PURPOSE: For Husband and Son

by Joan Hansen

Age 63. Losa Angeles, CA

My life fell apart when my athletic and loving husband hit a guard rail coming down a mountain in the French Alps on his bicycle 3 years ago.  He survived but is now a quadriplegic. All of our dreams of the third part of our life disappeared on that mountain in France. Then my youngest son dropped out of college, and is hiding in his bedroom at home trying to find himself.

My purpose?

To get over my own hurting and grief and help them. I am the one who is not damaged, except for my great sadness. I can go to work, work out, and leave my room each day. My husband and son are not so lucky. My purpose is to put them in front of my own pain. It is a struggle, but then many purposes in life are.

PURPOSE: Four Steps, Each Three Feet Long

by Claire Larson

Age 17. Oregon

Four steps, each three feet long, can make all the difference. These steps are crucial in a “course-walk”, equestrian jargon for going out onto the course to analyze the best path for horse and rider to take. The technical aspect of this course-walk is based on the fact that every four steps roughly equate to a horse’s stride at the gallop. As a very young girl, I found this fact quite boring and irrelevant when my trainer would shout, “Two strides between those fences, Claire, not one!” as I shot like a missile out of the saddle and through the air leaving my pony standing there, just as baffled as the trainer. Needless to say, I quickly learned the importance of paying attention to the details of the “course-walk”.

I see my life as a show jumping course.


Years later at an important competition, my coach drew a parallel between riding and life. Walking in between two fences in the pounding Oregon rain to calculate the number of strides in a seventy-two foot line, my coach said, “You know, Claire, a show jumping course is kind of like life. In order for it to be what you want, you need to have a plan and ride each stride with passion and focus. Not every stride will be smooth, but at the end, you want to feel like you did not miss a beat.” Her words have echoed in my mind ever since. It was a defining moment as I realized that I could still stay true to that fearless little girl while also executing a carefully planned and focused ride.


I vividly remember the ride after that course-walk. Eager as always, I wanted to get into the arena and demonstrate to my coach that I was truly inspired by what she had said. Riding into the ring, I swear my horse could sense this light that had illuminated in my head. His whole demeanor was amped up as his weight shifted back and forth. The connection between my hands and the bit in his mouth showed me that he was seeking cues to take off.  I was completely ready to harness this energy and put together an unforgettable round. My horse and I worked together to meet each obstacle with just the right momentum, flying over each fence powerfully. The buzzer sounded the victorious tone. It was evident that the intricate details of my “course-walk” combined with fearless teamwork between me and my horse had made it possible to face daunting obstacles.

I want to be present every stride, every step, and every beat of my life.


I see my life as a show jumping course. There will be times that I fall and have to pick myself up and instances that feel out of my control. Yet, I am going to face life’s difficult challenges in the same way that I navigate and skillfully clear large obstacles. The combination of my fearless mentality and meticulous preparation is essential in my life both inside and outside of the arena. I am confident that I can embrace my future with boldness because I can always draw on the foundation that I have built in my life’s course-walk. I want to be present every stride, every step, and every beat of my life.

PURPOSE: Jiminy Cricket Had It Right

by Nanette Fynan

Age 59. Santa Rosa, CA. 

I think happiness is important. It is the purpose of my life.

The very serious of this world have made a point of telling me how foolish I am. Foolishness is its own reward. My day is made every time I lighten somebody’s heart. If I can unburden someone and take them out of themselves, I’ve done my job. I’m a musician. I don’t perform music, I share music. Music is the language that touches people deep inside in a way that words never will. I didn’t take my calling seriously until our pastor explained that having the skill and insight to provide a moment of happiness is the most rare gift. People need to see the funny and fun sides of things.

Jiminy Cricket had the right idea. Somebody has to fiddle to keep the workers steps light and joyful.

Somebody has to have the vision to take life and put it into perspective. Jiminy Cricket had the right idea. Somebody has to fiddle to keep the workers steps light and joyful. And for that I have received uncounted rewards; smiles of happiness and gratitude.

PURPOSE: A Letter From a Teacher to His Students

by Jim Burke

Age 53. San Francisco, CA

I am a high school teacher (and author) who teaches English to all seniors, so after our last class I wrote the following letter to them all (and their parents). What follows is the letter I sent them all:

Today we held the last class. Though we will see each other throughout the next week leading up to graduation, I wanted to offer a few closing thoughts since there was not really any time in class today. In a way, a class is not so much different from an essay: it begs for some conclusion to give it a sense of an ending.

Today we held the last class. Though we will see each other throughout the next week leading up to graduation, I wanted to offer a few closing thoughts

I created the attached document to give you this morning as a parting package of thoughts, but without any time to explain it, it seemed as though it would have been mostly lost in the rush of the day. So here is some brief variation on what I was trying to convey for those who find time to read it.

In the coming year you will—or at least you should—find your mettle being tested, whether you are in college, the military, or the early stages of your career. Most of you have been able to rely on family and teachers for help these first 18 years; now you begin to move out into the wider waters of the world and will soon realize, though these same people are there to support you, you must represent yourself, must make a name for yourself in the world you are preparing to enter.

This means passing through the fires of those trials you set for yourself or unexpectedly face along the way. It means testing your mettle against the world to find out what you are made of, even as this process helps to strengthen you. We have written essays all year, but in looking up this word mettle, the word essay also came up to my surprise. It turns out it derives from the French word and the idea of attempting to accomplish or understand things we find difficult to comprehend. In the process of essaying, you further prove and improve yourself, thereby further strengthening your mettle.

In the coming year you will—or at least you should—find your mettle being tested, whether you are in college, the military, or the early stages of your career.

Last weekend, I was honored to attend and speak at Scott Taggart’s Eagle Scout ceremony. Returning home from the ceremony, I looked into the idea of merit and merit badges, thought about all the ways Scott and others–not just Scouts–continually test and try themselves, and realized they are constantly testing their mettle by setting themselves challenges, most of them outside of others’ views. Such work is often the slow private work of nurturing one’s passions, or trying things out in order to discover one’s strengths and passions.

The poems I attached are two poems I never have cause to bring into class, but which have been important to me for years, for they capture the deeper part of my relationship with my work as a teacher and a writer, so much of which goes unwitnessed. This was a very difficult year for me for many reasons, most of which taught me essential lessons about what matters most and what I can handle. For everything you thought I did poorly, I assure you I could find five more; but that’s what I love about the work: the quest to always do it better, get it right next time. As I have said, I think you work in the years ahead is to find a question or a problem you find so fascinating you want to spend the rest of your life, or at least the next decade, trying to solve or answer.

But at the moment, you are like the Wanderer we met the first day of class so long ago in August. Back then, you looked out over the senior year ahead and could see little of what would come to pass due to the fog. Now you look ahead to the next stage of your education, wherever it will take place, and it is shrouded in fog also. If you can manage to maintain faith in yourself and your ability to orient yourself when you feel lost, you will find yourself on the other side of that fog having learned another year’s worth of lessons, having further tested your mettle, knowing a little more about yourself and the world in which you must now begin to make your way.

I thank you again for all you gave me the chance to learn from you. Keep in touch.

Mr. Burke

PURPOSE: A Jolt From Smug to Giving

by Zaf Iqbal

Age 69. San Luis Obispo, CA

I came to the U.S. in 1964, after I graduated from high school in Pakistan. I had no family or friends in the U.S. I worked my way through schools, receiving B.S. in Accounting from University of Nevada-Reno, MBA from Northern Illinois University and PhD from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. After receiving PhD, I started teaching at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly). When I retired from Cal Poly in 2006, I was a full professor, had served as chair of accounting department, and as associate dean of college of business…

My wife and I have been married for over 43 years. We live in the country club area in a beautiful house with a large garden. Our house and the garden have been featured in the local newspaper three different times. By any standard, we have a comfortable life, free of any financial worries.

For a moment I stopped and looked at our elegant house and the beautiful garden. I felt smug and proud.


About five years ago, my wife was visiting her brother and his family in Maryland. During her absence, one day I was working in our garden. For a moment I stopped and looked at our elegant house and the beautiful garden. I felt smug and proud. I told myself that I had been able to achieve all that through my own hard work and I am not obligated to anyone for all my successes. It is all due to my own efforts.

Suddenly a thought came into my mind: There are hundreds of million and perhaps billions of people in the world who are smarter than I am and work harder than I have ever done, and they work under harsh conditions. Yet, many of them go to bed at night hungry. I experienced a jolt. I no longer  felt smug and proud, instead I became very depressed. I started questioning myself how could have all that I do while those people live such a miserable life. Images of the workers I had seen in the Middle Eastern countries flashed in my mind. All of those workers were imported from poor countries  like Bangladesh, Philippine, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. I remember skinny people working on construction projects, lifting and carrying heavy loads exposed to the sun while the temperature was 112-120 degrees. And even though they were working in oil rich countries, they were very poorly paid and had to live in camps outside towns which were literally slums. They were bused-in to work in the morning and then taken back to the camps in the evening. They were treated like slaves. They were there because it was better than being unemployed back home. The more I thought about it, the more depressed I became. It went on for days. I felt guilty that I had so much while more deserving people had next to nothing. I had no basis to believe that I have earned, what I have, solely due to my work.

 

***

One day, I ran into a friend of mine who is a retired computer science professor. “How are you?” he asked me. I asked him if he wanted me to give the customary answer or the truthful answer. He wanted the latter. I summed up my condition in two words, “Very depressed.” And then I told him why I felt the way I did. He said that I had no reason to feel guilty or depressed about the misery that inflicts so many people in the world. He asked me if I had acquired any ill gains? Had I succeeded through immoral and unethical means? Had I defrauded others or was dishonest just to get ahead? I told him no; I accomplished what I did with integrity and hard work. He said that then instead of feeling the way I do I could do something else: I could help as many people, who are in need, as I could. “Listen, there is no way you can make everyone’s life better, but you can make a difference in the lives of some.” This was like a revelation and transformed my life forever.

“Listen, there is no way you can make everyone’s life better, but you can make a difference in the lives of some.”


Now I am involved in many volunteer activities. Some of those are Hospice, working with disadvantaged children, providing transportation to elderly and/or disabled people to doctor appointments, grocery stores, pharmacies, etc. I volunteer in a program that provides the opportunity to do house chores for frail, sick or disabled people like washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming floors, buying groceries or doing their laundry.

I have never felt happier in my life and my mind is at total peace. My wife is also actively engaged in volunteer activities. In addition, we financially support six charitable organizations that are doing vitally important work to help the disadvantaged in the community, e.g., food bank and homeless shelter.

I would say that we are not giving but receiving. And what we are receiving is so precious that all the money in the world cannot buy it. We are receiving the satisfaction that we are making positive difference in many lives. We are truly blessed.

 

PURPOSE: Blessed to be on this road

by Gina DiVincenzo

Age 40. Huntington, NY

I think I am one of the lucky ones…finding my purpose early in life.  I lived around the world for most of my childhood; experiencing foreign places, cultures and people.

By the time I entered college, I knew I wanted to work with people on a clinical level.  That’s when I met my independent study professor who advised me to go to grad school for clinical social work.  I would graduate in 2 years and be out in the world helping people!  I began working in mental health and then I found oncology social work.  I had an incredible mentor who guided me through the world of psychosocial oncology care.

My passion is supporting and guiding people through one of the most difficult times of their life

My passion is supporting and guiding people through one of the most difficult times of their life; coping with a cancer diagnosis and treatment.  I feel purposeful every day.  I have learned to use my listening skills, empathy and emotional availability to really be in the moment with people… to feel their pain and help them find a way through it.  I have also found my purpose in my private life… learning and growing as a mom, a daughter, sister, friend and partner.  I consistently work on being mindful of my patterns and behavior and ways to cope with what life brings.  I am blessed to be on this road…even with all the heartache, obstacles and challenges life brings.

 

PURPOSE: “She’d Taken the Time to Know Me”

by Cecelia Beirne

Age 68. New York, NY

I was meant to teach, to be a communicator, this is my purpose.  More than 20 years after I ended my teaching career I received a letter from a former student instructing me.

An excerpt:
“I vividly recall an experience I had with Ms. Beirne – the last in a long line of unfortunate gladiators besotted with the unholy chore of seeing me through a math class that didn’t involve basic shapes and large colorful toys. I was sitting at her desk after school one day, waiting like the condemned for extra help – but rather than wedging another dense loaf of insane-seeming foreign code through my skull into the cold, mathless mass of cold cheese within she told me that she’d read a story I’d written and how much she enjoyed it.

She’d taken the time to know me – not the outsized sense of failure I felt in her particular subject – but the real adolescent human who was standing at a pretty important crossroads.  In that moment she lifted me high above my self-imposed limitations and see into limitless possibility.  I don’t think I ever let my brain regret what it wasn’t again, only sharpen and enjoy what it was and is – me . . .”

She’d taken the time to know me – not the outsized sense of failure I felt in her particular subject – but the real adolescent human who was standing at a pretty important crossroads.

I never wanted to be a teacher.  I rebelled against the expectation in the 1960’s that I should want to be a secretary, nurse, nun or teacher, against the hope that  I would be blessed with a cop or fireman husband, have a bunch of kids and live in the suburbs.   Instead, I hitchhiked through Europe, got a Math degree, joined VISTA and moved to San Francisco in 1968.  I taught for 10 years, earned an MBA at night and did well in structured finance for over 20 years, during the mortgage boom.  My father had committed suicide when I as 13 and I know now that I worked hard, very hard to be self- sufficient.

I read the student’s note (above) as I was leaving my last position in the investment world.  I remembered that team members often said that they learned more from me than from anyone else.  I thought about the evening when I was very frustrated as I tried to explain the benefit of one financial ratio over another to a young intern on our way home from work.  After the young man got off the Metro a middle-aged stranger across the aisle complimented me on my fine mentoring skills.  I thought that I was yelling at the intern. No, you were teaching him, he said.
On a spiritual note, I recently recalled that I came back to the Catholic Church after many angry years.  I found God in the   connections, in those moments when you lock eyes with someone, maybe a stranger, and you recognize your humanity, when you experience the joy, the beauty of life.

I have learned to be open to those whose experiences are more extraordinary than I can imagine. 


I no longer work full time.  I teach Personal Finance in workshops in Cambodia and in New York City public schools.  I have learned to be open to those whose experiences are more extraordinary than I can imagine.  I have expanded my understanding of what it is to be human.  I am beginning to learn from the Buddhist view of life.  It is not about me, I try to remember, and that has made all the difference.
I spent many years battling to go against the expectations for first generation Irish-Americans.  I now know that connecting, communicating with others – teaching – is my purpose in life.  I am grateful for the adventures, the pleasures, as well as the mistakes along the way.  I am also glad for the wisdom about how to direct my efforts in the precious years ahead.  I can inspire confidence in others, I can be inspired.

HERO: Charles Denkensohn

by Sheri Denkensohn

Age 47. Arlington, VA

My hero is my father, Charles Denkensohn. At 92 he is suffering from renal failure but he is sharp as anything and has decided to forgo dialysis. I have been writing his eulogy in my mind for weeks, not knowing when he will die.

I have been writing his eulogy in my mind for weeks, not knowing when he will die.

I know that at 92 I am blessed to have had such a wonderful life with him, especially because all of his mental faculties are in place. So, I know his time is near. But I will miss him in my life because of his personality. He is always positive. The cup is never empty. He dedicated his life to helping others even though he started with nothing. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His father was on his way to be a Fortune 500 millionaire with a woman’s armband and garter company before the depression. His father lost everything and had to reinvent himself. At age 14 my father knew he had to work, so he went out to Long Island and worked on the farm of his relatives, bringing any money that he earned to his father. My father wanted to be a veterinarian, but had no money to go to school. So he moved to the country, married my mother and became a cattle dealer. He worked 24/7 for years with little money left over. When farms were becoming larger, he knew this was no way to survive and at age 43 changed his career to be a financial advisor. I was born two years later.

My father’s greatest love was going around at holiday time giving out gifts to his clients. He wrote birthday cards to every single client.

My father worked until he was 91 years old and became a successful and financially stable man. But that was not what I saw alone. I saw him dedicating his life to his clients. No matter what time of day or night, even if we were eating dinner, he would be on the phone with them for hours or at their homes helping them make their lives secure and ensuring that their later years would be financially stable. My father’s greatest love was going around at holiday time giving out gifts to his clients. He wrote birthday cards to every single client. He said that if he left a house and the family was in a better financial situation than when he arrived that he was a success.

Despite the circumstances, he always looks on the bright side. Even though I became a quadriplegic at age 16, he was always looking for solutions.

My father has all the attributes of a successful person. He is loyal, honest, faithful and loving. Despite the circumstances, he always looks on the bright side. Even though I became a quadriplegic at age 16, he was always looking for solutions. He never believed that I couldn’t achieve what I wanted in life and has always been there to support me and be my biggest cheerleader.

I attribute the fighter and the woman that I have become to my father and his example that he never preached, but set by his deeds and his words. This was fully brought to life in a letter that my siblings and I sent to his clients upon his retirement. He received hundreds of letters in response, with people praising him and thanking him for being a friend and an adviser and saying that they wouldn’t be happy in their life today if not for my father. He will be able to die in peace knowing that he made a difference. And in the end, that is what matters.

 

PURPOSE: Holding On To the Biggest Questions

by Zachary Krowitz

Age 21. Stamford, CT

As I read the answers to your challenge, “Do you think you have found the purpose to your life, professional or otherwise? If so, how did you find it? Was there a person, experience or book or sermon that decisively helped you get there?” I struggled with how many were about work or day-to-day activities. Yes, I understand you teased such responses by asking about professional duties in your prompt. Further, your first column about the essays you received to your questions focused on the small life, about how content people centralize their lives around seemingly small issues within a complicated and demanding world.

Unfortunately, based both on the essays written in response to your column and common experience, such meaning is often lost as one travels through life, emotions becoming duller and less clear.


However, older people wrote the essays you focused on in your column, and the essays promoted often on “The Conversation,” albeit with some exceptions. As a twenty one year old just graduated from college, I found it difficult to relate to many of the concerns expressed in such essays. It may be cynicism, or in fact clarity, that internal queries about jobs and the journey of life seem trite. If four years of studying hard have taught me anything, it is to challenge conventional notions of life’s trajectory not through the abstract sense of a journey, but in a more linear path of what one wants.

In his novel The Master, Colm Toibin wrote about fictional Henry James’s thoughts on the death of a friend. Toibin wrote, “Her words haunted him so that saying them now, whispering them in the silence of the night brought her exacting presence close to him. The words constituted one sentence. Minny had written: ‘You must tell me something that you are sure is true.’”
This desire for something that is surely true is present in all of us, and reflects an attempt to know what we really want. This is the journey of life, not abstract but wholly tangible. Unfortunately, based both on the essays written in response to your column and common experience, such meaning is often lost as one travels through life, emotions becoming duller and less clear. Thus, the search for truth, not as a sentiment but as knowledge of one’s inner life, becomes a more difficult endeavor with more experience. Such a search is not limited to a small or large life, but rather applies to the conflict between inner and outer life among people of all different backgrounds, with different interests and ambitions.

As I enter the “real” world after college, I lie awake thinking not about my job, or even my interests, but about what I truly know and feel, and how to act on that knowledge.

You highlighted the letter of Terence Tollaksen, who wrote that, “‘big’ decisions turn out to have much less impact on a life as a whole than the myriad of small seemingly insignificant ones.” I cannot help but disagree, or at least attempt to complicate. The distinction is not between big and small decisions, but rather decisions of impact on internal wellbeing, on real emotions, and decisions of ephemeral interests like jobs, location, and money.
As I enter the “real” world after college, I lie awake thinking not about my job, or even my interests, but about what I truly know and feel, and how to act on that knowledge. I imagine such late night thoughts do not change throughout the course of life, but rather become more obscure as additional responsibilities are piled on. Holding on to the meaning of one’s emotions, and learning how to act appropriately on them, thus must be the driving force in one’s life.

 

PURPOSE: The Whisper In Someone’s Ear

by Jae S. Brown

Age 38. Atlanta, GA

In communities where the distrust between officers and its citizens are always high, a white police officer saved a young black male from himself.  At the age of 19, I was young and misguided.  One night two friends and I went to a party.  While at the party, all three of us participated in drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana.  We realized our mistake at the end of the night.  We talked it over and came to the decision I was the best person to drive us home.  Obviously our decision-making skills had been diminished, but the choice to put me behind the wheel would ultimately save us all.

Out walks this police officer who looks just like the kind of officer who doesn’t like black people.


While driving home, I was stopped for erratic driving.  Out walks this police officer who looks just like the kind of officer who doesn’t like black people.  In my mind I am saying, “The Man is stopping me, The Man trying to hold me down” In reality it’s my own actions that brought me to this fateful moment.  There I was a young black male living out the stereotype; this was definitely not the person I envisioned myself being.  The police officer asked me to step outside of the car.  He smelled the marijuana on my body and asked had I been smoking.  I said “yes”.  He then asked had I been drinking.  Once again I said “yes”.  His next question was, if he searched my car would he find alcohol or drugs.  I said no to alcohol but explained I may have some remnants of marijuana in the car.  “Why are you trying to get home?” the officer asked.  I told him I was in college and had to study for a test in the morning.  In a surprised tone he asked, “You are in college?” I told him yes. He then asked if my two passengers were in college.  I said “no”.

The officer saw me in a different light and whispered in my ear, “Don’t let your friends get you in trouble you can’t get yourself out of.”


The officer saw me in a different light and whispered in my ear, “Don’t let your friends get you in trouble you can’t get yourself out of.”  He let me go and told me go straight home.  That night changed my life.  I could have easily been locked up for a DUI and possession, but this officer gave me a second chance.  I ended my first year of college with a GPA below 2.0.  A change of scenery was needed so I joined the Army.  Knowing this second chance could be my last, I have followed the officer’s advice and often speculate how life would be had he not taken a bet on me.

My purpose in life is to mentor, provide that whisper in someone’s ear that changes their life.  I relish the opportunity to tell my extended story to kids, adults, convicts and anyone who will listen.  I have learned success principles, endless career paths and programs that will help people out of their situation.  When I cannot provide an answer I vigorously search for one. My dream is to be a professional mentor and motivator of the masses.   I went from being an arrest away from drug charges to the Ivy League and many things in between.  I do all this knowing the grace of an understanding officer, allowed me to write this letter today.