PURPOSE: As Life Unfolds

by Mark Wood

Age 55. Newfoundland, Canada

My purpose in life evolves and adapts according to circumstances. The same way my dog would acquire a new name as their life unfolds. They start off with a puppy name and after 14 years they’ve earned a slew of affectionate identities.  Sweet, honourable, sufferin’ dyin’, Dame Judy Denche, Lulee the friggin’ Bee…for example.  Or Yoda, Snoot Bear, Thunderhead.  Yeah, my purpose is a lot like that.

Or Yoda, Snoot Bear, Thunderhead.  Yeah, my purpose is a lot like that.

As a teenager, my identity was defined by being a classically trained musician and an athlete. I enjoyed the thrill of performing in an orchestra to large audiences and some notoriety representing my province as a tower diver.  By the time I finished high school I was teaching swimming and playing in a rock band on the weekends. I really got through to people teaching swimming. It’s about communication and trust with visible results. I got a lot of satisfaction from that. A tremendous amount of self worth. Playing music in bars is always a blast, people admire and  enjoy the spectacle. My purpose in those days was teaching and entertainment.

When I was twenty one I became a deep sea diver and worked in Mexico. Safety hadn’t been invented yet and half the guys in the company I worked for died when an oil rig sank off the coast of Newfoundland. My purpose was survival and adapting in the workforce. I took a job in a university bookstore and enjoyed the safe, menial task of helping people find their books. After a couple of months I realized the best part of the job was the vast amount of knowledge in books surrounding me. I set out to read the store alphabetically…anthropology, business, chemistry, classics, english, and so on…

At thirty I got married and devoted myself to raising two sons. My purpose was to be a good husband and father. I didn’t think I would be any use until they could have a conversation but I saw that they really could communicate within a couple of months. This was a new version of me and I was determined to do it right.

I always told them the truth. Son, there’s no such thing as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. Play along with everybody else though, don’t ruin it for them. You can make up your own mind about God.  Oh, one more thing…there’s a car on the moon. By the time my eldest when to kindergarden he knew more about the world than most people. I asked him what he expected to learn on his first day and he said…hydraulics and stuff. I told him not to get his hopes up, it might be a while before the topic comes up.

Son, there’s no such thing as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy… You can make up your own mind about God. Oh, one more thing…there’s a car on the moon.

After twenty years of marriage, my wife left in spectacular fashion, abandoning everything. I told my sons that there was more love to go around because it was only split three ways now instead of four.  We came up with a chant…Who makes the rules? We do! What are the rules? There are no rules! It empowered us. They still went to bed on time, went to school and I learned to cook. We named our house Do What You Wantsville and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves for a couple of years. I lost the house in the divorce, took my share of the cash and we moved in with my Mom.  We call her Fresca Nan because she loves Fresca and is also a 70’s icon.

We settled in well with Mom. She felt secure with her son and two grandsons around. She also loved my ancient Husky dog, Zasso, aka Ash, Gwarlicus, Stumblina, Pretty and Prancy. Her passing last December was an outpouring of love and memories. Being the main man of the family I was the one to take her final trip to the vet.

In January, mom tried to sneak out of the house early one morning in an ambulance. Lungs filling with fluid, slowly drowning. She didn’t want to wake anybody. The paramedics gave her oxygen and stabilized her. I caught up with her within half an hour at the hospital, resting with an oxygen mask on.

I squeezed her hand, she looked up, took off her mask and said…there’s a casserole in the oven. I dismissed the notion. She squeezed my hand tighter and said…listen, there’s meat defrosting in the sink. I want you to put it in the fridge. By then I just played along. Thanks Mom, that’s all I came here for. She smiled, told me she was in good hands and wanted me to leave. I thought we almost lost her.

After a battery of tests it was determined that she needed a heart valve replaced and another one repaired. (All under warranty, now there’s a health care system that works.) I saw her every day while she was in hospital and I lost sleep. The night before the surgery I wondered if I’d lose her and actually have to grow up. She was delusional from the anesthetic for two days after the surgery and I wondered if she’d ever snap out of it. She regained her Fresca Nan marbles and began recovering in hospital.

 I really miss me. I’ve learned from loss that…as high as you go is as low as you go…The reverse is true as well…as low as you go is as high as you will go.

Fresca Nan came home and I nursed her back to health. Within a couple of weeks, my girlfriend left me. That was a loss for four months. My body and mind just quit. I stopped eating and sleeping. Under those conditions the body acts like a cornered wild animal and produces a fight or flight steroid. It’s called glucocorticoid and essentially just burns body fat. I lived off that for a month while my unhungry stomach growled and burned in waves. A series of stress events is called compound stress and has been recently classified as a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

A week ago I finally emerged from my room. My purpose now is to exercise enough to get hungry, tired enough to sleep and find out what makes me happy. I think making other people happy makes me happy. I really miss me. I’ve learned from loss that…as high as you go is as low as you go. It’s a compliment of our capacity for love. The reverse is true as well…as low as you go is as high as you will go.

I’m due for a serious, delirious amount of love and happiness.

PURPOSE: Evolution of Soul

by Sumitrra Ganguli

Age 32. Columbia, MO

I haven’t read Jean-Paul- Sartre or any of the other visionaries you speak of in your article, but in the three decades of my existence, I’ve come to believe that to attain your purpose in life, you don’t need to sit through pages of byzantine, obtuse philosophy/arguments – you just need to be a more sentient human being. Moreover, as I see it, your purpose in life is not just ‘the’ one thing – a successful professional, travelling the world, being a philanthropist, feeding the hungry…..the concept in and of itself is dynamic in nature…..its ultimate goal being a greater understanding of the physical and the metaphysical and in the process evolving in to a higher spiritual being or attaining oneness with the universe. And more importantly, from my own experiences I’ve come to realise that your purpose is a realization stemming from the culmination of the experiences that you choose to undergo throughout your existence.

To illustrate my point – I left my family, my country and all that I had ever called my own, all that I had ever associated with…a thousand miles away to pursue my dreams (I am a doctoral student in Economics here in the US).


To put things in perspective, I am so close (spiritually, emotionally..and whatever other bond you could possibly think of) to my family, that every time my parents think of me I feel a certain something within – its that feeling of love/security…you can’t see it or put it in to so many words….and yet it’s the most beautiful feeling in the world.

Be that as it may, four months after I left my country, I lost my father – it was all so sudden, I couldn’t even make it home to be with him for that one last time, to tell him how much I loved him, to tell him how much he meant to me, and above all to tell him that I was ‘there’ for him..like he had always been for me. My father’s passing had left me devastated – Baba (meaning ‘father’ in my native tongue) was the centre of my universe…He was my mobile dictionary, sounding board for all my insanely stupid ideas, my shield during those embarrassing PTA meetings, the metaphorical guinea pig for all my culinary experiments….his passing had brought my life to a standstill and I was starting to lose my will to live when I realized something remarkable. I recall taking an Econ class in early spring – there was a tree outside the classroom that had shed all its leaves and looked very sad and forlorn.

As the semester progressed, I saw it going from the picture of gloom to the most beautiful and joyous thing ever. And that was when I realized that everything in life goes through a cycle – the sun rises….only to set, the waves rise…only to fall, closer to our world….we start out in Kindergarten in hopes of graduating someday, middle school/high school…everything…everything happens in a cycle…and all cycles must come to an end only to start a new one….the biggest one…we are born…only to die someday….it would be unnatural if it were to be otherwise.


Being brought up in a devout Hindu family – we had been exposed to a lot of what is written in the scriptures – of special significance is a story where a king was asked what he thought the greatest wonder in the world was and he says that we all know that death is an eventuality and yet we are never able to come to terms with it. Yes, I did read this – but I did not quite understand the meaning of it – not even when my father passed on. But yes, through being a more sentient human being, I was able to appreciate the meaning of this story, make my peace with the process of life and death…and be one step closer to being a more evolved human being.

What I am trying to get at through all of this is that…your purpose in life may not be something profound/earth shattering…its not like winning the Nobel or nothing…your purpose is a journey…one where you discover more about yourself, about the world around you…and hopefully, die knowing that you are a more evolved soul than you were when you started out in this world.

PURPOSE: “Be-Loving”

by Kristina Minister

Age 80. Portland, ME

My mother died when I, an only child, was 21. I don’t remember living with my father. So my purpose in life was to mother and father myself while seeking out sisters and brothers and collecting two children along the way.

With that adopted family to sustain me, gradually my purpose has grown into inviting others to join in a vibrant, be-loving domain. I write “be-loving” in contrasted with “believing” because the act of engaging in the wonder of existence is enough, an end in itself.

I am getting better at it.

PURPOSE: Kindness Is The Goal

by Elizabeth Young

Age 56. Newtown, CT


My youngest child had gone off to college, triggering a seismic shift in my focus. My work life, I am a nurse, remained consistent, my vast array of interests only expanded, but my purpose seemed to have evaporated. No longer the essential player I had been for twenty six years in the lives of my four children, I found myself gasping for purpose like a spiritual asthmatic. I wrote an essay acknowledging that I felt like the high school senior being directed to do what makes me happy, find my passion and live my dreams. Yet I was at a complete and total loss to figure out what they were. I tried all sorts of things, became a doula, hospice volunteer, reading volunteer, all seemed empty endeavors lacking the fulfillment I was seeking. It has been a challenging time.

No longer the essential player I had been for twenty six years in the lives of my four children, I found myself gasping for purpose like a spiritual asthmatic.

I read a story once of an Indian guru of sorts who died. His lifelong friend was being interviewed by a journalist. The friend was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? The message the friend replied. The message was “we do not all have to shine.” This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.

I have always wanted to be effortlessly kind. I wanted to raise children who were kind. Children who would become not only good citizens, but people with their hearts in a place that had room for the wants and needs of others. Terrence Des Pres wrote “The Survivor, An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps,” a study of the characteristics evident in those who survived the holocaust. The predominant quality was generosity. Those prisoners who saw themselves as more fortunate than others, who shared their shred of potato skin, were vastly more likely to survive. Kindness is not only good for our own souls, but good for humanity at large.

I have always wanted to be effortlessly kind.

I am reminded of the story of the woman whose yard was filled with thousands of daffodils. People stopped to look and take photos of the glorious springtime display. Those who were really awestruck went to her front door only to be informed, by a note she had placed there, that this feat was accomplished “one bulb at a time.”

Perhaps the mission is not a mission at all. There may not be some grand quest for most of us, but rather a gradual understanding that if we can just be kinder to each other and raise our children to be kind that our field of vison will enlarge and our hearts a become little more open. We will see need where once we saw weakness, we will find opportunities to grow from inclusiveness. We will see differences we can embrace, appreciate and learn from. Everywhere there are tiny, seemingly inconsequential circumstances that, if explored, provide meaning and a chance for purpose and fulfillment. We grow physically and emotionally in microscopic increments. Perhaps the idea of finding ones purpose should be introduced by first developing a generosity of spirit within ourselves, through this portal, purpose may become apparent.



PURPOSE: “I Died Too Soon!”

by April Crosby

Age 68. Fairbanks, Alaska

I’ve read your 29 May column reporting responses to your query for principles of purpose.  Much mention of “small font decisions” reminds me of the quote from Helen Keller posted above my mother’s desk until her death 35 years ago that has since hung above mine:  “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble.  The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.”     

A friend recently reminded me of Camus’ comment that our lives are the sum total of the hundreds of decisions we make each day.  And how do I make these decisions?  I think of the character in Sartre’s play, No Exit, who – when finding himself suddenly in hell – whined, “I died too soon!”  He didn’t have time to become the person he wanted to be. 

So I imagine… whatever I’m doing right then is what I’ll be doing into infinity; forever. 

So I imagine death as having each moment as THE defining moment: whatever I’m doing right then is what I’ll be doing into infinity; forever.  If I died at this very moment, could I bear to be doing this forever?  It helps keep me from doing much furtively – would not want infinite shame! 

And I’d better stop writing and get outside, because I don’t want to die indoors.


by Mark Kelleher

Age 46. London

After separating from my wife after 20-odd years and four children, I moved back to the city at the start of 2015 and into a flat in North London. Living on my own for the first time since my twenties. I had a long list of things I had to to to find myself again; have dinner parties will various cool friends, inhabit the cafes and restaurants of London, laugh a lot, travel. And I am doing all of that; I am a very happy man. My marriage was a good thing. I, we, enjoyed ourselves for many years. We just wanted different things after two decades, no one was to blame, we had just changed and failed to adapt the relationship to how each of us as individuals had changed.

When I was a young man I had thought about questions like why are we here, what was I for and so on, but life took over.

When I was a young man I had thought about questions like why are we here, what was I for and so on, but life took over. The philosophy became working out how to fit four kids into a house, or how to amuse small humans on the beach for the day. It was fun and enveloping, but that era moves on. I desperately didn’t want to be the man they came back to visit and spent a few hours with, then went back to their marvellous lives. I had led a traditional life: school, university, work, girlfriends, marriage, fatherhood. I did not feel as though I had missed out on anything, on the contrary I had felt privileged by my state-funded education, my career and marriage.

But dissatisfaction crept in. I had always said there were things “I would do one day” – write a novel, get piano lessons, become a fashion photographer; and I started to explore how I could do these things as my lifestyle and relationship started to be a mis-match of my needs and aspirations. I wrote a couple of scripts but didn’t get them taken up, I started doing photography more seriously and made a bit of money but it wasn’t the vision I had had. Too ordinary, too normal. By the time the end story of the relationship was playing out, I decided to get piano lessons as an escape.

By the time the end story of the relationship was playing out, I decided to get piano lessons as an escape.

My piano teacher had a way of approaching the work that was utterly different to the goal-oriented life I had led. I was all about achievement; I wrote to do lists and ticked things off when I had achieved them. By my late 30s I was actually running out of things to put on the lists – but now I know the lists seemed limited from the life context I was in at the time.

At first I thought my piano teacher was far too hippyish; not focused enough on achieving certain things within certain times limits. But within one lesson; one hour of my life, she had illustrated for me that life was not about achieving goals, and although this is going to be a cliche, it really is about the journey.

She has taught me that the experience we are in at this very moment is not “as good as” achieving goals, it is a far more valuable way of measuring how good your life is. This is not a philosophy of disengaging with life – not about staying in bed and saying to yourself, “I’m just really engaging with these pillows, I’m staying put.” Actually this is about getting out there and trying everything, as opposed to thinking “I thought about doing something but I won’t be any good, so I’m not doing it.”

This is wrong because “being good at it” the first time you try something is not the point, the point is you get the experience of trying it. Then your context has changed and the second time you try it, you have the previous experience of the first time and so on. So her philosophy is just do it, do the things you love, and love the experience of doing them. And we do progress, I am much better at playing the piano now than I was, so achievement comes out of this approach, it’s just not the front-of-mind measure of whether you’re spending your time fruitfully.

What started as lessons of how to play the piano has turned into a whole life philosophy.


What started as lessons of how to play the piano has turned into a whole life philosophy. I now approach my job in the same way, and my personal life. My daily experience is my focus now. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a bucket list though either, and the measure of adding them to the list is “will it be fantastic to do?” If the answer is yes, stick it on the list and over time, do it all. She has, literally, changed my life.



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.


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. 


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.



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.