, and thus requires us to become naked of identity, doing, position and thinking we “know”.
This is not to say that all impulse or passion towards activities that benefit others is suspect. Rather, the inquiry is useful when there is an urgency in the need to attain or sustain an identification with what we do for others, whether it be caring for our children, making art, saving the oceans or stopping world violence. I’ve known passionate activists who always have a moment to put down what they’re doing, connect, look you in the eye, step into rich conversation. And I’ve known Buddhist practitioners who are so fraught with their commitments to “save all beings” (the Bodhisattva Vow), that they hardly have a moment for themselves, much less others.
I’ve had the great blessing of walking with a few dear ones through their aging, illness and, in some cases, death. I’ve beheld stunning moments of letting go of things and identities the person thought they could never live without: walking, continence, a beloved home, being able to see. Some did this intentionally and willingly, even with curiosity. And some fought like hell against the losses, struggled almost to the last moment against the inexorable.
Thanks to the convergence of my own aging and the arrival of the pandemic, with its lockdowns and lessons on canceling what you thought could never be canceled, I have gotten a much closer look at my willingness to let go. Like many people, I canceled work all over the world, amassed airline credits for unflown flights, lost deposits on workshop locations and hotel reservations. I panicked about the loss of income. At the same time, with so many, I relished those first few weeks of the lockdown, when, without the buzz of cars and striving, the world became greener, the sky bluer, the birdsong louder.
Alan Watts writes in The Way of Zen, “Paradoxical as it may seem, the purposeful life has no content, no point. It hurries on and on and misses everything. Not hurrying, the purposeless life misses nothing, for it is only when there is no goal and no rush that the human senses are fully open to receive the world.” For a moment, at the outset of the pandemic, I tasted the deep blessing of this.
And then, within a few months, I was doing more teaching online than I ever had in person. I was giving workshops, retreats and speaking poetry in international webinars and podcasts reaching tens of thousands of people. I loved every second of my work, and still am grateful for being able to share with so many all over the world. But I found myself in a state of high anxiety, entrained to a cycle of intense preparation, delivery, recovery, and intense preparation again. Even with the heaven of being able to give myself so fully through the screen, the hell of my anxiety expanded to unendurable proportions.
I realized that I was going to have to choose to let go, it was not going to be forced upon me by outer circumstances. I had to honor my longing to know who I am when the inner sirens of striving let go. “You exist,” my purpose-driven life told me. What remains without that mirror?
As much of my doing in the world falls away, the outer reflection of my value – through the faces of those around me, and through my outer creations – dissolves as well. It has not been easy. For years I have been telling my friends that what I want more than anything is unstructured time. Now that I have frequent swaths of it, at times the opportunistic demons of hopelessness, self-hate, and despair are crowding into the empty space. I meet them with curiosity, as best I can. I try to know them and their roots in new and possibly deeper ways. I reach out for help from friends and mentors. I am committed to not picking up another mission, another project, or a plethora of new commitments to fill the holes where the goblins get in. The grace that has come with stepping out of the driven rhythm of my days is too delicious; the release from my lifelong anxiety too sweet; the discovery, again and again, of the vastness of being, in which all doing arises and falls away, too precious.
Now I receive the emails that begin “I know you’re very busy…” and I respond, “No, actually I’m not.” It feels revolutionary, taboo, even dangerous to reveal that I have time for myself. Naomi Shihab Nye writes,
No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.¹
In a book whose subtitle is “Finding Your Life’s Purpose,” Eckhart Tolle states clearly, “Your inner purpose is to awaken. It is as simple as that. You share that purpose with every other person on the planet – because it is the purpose of humanity.”
Simple as that.
¹ © 2002 by Naomi Shihab Nye, from 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East. Greenwillow Books (March 15, 2005)
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Kim Rosen earned a B.A. from Yale University and an M.F.A. in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has been published in O Magazine, The Sun Magazine, Spirituality and Health Magazine, The Huffington Post, Feminist.com, HealYourLife.com and The Texas Review among others, and she was a recipient of the 2001 Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize for Poetry. She is the author of Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words. Kim’s CDs, Only Breath, The Fire and The Rose, Vesica (all with composer/cellist Jami Sieber), and Naked Waters (with composer/pianist Cathie Malach and producer Peter Kater), are innovative interweavings of spoken poetry and music. In 2010 Kim founded the Safe House Education (S.H.E.) Fund to give Maasai girls who have fled Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Early Childhood Marriage an opportunity to go to college and transform the oppression of women in their tribe and the world. In 2012, she founded the Mystery School and Soul School, multi-dimensional immersions in self revelation through the portals of beauty, poetry, silence, music, movement and radical authenticity in a community of shared intention.