PURPOSE: NO TURNING BACK

by Eleonor Sandresky

Age 57. Brooklyn, NY

I was born loving music. As a child I would make up songs spontaneously in the car. My grandfather, a composer and pianist, would let me sit in his lap and put my hands on his hands while he played. This was the best fun I could imagine at the age of 5.

I began piano lessons at 9, and by the time I was 12 I knew that I would be a professional musician. I think it was at that age that I began to understand that when I played music, it was my way of touching God, of feeling connected to God, and there was no turning back from that. I did become a professional pianist and composer and it still feels like I’m talking with God every time I play or compose.

 

EULOGY: Michael Dunn

by Michael Dunn

Age 58. Harrison, ME

Mike tried to live a life of little consequence. He did not hit the center of the bull’s eye. Close, but no cigar. His particular assemblage of stardust did not carry a belief in God or purpose. Despite this, he largely conformed to his cultural norms of job, marriage, children, house, old age and what Elon Musk called “RUD” (rapid, unplanned disassembly.) He did his level best to do well by his wife and children and to hold on to at least a few close friends. He wrote to David Brooks and Charles Blow.

My Reflections

I don’t live for a resume or a eulogy. I reflect on life often and on my death on occasion. The process of writing my eulogy, silly though it may be, really is a strong reflection of my attitude about life: we are lucky to be self-reflective! Not bad for stardust, huh?

 

PURPOSE: Giving Others My Chances

by Joy Sakai

Age 63. CA

When I was not quite 8 years old, I developed a debilitating chronic illness and was ordered to bed, where I spent the next 18 months. This was around the time when most American homes might have had a black and white television.  My father believed television could only slow a developing mind, so instead I was given books and records while bed-bound.

First there were Golden Books and Records, then novels and LP records that introduced classical music, and finally, I moved up to Tom Sawyer and The Swiss Family Robinson.  In spite of a relative lack of formal teaching, I returned to school a grade ahead of my age group.  Going back wasn’t fun – I was immature, socially inept, and walked with a pronounced limp, so I was a pretty easy target.  But fortunately, the towns and schools on the central coast of California had beautiful, well-stocked libraries.

My parents’ practices assured the beginnings of a life of the mind in me, and that life continued to flourish at home and in the public library.  We could ride there on bikes, and did so, often.  I can still conjure up the sound of the librarian’s high heels on the linoleum floor.  The smell of ink and furniture wax stills calls up visions of long stretches of walnut tables littered with books.  Our library was my refuge.

Fast-forward 30 years or so to the Central Valley of California, legitimately referred to as the breadbasket of the nation. This was where our young family landed, not long before our daughter was to begin kindergarten.  We visited her new school in advance, and found a wonderful group of teachers with very limited resources, and no library.

The school drew from middle to lower income families.  The lower income children often had parents that were unemployed or were seasonal farm laborers. 

HAD THESE CHILDREN BEEN AFFORDED THE SAME START THAT WAS GIVEN TO ME, THEIR LIVES WOULD BE ROLLING DOWN A MUCH DIFFERENT TRACK. THIS WAS MY CALLING.

Children from these families routinely started school without ever having a book of their own.  At that time, our county had the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the nation.  Children were raising children, a combination that does not bode well for the younger generation.  Had these children been afforded the same start that was given to me, their lives would be rolling down a much different track.  This was my calling.

So, a group of like-minded friends and I cofounded an organization that encourages parents to read and speak to their children.  We raise money to buy new books for kids age 0-5 from around the county.  After 25 years, what I still find difficult to grapple with is the lack of understanding between socio-economic groups in this country.  On more than one occasion adults have expressed the idea that buying books is a waste, because kids can just read on a tablet or computer.  This sounds like the modern equivalent of saying  “No bread? Let them eat cake.”  These children don’t have Internet.  They don’t even have socks.   These are American children.   Maybe their parents made poor decisions along the way, but maybe not.   Are we still letting children bear the sins of their parents?

PURPOSE: Find it Over and Over

by Kip McClement

Age 19. New York City, NY

Before heading to college, I decided to defer for a year, then two. I often hear my peers discuss how directionless they feel; in school, they’ve learned little beyond how to cram for exams and drink copious amounts of cheap alcohol. Surely, their expensive private educations have taught them more than that. We are all firm in our beliefs that equality, equity, and justice must be achieved. We are all firm in our beliefs that we are the ones who must achieve such things. Still, the passion to impact change is there, they say, but the knowledge of how to go about it evades us.

Still, the passion to impact change is there, they say, but the knowledge of how to go about it evades us.

Branded as the directionless one when we walked out of our high school graduation, I worried that everyone was right: was I some slacking dolt who lacked the motivation for a formal education and thus was setting myself up for a life of failure? Sometimes the fear arises, even now. I’ll be 23 or 24 when I receive my undergraduate degree. Have I squandered vital years of my youth by taking time away from college?

Spending the last two years backpacking, interning, volunteering, WWOOFing, working on farms and at wineries, I’ve stumbled clearly upon a purpose. At one time, in high school, I strongly declared that I wanted to be a farmer, much to the chagrin of my fellow college-preparatory boarding school classmates. My revelation was quickly clouded, delegitimized by insistent emphasis on the importance of the SATs and final exams grades. Exhausted and defeated, I came to think that my purpose needed to be more competitive, more “highbrow” than sustainable farming.

During my gap years, I frequently shuttled from one pursuit to another, working as an intern at nonprofits; as an apprentice on farms and at wineries; backpacking, alone and free; transitioning from one gender to another. Each vignette has provided my with the tools, knowledge, and passion to once again follow my purpose, which at one time felt so crystal clear: I am to be a farmer, on a sustainable urban farm, which aids homeless youth or poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

I was able to rediscover it and, hopefully, if it becomes buried once again, I know have the tools to find it, over and over.

My fear is that entering a private university in the Fall will once again obscure this dream and purpose. I do not want it beaten out of me. Still, I’m comforted in knowing that, after having it beaten out of me once, I was able to rediscover it, and that, hopefully, if it becomes buried once again, I now have the tools to find it, over and over, until I achieve it.

 

PURPOSE: LOOK YOU IN THE EYE

by Kim Spencer 

Age 51. Riverside, CA

I used to be one of the solid ones – one of the people whose purpose was clearly defined and understood. My purpose was seeing patients and “saving lives”. I have melted into the in between spaces, though.

Now my purpose is simply to be the person whose head is above water, the person who can pick up the phone and give you 30 min in your time of crisis. I can give it to you today and again in a few days. I can listen to you as you listen to yourself and figure things out. I can travel to sit with you in between appointments and to explain your treatment. I can edit your letter. I can sit in the meeting and tell you what I think. I can listen to you complain about your co-worker. I can pass your complaint on to the people who have the power to make a change. I can read books that give words to our situation. Yours and mine.

I can listen to your dreams and stories about school without being distracted, and I can try to explain the world as I see it to your developing self. I can look through old photos and listen to you reminisce about the past, when you were young and living in an altogether different world. I can look you in the eye and give you a few dollars in the parking lot. I am not upset if you cry.

I am no longer drowning, so I can help keep you afloat with a little boost. Not all of the time, but every once in a while, until you find other people to help or different way to swim. It is no skin off my back; it is easy for me. If I can see you as a fellow human and accompany you for a little while, it is enough for me to feel like my day was a good one and I had purpose. At least for now, it is enough.

HERO: Dalai Lama

by Jo Ann Hickey

Age 60. South Salem, NY

I saw the Dalai Lama in central park in 2003.  I went with a new friend, a man I had met on a dating website.  His willingness to meet in Central Park with 40,000 other people for our first date spoke volumes about his spirituality. 

We met, the park was packed.  But the incredible fact was everyone shuffled quietly in the very long lines to get inside the area where his holiness would speak. No one pushed, no one tried to cut the line, it was mostly silent or talking in soft voices.  There were many Tibetans in their traditional costumes.  Even their babies were in traditional garb, and they all looked beautiful. 

We found a spot on the lawn to spread a blanket and listen.

We found a spot on the lawn to spread a blanket and listen.  Our neighbors made room for us, all was very civilized.  And then he spoke.  For two hours, he seemed to be speaking extemporaneously.  He spoke about September 11th in a way that had not occurred to me before.  As a global citizen, he said, these things happen all over the world every day.  This does not diminish our pain, nor does it change the sorrow the world feels for us.  For those two hours I was mesmerized as was everyone in the audience.  It was so interesting and refreshing to hear someone speak for 2 hours without selling something, without pushing an agenda, without lying.  When it ended I was speechless, as was my date. 

We walked slower leaving the park, we let people pass us, everyone picked up litter.

We walked slower leaving the park, we let people pass us, everyone picked up litter. It was just an amazing day and since then I have read many of his books and delved deeper into my interest in Buddhism and the Dalai Lama.  Just thinking about him makes me smile.

 

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.