HERO: Timothy K. Tollaksen

by Terence J. Tollaksen

Age 71. Racine, WI

My brother contracted Polio in 1949, he was 7, and I was 5.  He could walk pretty well a few years later but ran slowly with limited endurance and he was small. In the all-important world of neighborhood games in the 50’s he struggled. I could beat him but winning meant little. The effort he made, however, was several times larger than his size. Like many with these kinds of setbacks he had an inner strength coupled with determination and purpose.

In high school he was a delinquent, not a term in fashion anymore. Suddenly he turned into a scholar and an intellect; after his BA he went to Ireland for postgraduate work in English Lit, ultimately earned his masters and then went on to law school. He practiced for 8 years before he died of what was believed to be post-polio syndrome –it was still the dark ages of neurology so the diagnosis was uncertain – his courage was not.
Through his example I learned to truly appreciate effort over winning, class over boorishness.   In grade school, on the playground during the class recess, there would be 2 captains who would then alternately pick sides for a game of kickball or softball. Typically I was one.  I would choose the slowest, least athletic kids early along with some of the better athletes. We always lost.  But, the look on those kids’ faces when picked early trumped winning so much so that even the good players on the team eventually learned to appreciate their efforts and joy.

Hero is a word tossed about too freely these days; my brother was my hero.


Very early on I learned to look at people for what they are – and not for what they aren’t. I saw too many write off my brother without making an effort to know who he really was.  Each of us has value, gifts, talents, abilities, and self-worth and we all have a responsibility to cultivate those attributes in one another.  Dante has a special place waiting for those who take advantage of others, particularly when those others are at a disadvantage for whatever reason.
Hero is a word tossed about too freely these days; my brother was my hero.

 

PURPOSE: I HAVE NO CLUE

by Alicia Crawford

Age 23. Washington, DC

I get awfully nostalgic for the teenage nights I spent professing my deep understanding of the world to my equally self-righteous and naïve friends. Obviously I knew nothing, but at least I felt like I did. Now I feel as if I have no clue what the purpose of life is. I hate it. I want to believe my purpose is to be selfless and dedicate my time to a cause I care deeply about. In that vein, I recently quit a lucrative government job as an editor to take a communications position at a local environmental non-profit. I doubled my commute, cut my salary nearly in half, and for what? To feel better about myself?

Obviously I knew nothing, but at least I felt like I did. 

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make an impact. I feel like, even if I put in the hard work and made a career out of this, how are we going to fix the issues of the future when so few people seem to care? And don’t get me wrong, I get it. It’s not possible for a healthy, mentally stable adult to actually care about hungry kids, poverty, AIDS, polar bears, pollinators, the 99 percent, feral cats, the NSA, mosquito nets, deforestation, and Nepal. It’s easier to tune it all out and pour your passion into Tom Brady’s right arm.

It’s hard to see my peers off in their own little worlds with kids and pets and yards, seemingly unconcerned with what I see as the obvious decline of not only our society but of our world. Witnessing the nonchalance and indifference that brings so many people contentment makes me wonder, what if ignorance actually is bliss? Should I just give in, buy a house in some cookie-cutter subdivision ironically named Flower Valley, and live out my life in conscious denial? 

I do know this. All we are, are our actions, and hopefully when all’s said and done, my actions will have had purpose. 

Practically speaking, the purpose of my life at this moment is to pay off my student loans and figure out what the hell I’m doing. I don’t know that there is some grand purpose. I’ve experimented with the idea of God. But I can’t seem to shake the oddity of dedicating my life to someone I won’t meet till I’m dead. Maybe I’ll change my mind when I inevitably wind up with cancer from the sun, or from the genetically modified corn that’s been given to me in every possible form since I had teeth, or worse, from gluten.

I do know this. All we are, are our actions, and hopefully when all’s said and done, my actions will have had purpose.

PURPOSE: NO BIRD

by Marietta Robinson

Age 63. Washington, DC

I think this is the wrong question. It is too macro and that is not the way we live our lives. Many purposes emerge in the course of a day let alone a week or a lifetime. And they change. Once you have lost a spouse or a child and go through a grief so intense that you must find a purpose for it, you truly know two things: you are nothing – no bird will interrupt his song when your heart stops – and you are everything – the universe and all of its life force is in you. When you truly know those two things, the question to answer is: what makes you smile in the morning as you anticipate the day? That will tell you what the purpose of your day is and you may only have this day.

You are nothing – no bird will interrupt his song when your heart stops – and you are everything – the universe and all of its life force is in you.


I live a life of integrity. I know how to and do love deeply. I listen carefully to what people do and do not say. I do not need to hear my story again as I have heard it many times. When I think about what people think of me, I remind myself that mostly they do not. I have many opinions, but I do not need you to know all of them. I truly pay attention. The surprises of any day, both big and small, good, bad and in between will test you in some way and, when you are proud of yourself at the end of the day, it will bring a smile that is very different than the morning’s smile of anticipation.

Once you are gone, others will remember what you contributed to their lives in ways over which you have no control whatsoever. So, finding your center of calm, contentment, and joy – along with some wonderful music – becomes the means by which you may contribute to the world in your own unique way and that particularity of contribution is the path to connecting with others at the deepest levels and that is the most we can hope for.

PURPOSE: ANTI-PURPOSE

by Derek Williams

Age 56. Long Beach, CA

What most would think of as a purpose in life, I can’t say I’ve found. I have, however, discovered anti-purpose, which is perhaps more useful.
Once you start reflecting upon a few difficult questions, it is doubtful that you will emerge with anything other than more questions: What does it mean for an object to exist that does not take up space? Can an object exist in space and not have duration in time? Why can’t I detect the origin of my thoughts? If I see a pattern to my past behavior, did I really have free will?  How can we sensibly define what is meant by the greatest good for the greatest number? What is motivating me to write this letter?

Introspection can help develop humility and an appreciation of what you don’t know, and to know what you don’t know is valuable knowledge indeed.


Rather than leaving you with a feeling of helplessness, introspection can help develop humility and an appreciation of what you don’t know, and to know what you don’t know is valuable knowledge indeed. This is what I’m calling anti-purpose. It is an appreciation that there is no external measure to gauge any endeavor as more purposeful than another. I want to leave this planet having done more good than harm….I doubt, however, that I will ever learn to appreciate the virtues of modern music and golf.
This could be called my moral compass. It can be somewhat feeble at times and rather generic, but it does help. Interests I’ve developed are purposeful for no other reason than they satisfy me. I enjoy origami for instance. I love seeing the paper transform into something that didn’t seem possible. This pursuit has no particular rhyme or reason, I find it greatly satisfying though. I often fix computers and appliances for neighbors even though, in most cases, it would be less expensive to buy a new one. It’s just kind of fun, up to a point.

Here is the anti-purpose: I don’t think any of these interests would be half as satisfying if I had not developed a sense of how ridiculous most interests are.

Here is the anti-purpose: I don’t think any of these interests would be half as satisfying if I had not developed a sense of how ridiculous most interests are. My job as a programmer is much more satisfying when I think about the futility and silliness of pushing words and numbers all over everywhere and back again.
Some years ago, a physics professor (Dr. Ayison) was influential in setting me along this somewhat existential path. He graduated from Princeton with a 4.0 GPA, made original contributions to research in harmonic motion in musical instruments. He played in an early music ensemble, and I don’t know what else. What bothered me about him was that he seemed quite normal. I mean, how can someone that bright and accomplished not be weird? He had a photo on his desk of his wife, he was extraordinarily patient (I know because I tested his patience more than once), he kept up with current affairs. What’s more, he nearly always wore a smile. In lectures I would stare at him thinking “c’mon you wear ladies underwear, or you pull legs off spiders or something.” I never did find anything off kilter about professor Ayison.

It was the first time I realized that you could know a lot of stuff, be extremely bright and still be, for want of a better word, normal.

“You can’t get anywhere without definitions.”

I was once talking to Dr. Ayison about an assignment: Somewhere along the line he said “you can’t get anywhere without definitions.” Nothing too profound I suppose, but it occurred to me how many discussions I had been in where no definitions were established. A friend would often entice me into a discussion about whether computers could think like humans. After going round in circles for hours, I realized that we never defined what we meant by thought, or thinking. We certainly didn’t define what we meant by the word “like”. Did we mean similar to, resembles, exactly the same?

You don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think anyone else knows. Who’s turn to buy the beer?

I realized then how difficult it is to come up with definitions for many discussions, and it was around this time that I developed my personal philosophy which goes like this: You don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think anyone else knows. Who’s turn to buy the beer? I was quite proud of this at the time. It only took me about 7 years to develop, and it is better than say Kant’s categorical imperative, or Descartes “I thin

k therefore I am.” After all, their ideas don’t even have the word beer in them.
This philosophy worked well for a number of years until, about a year ago when I realized that it is always my turn to buy the beer. I’m currently working on a solution to this problem and expect to have an answer in about six years.

PURPOSE: AN INSIDE JOB

by Laura Matson Hahn

Age 60. New Hope, PA.

When I was in my formative years, 0 to 18, there were five key elements which formulated what became my purpose in life. It was no grand objective to serve the world. It was more like a bet with myself, could I do it? Sixty years hence I can say I did, and still do.

But I hesitate to use the word purpose – the word has become associated with the great ‘new age’ scurry to tag oneself with a vaulted ideal or cause. All the better if it garners applause, sells books or engenders an “ah-ha” from the divine Miss O. All of which, keeps people focused on external validation for an understanding that is essentially an inside job.  

But I hesitate to use the word purpose – the word has become associated with the great ‘new age’ scurry to tag oneself with a vaulted ideal or cause.

My purpose was the opposite: “To Live A Heart-Centered Life:” To measure my choices from the inside out. To discover my life, my path, with the guidance of my heart. To be true to the spirit I innately felt within. To trust my quiet inner voice.

The five key elements were:

FIRST: A vivid dream at ten, envisioning a book I would write much later, after I’d acquired some life experience. (this has happened).

SECOND: Around the same age, observing my mother’s duties in raising 8 children led to my declaration not to have children. (never did, never regretted)

THIRD: While cooking dinner, my mother played musicals on the stereo to entertain her children. I became enchanted by a line from The Unsinkable Molly Brown: “I mean much more to me than I mean to anybody I ever knew.” It married my soul. I had to know what that felt like. It sounded good. (and it is).

FOURTH: Growing up in the age of Bo Derek, I longed for a mentor to show me how life works, to tell me what to do. I did not get that mentor. But I got several others who showed me myself and how to apply that in my life choices. (much better)

FIFTH: In my senior High School year, my father had a heart attack and open heart surgery. I witnessed his dramatic life switch from a crew-cut company man to a singer and dancer in local Gilbert and Sullivan productions, taking Chinese cooking and modern dance classes, growing his hair and a beard and learning the art of a well placed valium when the stress of his bosses was too high.

The last solidified my choice to live my life NOW: to risk not being the same as everyone. To strike out on my own with no Daddy Warbucks back up. To make every choice based on the trueness it felt within me, regardless of other’s options. To avoid external measures.

I didn’t marry young and have children. I didn’t want to raise someone else to live their life true. I wanted to know the truth of me, in this body, on this earth, at this time.

Was it easy? Nawww. It takes a pretty strong constitution to swim up stream. I didn’t marry young and have children. I didn’t want to raise someone else to live their life true. I wanted to know the truth of me, in this body, on this earth, at this time. I wanted to feel ALIVE like Maggie The Cat and Auntie Mame. I did things my family didn’t understand. I sought out knowledge about the spirit and sociology, participating in a wide range of classes and movements, harvesting what was right for me and letting the rest go. Each decade revealed new challenges, understanding, temperance, disappointment, excitement and love.

So in essence, my philosophic choice turned into my purpose many years later.

As Gamma in The Heart Code says: “To make dream is good, is part of life. Is how we know ourselves, test ourselves . . . but maybe is only small part of journey. More important, maybe, is what happen along the way. The people we meet. The laughter we find. The trouble we work through. Things we cannot know or imagine. Things we cannot dream. Things that come out of following our dream. This, I think, is what life is really for. To find out who we are from what we face, with courage, with creativity, with truth. This is why we have life, I think. Dreams are just something to do while we learn how to live.”

We now know we are mostly the same, in our DNA. So what makes us unique is our path.

And I think that is true for the majority of people who live as best they can from a good interior set of values. From my experience, the only thing I have to pass on to every generation is this: We now know we are mostly the same, in our DNA. So what makes us unique is our path. Everything we need to maximize our learning and loving on this planet is already in one’s heart. In essence: It’s An Inside Job.

 

EULOGY: Emily Williams

by Emily Williams

Age 32. Vancouver, Canada

Emily’s insatiable curiosity lead her to live an incredible life filled with adventure, friends, family and laughter. She lived wholeheartedly and in doing so inspired many to let go of their fears, their limiting beliefs and live their own lives wholeheartedly. Her love of science, space was boundless- just like the Universe. She was truly made of star stuff.

My Reflections

This was a truly interesting experience. It’s given me a chance to reflect on my journey so far- in particular the last year which has been an awakening of sorts – an awakening to my vision, my purpose and living with my eyes and heart wide open. Though the last couple of weeks have been tough on a personal level – this exercise has allowed me to reflect on how much I’ve grown and achieved recently.

It’s time to let go and trust again.

It is important to sometimes look at the bigger picture, reflect on entire journey as opposed to get bogged down by the details. I’ve now realized that though I feel a little stuck at the moment, life is moving forward and I’m taking that ride – I am not literally stuck. One of my favorite quotes I like to reflect upon is from Joseph Campbell: “You must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” It’s time to let go and trust again.

PURPOSE: SERMON AT THE AIRPORT

by Thai Nguyen

Age 31. Brisbane, Australia.

I’ve always loved airports. Personal narratives come to transition: loved ones reunite, dreams are chased, and adventures are written. Yet in the midst of commotion and change, between arrivals and departure, there lies a peculiar space—ever present, never future, never past. At airports, I find myself thinking most deeply about life: about meaning, identity, and purpose. In that peculiar space, between arrivals and departures, I find the balance of tension that doesn’t necessarily make sense of life, but gives it meaning.

Watching the planes take off, I was waiting to board my flight to Vietnam. I was roughly 8 months old when my parents departed, it’d be my first time returning. My father, who worked for the South Vietnamese government, was imprisoned for four years. It was a clash between Democracy and Communism, between the individual, and the whole. Rather than fleeing immediately after the fall of Saigon, my father chose to stay, hoping for that peculiar space where dichotomies could come to meet. But there was no airport for Communism and Democracy.

There is no story without a storm.


In the darkness of night we fled, spotted by authorities who gave chase. The engine of our barely-seaworthy vessel blew out. Anxiously, we drifted, taking in water. Thai pirates were known as ruthless sharks, and we were welcoming bait. The Soviet Russians were notorious for returning refugees encountered at sea, but the coin landed in our favor, and they gave us food and water to press forward. There is no story without a storm. And in the midst of our literal storm at sea, my mother recalls the scene of hundreds, packed like sardines, rocked by waves, crying out in prayer against fate. While many other boats crashed tragically just before the shore, we made it to land. We had navigated that tension between risk and reward.

We stayed in an Indonesian refugee camp for one year before being accepted into Australia. It was a peculiar space, between arrivals and departures. My father’s injustice in Vietnam led him to find mercy in a new land. When dichotomies meet, they give birth. And so that became my pattern for processing life: wrestling with dichotomies, and then resting in their answers. Navigating through tensions; embracing discomfort, in order to find comfort; fighting for justice, in order to render mercy.

The airport became my place of permanence in a transitory world; behind the orchestra of roaring engines and babies crying, I could still hear the reverent humming of that peculiar space—


It is those uncanny paradoxes that make sense of our world. The ancient Greek Heraclitus processed dichotomies in this way: “There is nothing permanent except change.” The airport became my place of permanence in a transitory world; behind the orchestra of roaring engines and babies crying, I could still hear the reverent humming of that peculiar space—ever present, never future, never past. Between all those arrivals and departures, I would find a place where dichotomies meet, and give birth to something beautiful.

 

PURPOSE: HAVING LIVED WELL

by Joe Tarabino

Age 76. Trinidad, CO

Growing up rural is a distinct advantage over other situations. When you have chores to do, from an early age you know you are part of a group; you are necessary. Many children never realize, in spite of how much love or benefits given, that they are actually necessary within their family. Chores gave us a sense of responsibility; their completion provided a sense of freedom.

Any day, when the work was done, my brother and I could wander miles from home with an old .22, lay on the riverbank or even skinny dip so long as we were home on time for dinner. If not, we had not behaved responsibility and the family let us know that we had kept them waiting and that was not acceptable.

It is necessary to realize that at some specific time you will no longer be present to continue or revise the story you have lived.

My early natural life was enhanced by my Jesuit education; both are among my most prized gifts. Both provided an acceptance of the natural flow of life [and death, which is merely its completion]. Living is an art which is incomplete until its full consequences have been objectified. It is necessary to realize that at some specific time you will no longer be present to continue or revise the story you have lived regardless of your priorities.

Early on nature provided us with a sense of proportion, a Trinitarian acceptance of the value of knowledge and the willingness to harmonize with it: knowing the unity of the true and good. The beautiful. We were humbled simply by existing, hopefully gracefully, within it. Were it necessary to choose to believe in the sum of my life and that which is greater than it, I would choose the value of that ‘otherwise’ as being more logical than my own existence.

I could never be a humanist because I accept that my perceptions are insignificant within a greater presence. My logic is insufficient to explain itself much less anything I do. There is too much, other than me, to discover; even if sometimes the only way that can be accomplished is ex nihilo. We were taught the basic virtues [prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude] and, when respected; they have proven to be enough. No more specific rules or laws are necessary. Life is complex, but living is simple.

Life is complex, but living is simple.

A specific answer to your question would be: the purpose of life is, having lived well, to die gracefully.

PURPOSE: “TIKKUN OLAM”

by Kevin Abel

Age 50. Atlanta, GA

 

 

In the Jewish tradition there is an expression “Tikkun Olam” which translates as “repair the world”. If ever there was a truth I could hold on to as my life’s guiding principle it would be this.

Life’s complicated and gets in the way of even the most committed person’s path of a purposeful existence. Tikkun Olam is an easy expression to remember and an idea to come back to. This said, it is not itself the answer. A thoughtful person must interpret this expression and find their own meaning in its words. For me Tikkun Olam means that as a citizen of this world, it is my responsibility to do what I can as much as I can to make this world a better place, to be a net positive, to make a dent because this is how change happens. It can be overwhelming when we read the news or watch TV seeing how really ugly our world is and has been.

There are things we can control completely, things we can assert control over, and things completely beyond our control (i.e., forces of nature). Those things we can control completely are our own human nature. Human nature is the root cause of most of what is wrong and bad in this world. By being a good, moral, ethical human being, and by raising three children to hopefully follow my and my wife’s example, we are making a small dent; we are adding a net positive to humanity’s rise up the scale of goodness. But we have to do more than just be good. We have to also effect change where change can be impacted. We have to advocate for good behavior in others (our politicians, our business and civic leaders, and our peers). We can do this by example and not by assertion. If we begin to preach, we fall victim to self righteousness and become like those whose behavior we’ve been wanting to change.

We can do this by example and not by assertion. If we begin to preach, we fall victim to self righteousness and become like those whose behavior we’ve been wanting to change.

So it comes back full circle to the simple idea of repairing the world. Life is complicated, yes, but one can do one’s part to repair the world in small, quantifiable ways. And by knowing that we are all small but significant actors on a global stage, we can be reconciled that our examples of goodness will be a meaningful, purposeful gestures, satisfying a basic human need toward goodness and feeding an insatiable hunger to do more.

 

PURPOSE: POTENTIAL

by Amy S. Allen

Age 56. Carthage, NC

For so long l have wondered what l could have done with my life had l been focused and disciplined.  I came from an upper middle class home, went to private school and college and had every opportunity in life to do something great.  I am above average intelligence and, as my mother used to say, l could do anything l wanted if I would stick to it and work hard.  I never lived up to my potential, and this always bothered me.  I could have, should have and would have been someone noteworthy in my community. But instead, l was a mother to a wonderful child and found great fulfillment in motherhood.  After my son went away to college, I wondered what l was going to do with my time.

And that is all I needed to know that I was doing the right things.

I have always been a caring individual and very sensitive to the plight of others.  I enjoyed visiting my elderly friends and seeing their faces light up when l stopped by for a chat.  One day, after one of my visits, it struck me that l was doing what l was meant to do, and that was, quite simply, to spread love to people that needed it most.  I didn’t need to do big things in life.  I took to heart Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of what it was to be successful, and realized that l had made more than one person’s life easier.  This knowledge makes me smile and feel good about my contribution to society.  I can hear my father’s voice telling me that he was proud of me, and the fact that l had such a big sympathetic heart. And that is all l needed to know that I was doing the right things.