The Road to Character Blog

THE CONVERSATION

WALK TOGETHER
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PURPOSE: 387 Different Operas

by Carole Berglie

Age 69. Sea Cliff, NY

Character builds slowly.  First, parents who loved one another and applied commonsense and intelligence, and love, to raising me as an individual, a girl in a lower middle-class neighborhood, of lower middle-class parents, where I was the only girl (Queens, NYC) to go to college.  But mostly, my character was built through a partnership with another woman that lasted over 30 years, 26 of which we had with the Sword of Damocles overhead, called breast cancer.  When life’s on the line, you learn what’s important.
Also, going freelance (editor) early on taught me “you lower your life requirements but you live a better life.”  Time is the greatest asset, far better than any material thing.

“You lower your life requirements but you live a better life.”  Time is the greatest asset, far better than any material thing.

Lastly, a second very wise, second partner (after death of first)taught me to inject “a little fun” into every day.  And as a scholar, she taught me the thrill of autodidactism, the pursuit of an idea purely for its own sake.  In my case, it was opera–to learn all I could about it and see as many performances as I could in my lifetime. (Pretty good so far–387 different operas.)

Have always been an eager, wide reader with strong lit background, and enjoy Conrad, Dickens, Eliot, Balzac, and Nabokov. I continue to read the classics mostly. Revelations come as epiphanies–the juncture of ideas is, perhaps, the most euphoric experience ever, when that “connection” happens.

I take philosophy classes with other oldsters; we thrill in the exploration of ideas without the trivialities of youth

Now old (69), I take philosophy classes with other oldsters; we thrill in the exploration of ideas without the trivialities of youth.  The Ancients dealt with “character”; it’s part and parcel of their worldview.

Yes, I have found purpose in life and am very happy; my goal now is to be a well-thinking person who tries to see the best in others, and to help those who have difficulty coping with life’s stresses.  I volunteer, and I help my friends.  My sources of strength are my memories of having been influenced by good people in my life.  Books give strength, but people give even more.  (And I say that as an editor.)

PURPOSE: I Dreamed of Grandeur

by Elisabeth Jordan

Age 30. Dallas, TX. 

All my life I dreamed of grandeur. I wanted to be somebody important. I put a lot of time and energy into daydreaming about fame.

I chased these ideals for years, even working in the music and entertainment business for a time. Then, I lost my entertainment-business job, and I was left to reimagine myself.

All my life I dreamed of grandeur.


Who did I really want to be?

During this time out of work, I reflected on my life and realized that some of the times I felt most alive had been in high school when I traveled to Peru, living off of a tributary of the Amazon River, caring for “street boys,” young boys orphaned and left to fend for themselves.

I wanted to find out how to capture the essence of what made me come alive in Peru in my hometown, Dallas.

I soon learned that Dallas has extreme poverty; whereas I had grown up in one of the most affluent areas of the city, not but a few miles away, people lived without the resources that had been handed to me my whole life.

And so I began a journey to discover this “other side” of my city. I started spending time on a street corner, near where a large portion of Dallas’ homeless reside. Soon, what began as a volunteer gig became a job.

In essence, I found my purpose, but it was not under bright lights, as I had always pictured. It was in a forgotten part of my city with people whom many of us write off.

In essence, I found my purpose, but it was not under bright lights, as I had always pictured.


I have never felt more alive or more joyful. I no longer care about “being known” because sitting on street corners with my homeless friends has given me something no years of chasing fame ever gave me: the homeless have given me themselves. And in giving me themselves, they have gifted me back myself. They have healed my insecurities by loving me just as I am. And they invite me in. Whereas so many of us spend so much time hiding – hiding behind lovely homes and pretty clothes, the homeless let me enter their darkest moments …
Now, with a small team and a new non-profit, we have the privilege of showing up at 5 a.m. to take them to rehab. We help them get into domestic violence shelters. We hold recovery meetings outside on the streets. We go to them. And, even though we aren’t homeless ourselves, we live in community with them.

I have never felt more alive or more joyful.


I would never trade this new life. Even if I didn’t do it as a job, I have realized nothing about my life would change. This is my new way of being. Yes, I still get dressed up to go to cocktail parties, and then the next morning I sweat it out in the hot sun doing life with my homeless friends. I am both people, and I have learned to love myself. What a beautiful life!

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.

 

Eulogy: Corinne Giunta

by Corinne Giunta

Age 67. Beacon, New York

Corinne lived a life that will seem familiar to a lot of women.  She grew up in a 1950s suburban neighborhood, married her college/soldier boyfriend and had two daughters.  She never quite had a plan of life, but faced her purpose in life day by day, responding to family and others as the situations arose, hopefully with patience, understanding and a sense of humor.  But not always.   I know that sometimes, in looking back, Corinne felt she missed “learning experiences” with her children because she didn’t have a truly organized philosophy of child rearing.  But ask her children and they will say they never noticed a lack of direction.  Nor did anyone else.  Corinne touched many lives by volunteering to help out in different causes.  No, not political causes.  That wasn’t her thing.   She was drawn to people causes such as literacy and homelessness.   No lofty purpose, just plain living with an emphasis on trying to get it right.

No lofty purpose, just plain living with an emphasis on trying to get it right.

My Reflection

I am hesitant about declaring any insight into life’s purpose mainly because I don’t know yet.  Like many children of the 60s era I investigated meditation, yoga, religion, and metaphysics in general, you know, New Age stuff.  I got confused.  Gave it all up.  So I guess none of that helped.  But there came a time in my 60s (the age) when I realized that I had lost a lot and didn’t replace it.  I lost the feeling that there is a higher force in the universe and a belief in some overriding philosophy that could guide me.  In other words, I lost my soul.  Now it would be nice to tell you that I found it, but don’t hold your breath.  So the search continues but any talk of purpose makes me uncomfortable.  This eulogy is the closest I can come so thanks for asking.  OK, I will go so far as to say that maybe the search is the purpose.  There, I said it.

So the search continues but any talk of purpose makes me uncomfortable.  This eulogy is the closest I can come so thanks for asking.  OK, I will go so far as to say that maybe the search is the purpose.  There, I said it.

Eulogy for Monteque Pope-Le Beau

by Monteque Pope-Le Beau

Age 40. Los Angeles, CA

I would like it to be said of me that I knew how to live well.  Not so much a materialistic life, but in having a purposeful life.  That I gave whenever I could and I made a difference in my part of the world. That I dared to dream and reach for the stars and when I reached them I didn’t stop there. I became the person that my family believed that I could be, who was humble, full of integrity, honor and of good character. Who was loyal to all those who across my path. Helpful, caring and compassionate to everyday strangers.  That I lived a life of service to others never taking more then what I needed.  Living at the pace of nature and being true to myself and my purpose in life.

My Reflection

If someone were to ask me if I would I change anything that happened to me my answer would be …. No!   This is my climb.

My life has been a wonderful journey of ups and downs.  There have been twists and turns along the way some of them good and some of them bad, but all of them have shaped me into who I am today. If someone were to ask me if I would I change anything that happened to me my answer would be …. No!   This is my climb.   And when I get to the top of the mountain’ I will look for a even taller mountain to climb next.   

I believe there’s good in everything and everyone. Maybe they didn’t have the best start in life or the same opportunities. Maybe they didn’t have that support system that was needed to help them and guide them on their way but there is good in everyone regardless of who they are.  It is not up to me to judge why that person is the way they are or why they act the way they do. That is none of my business.

What is within my power is to be able to help others to make a difference in a world that seems to have gone dark. I am a fortunate and blessed individual who wants to share the bounty of my blessings.   Life is a learning process with every step it as a process of learning helping us to become who we were meant to be. It is being true to ourselves and living our true purpose in life. Not settling for a life that we don’t want, but having a life that we do what we love and we love.  It is about being not just a blessing to ourselves, but a blessing to others  without judgement or hatred. It is about constantly striving to be better than what we are and creating a better tomorrow for the generations to come.