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PURPOSE: IT’S THE GARDEN

by Hans Pitsch

Age 85. Cleveland Heights, OH

At age 85 the question of meaning in my life is urgent. The question of the purpose of my life is another matter. World War II and life in general have taught me that outcomes from our actions or in-actions are often totally unpredictable and random. When unexpected bad things happen, people say “everything happens for a reason” which is another way of saying, “suspend your reasoning”.

We may be saved from a bad situation by luck or with the best intentions create disaster. The fact that I am alive is an accident starting with the unlikely circumstance of my own and my ancestors’ conception, the survival in World War II, the fact that no disease has killed me yet.

I am thankful to be alive. I have a responsibility to myself and those around me to give meaning to my life from day to day. I enjoy my family (not all of them) and the shrinking number of old friends. You use the term “organizing frame” in one’s life. I am not sure if I want to be framed by an organizing principle, but if there is one thing that keeps me focused, it’s the garden.

Lots of plants died during the harsh winter but amazingly the clematises and the roses are back and lettuce spinach and tomatoes are thriving in the new greenhouse. The weeping cherry tree in front of the house succumbed to old age. I still have to plant a new tree this year.

PURPOSE: Children Know This

by Skip Broussard

Age 73, Dallas, TX

I always had a feeling of emptiness in childhood and youth. There were no gray headed gurus in Lafayette, LA, then a small, myopic, French-Catholic community. It offered me very little.
Education and career, though absorbing, didn’t resemble purpose. I was adrift, but searching.

There were no gray headed gurus in Lafayette, LA, then a small, myopic, French-Catholic community.


I discovered Unity Church, which felt like a melange of liberal Christianity and existentialism. It is non-denominational, non-critical, kind and generous to all and presents a spectacularly encouraging interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. Although some call it “new age,” it was founded in 1889.
My reading and studying grew from there and took me to many wondrous places. I stopped attending church, not through dissatisfaction, it just felt good to be a free agent.

Children know this. They can’t verbalize it. But once I, as an adult, stripped away all negative conditioning, anger, fear, failure and sadness, it’s there, right there, in the gaze of innocent eyes.


Since my teens, I’ve given lots of time to troubled kids all over the world. Helping at an orphanage for special needs kids in Peru demonstrated that, regardless of grinding poverty, abuse and all the terrors of life, there lies at our core an elemental desire to love and be loved. Children know this. They can’t verbalize it. But once I, as an adult, stripped away all negative conditioning, anger, fear, failure and sadness, it’s there, right there, in the gaze of innocent eyes.
That’s my purpose. To meet innocence with love, food, water, mentoring and yes, money. Funding is the great equalizer. All this can, kid by kid, change the world.

PURPOSE: Knocked Down Hard, Nearly Out

by Kenneth P. Gurney

Age 57, Aluquerque, NM

New York Times columnist David Brooks asks the question, “Do you think you have found the purpose to your life, professional or otherwise?”  Yes, I think I have found it.  For me, it is living each day doing my best to be a good person.

For me being a good person incorporates the following: 1) to be present with empathy for every moment that my personal faculties allow with the people and situations I encounter, 2) to keep in mind not to do to other people what I would not want done to myself, 3) to hold a little doubt in reserve and apply it when I feel confidence turn toward arrogance.  I think being a good person starts with saying please and thank you, and the other common courtesies—the idea that kindness and respect to others returns kindness and respect.

In 1990 a series of tragedies knocked me down hard, nearly out.  I needed help getting back up.  While receiving this help, I decided to observe the people around me to determine whose lives seemed fullest—those people who most often express joy, contentment and satisfaction.


Mr. Brook’s second question is “If so, how did you find it?”  In 1990 a series of tragedies knocked me down hard, nearly out.  I needed help getting back up.  While receiving this help, I decided to observe the people around me to determine whose lives seemed fullest—those people who most often express joy, contentment and satisfaction.  Over a one to two year period of living and observing, I concluded it was the folks who implement this credo of striving to be a good person as I defined it above, no matter their race, class, occupation or station in life.  Also, I noticed these people stood up for themselves, their beliefs, and took care of themselves physically and emotionally.

There was no decisive event, book, sermon or person.  My one to two year period of observing humanity before making the decision to be a good person was influenced by the following.  My college degree in drawing & print making taught me to see with artist eyes.  I became a poet and joined the poetry community as writer, performer, and reader of the great poets of my day.

After a trial and error process that left the first 6 therapists in the rear view mirror…I possessed a strong desire to change my life because parts of my life were empty and other parts came up lacking a little something.

After a trial and error process that left the first 6 therapists in the rear view mirror, I found a therapist with whom I worked well and listened to and solved many of my life issues.  I conversed with people and paid attention to their answers to questions and their opinions on our topics of conversation.  A couple of self-help books provided life-understanding I had not picked up on my own.  I possessed a strong desire to change my life because parts of my life were empty and other parts came up lacking a little something.

It is my firm belief that no matter what my vocation or profession or hobbies, if I live each day as a good person that my being, my living, improves and uplifts the lives of those people I encounter and that my actions ripple through the community to unseen, positive effect.

High School Students in English 9: Part II

by Liza Cowan

Atlanta, GA

… I cannot imagine how many inbounds you and the RTC team receive daily, but I couldn’t resist adding to my initial note because I had a boy from this class come in to school this morning full of “Character” talk:
 “Ms. Cowan Ms. Cowan I had SUCH a Humility Shift this weekend. I was playing in this golf tournament and losing and really stressed out and it was the weirdest thing, I hit the ball and kind of lost it in the air — which is not normal for me — and instead I just started looking at this cloud and suddenly I had this realization that there are a lot more important things to me than this golf tournament. And that the world is just a lot bigger than I am. And that everything will go on even if I don’t do well. But then, weirdly, this epiphany made me relax and start playing better. That sounds weird but do you get it?”
Although this might be more Humbling Instant than Humility Shift, it made me smile and I thought you might also enjoy knowing that a sixteen year old boy was thinking about his Moral Bucket List unprompted at 8am on a Monday morning.

High School Students in English 9: Part I

by Liza Cowan

Atlanta, GA

As an educator, it offered me an accessible frame for meaningful conversation about life and literature in my high school classroom.

Specifically, for their final project in English 9 (a standard freshman class grounded in essential questions like “Who am I and how do I know that? What is important to me and how do I express that? What is changing in my life and how do I relate to others?”) my students used your language and their personal experiences to analyze our protagonists’ key coming-of-age moments.

For example, kids discovered Self-Defeat in “Macbeth” and “A Raisin in the Sun,” unpacked Humility Shifts in Updike’s “A&P” and Joyce’s “Araby”, analyzed Dependency Leaps in Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and Schmidt’s Okay for Now; and the list goes on!

One student claimed a retrospective Humility Shift as she remembered that when her grandmother died, she pulled “the ultimate ‘Big Me’ moment” and ran upstairs to watch Netflix rather than being there to comfort her mother. 

One student claimed a retrospective Humility Shift as she remembered that when her grandmother died, she pulled “the ultimate ‘Big Me’ moment” and ran upstairs to watch Netflix rather than being there to comfort her mother.  Another student, a boy with a rare muscular disorder, wrote about experiencing a Humility Shift during a conference for kids living with the same chronic disease; he realized that “the whole week was a ‘Big Me’ moment” because it was humbling and liberating to see that his diagnosis couldn’t be his primary source of identity.

One girl related Energizing Love to her Faith and specifically John’s assignment to “not just talk about love” but “practice real love” (1 John 3:18-20). She distinguished between “using Christianity almost selfishly, thinking that if I simply felt the love of Christ and the love I have for other people, I was living out the word of God” and “actually reinvesting that love in other people, which will energize me too!”

So thank you for giving me this tool to challenge my students to think and learn with their heads and their hearts in their final weeks of freshman year.

HERO: My Beautiful Wife, Stephanie

by Everett Moran

56, Port Townsend, WA

My beautiful wife, Stephanie, consented to marry me eight years ago. She is the very definition of character, having been raised in poverty by abusive parents and step-parents. While her siblings struggled with violent anger and substance abuse, Stephanie decided as a teenager that she was not going to live that way. She put herself through school, raised two children virtually alone, while working two jobs to make ends meet. Her now grown children are a testament to their mother’s thoughtful and balanced approach to parenting – nurturing, but tough enough to encourage self-reliance and achievement.

While her siblings struggled with violent anger and substance abuse, Stephanie decided as a teenager that she was not going to live that way.


Stephanie seldom misses an opportunity to make the world around her just a little bit better, from regularly patrolling our road to pick up trash, to providing backpacks with necessities for the homeless, to providing books and pajamas for foster children (because she remembers what it was like to be plucked from her home and placed in foster care with nothing but the clothes on her back). She has organized creek cleanups, delivered meals to others in need, and provided a safe haven for women at risk… all this from a woman who was raised with no real parenting in an every-person-for-him/herself culture.

Now, that is truly heroic.

We are fortunate to now live in a community filled with heroes. Imagine Stephanie’s “disappointment” when she went to volunteer at the local Food Bank, only to be told there was a two year waiting list! To remember to step out of one’s own life to help others is hard enough for people who were brought up with all the advantages. Stephanie could easily have been consumed by her own struggles. Instead, she summoned the strength, at a very early age, to engage and to try to make a difference in the world so that others might have it better than she did.

Now, that is truly heroic.

 

PURPOSE: Stage 4, It’s Terminal.

by Debra Dean-Ciriani

Age 64, West Hartford, CT

As a young girl growing up in St. Cloud, MN, I had a wonderful childhood living along the Mississippi River like Tom Sawyer, and in the security of a warm and supportive middle class family, including extended family.

All the male figures in my life had served in either World War II or the Korean War, and we all were staunch Republicans, Methodists or Presbyterians, living by the tenets of the Protestant ethic ‘survival of the fittest’. My father started with nothing and lived the American Dream. Yes, my mother was killed in a car accident when I was 11, but there was my incredible father and a host of other family members who jumped in with love and support in every way.I have been extremely blessed in every way.

I have Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in my bones.  It’s terminal, but no one knows just when my time will be up.

Throughout my adult life I have often reflected on how fortunate I have been, and wondered how I could help others to experience the joy and deep love I have had the privilege of bathing in. After college and grad school, a 30 year career as an opera singer living for 16 years in New York City, three years living in Germany, getting married at 38 to the right guy, and giving birth to a brilliant and delightful daughter, and living in Italy for eight years teaching English, I found myself in W.Hartford, CT with my husband and daughter wondering what was next for me at age 57. 

Well, I returned to school and received a degree as a marriage and family therapist, and that decision has changed my life and given me more satisfaction than any other work I’ve ever done.  Again, very blessed! 

During my graduate studies I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and went through the challenges of chemo and radiation. I never lost a beat with school, graduated, and cut my teeth as a therapist at a terrific job with The Bridge Family Center in W. Hartford, where I worked until starting a private practice just two months ago. 

Each day is a tremendous gift, and I find so many more reasons to be grateful.  My family, friends and clients are my greatest source of strength, and I am grateful to them all.  I’m still living in the present with eyes to the future

In 2013 my cancer returned, and I have Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in my bones.  It’s terminal, but no one knows just when my time will be up.  I’ve moving forward optimistically and, like Oliver Sachs (‘On the Move’ is my next read. His recent article in the NY Times was so inspirational!), I am embracing life, people and my work as if I will live forever.

Each day is a tremendous gift, and I find so many more reasons to be grateful.  My family, friends and clients are my greatest source of strength, and I am grateful to them all.  I’m still living in the present with eyes to the future, and my purpose is to give all the love, knowledge, support and friendship to this marvelous world, and then leave it feeling I gave it my best shot.  Blessings,blessings, blessings everywhere!

PURPOSE: All Situations out of Love

by Nora Oberlin

Age 24, Ohio

I see a vision of myself acting in all situations out of love. That vision is the perfect version of myself, my lifelong goal, and the purpose that gives every moment meaning.

I spent a lot of time growing up overwhelmed by my weaknesses.


I see myself as a mosaic made up of the people who have shaped the experiences of my life. The more people I share experiences with, learning what love looks like in different circumstances, the more I add to my mosaic and the more defined my future self becomes.

The more people I share experiences with, learning what love looks like in different circumstances, the more I add to my mosaic and the more defined my future self becomes.


I spent a lot of time growing up overwhelmed by my weaknesses. Tortured by pain that I had caused someone and overwhelmed with the prospect of changing. Someone told me to stop “beating myself up” over these weaknesses, because they are tied inextricably to strengths. One luke warm example is that my sensitivity allows me to be aware of how people are feeling and act to mitigate any pain caused by a comment or exclusion. Great. This sensitivity also makes me “think too much”, inhibiting a necessary quick response.

When we focus on our character, we are sidetracked by fruitless self-assessment that leads to glorification or pity. Love is a goal that builds and fulfills, based for me, in my belief in God.  I feel like “happy” is my reliable emotional base as a result.

Thank you, Mr. Brooks, for your recent columns!

PURPOSE: Vision

by Larry Ackerman

Westport, CT

I am Larry Ackerman and I am driven to help people to see. To see the futility of some actions and the power of others. To see one’s natural potential. To see the power and beauty of living according to who you are.

Where does my purpose come from?

I can recall being tethered to the operating table, canvas straps pulled snug across my chest and pelvis. I watched in terror as the gas mask was brought to my face.


When I was four-years old I underwent eye surgery to correct a muscle problem; I was born cross-eyed. Medically speaking, the operation was a success, but during that operation the course of my life was altered forever. To this day, I can recall being tethered to the operating table, canvas straps pulled snug across my chest and pelvis. I watched in terror as the gas mask was brought to my face. As panic welled up inside me, I asked myself a question, unconsciously: What is so wrong with me that I must be changed from who I am?  All I could figure was that my eyes were hopelessly flawed and, therefore, so was I. In that instant, I felt as though I was going to die. Suddenly, I had a conscious sense of being alive, a keen awareness of my own life.

Suddenly, I had a conscious sense of being alive, a keen awareness of my own life.

Then, I slipped away down a ‘black hole,’ my tunnel to freedom and survival. Ever since that experience in the hospital, “vision” has been the governing force in my life.

PURPOSE: Eulogy Values in Action, I Believe

Dave Berndt

Age 43, Fort Collins, CO

The meaning of life as I have understood and experienced it has two parts – the destination and the road that leads to the destination.  The road feels to me more like a battle, or a war, and it can be a difficult one that brings to mind the ‘Black Dog’.

What makes sense to me, as you discuss in your book and many religious traditions claim, is that I (as with any human) have a core sin and am made of ‘broken timber’.  The attempt to overcome that broken nature, to summon the strength to fight and prevent it from owning me, is my inherent experience of traveling the road to my destination.

The road feels to me more like a battle, or a war, and it can be a difficult one that brings to mind the ‘Black Dog’. 

My destination appeared far off in my distant vision first in my early 30’s, and it’s become closer and more clear every day in my early 40’s.  I’m not confident in understanding every one of its details, but I know it involves initiating, cultivating, and maintaining emotional connections with other human beings.  The Eulogy values in action, I believe.

The Eulogy values in action, I believe. 

That destination came into focus only through a long and intertwined web of influences  including the help of trusted friends and family, various books of wisdom, thoughtful editorialists such as David Brooks, and deliberate self reflection and acceptance.  I am fortunate and grateful to be able to nourish and promote this developing skill on a daily basis in my work as a physician, but such opportunities also abound in my personal life and with my family.  And while there certainly appears to be a spectrum of need, ability, and belief regarding this concept in our world, my humble experience suggests it brings some element of meaning to us all.  Participating in this forum is part of this process, too, so thank you for!