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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.

PURPOSE: Heart Broken Open

by Greg Sunter

Age 52. Brisbane, Australia

 

This image of the heart broken open has become the driving force of my life in the years since my wife’s death.

Four years ago, my wife of 21 years passed away as the result of a brain tumour. Her passage from diagnosis to death was less than six months. As shocking as that time was, almost as shocking was the sense of personal growth and awakened understanding that has come from the experience for me through reflection and inner work – to a point that I almost feel guilty about how significant my own growth has been as a result of my wife’s death. I certainly wish it could have come about in a different way, but maybe it can’t.
In his book, A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer writes about the two ways in which our heart can be broken: the first, imaging the heart as shattered and scattered; the second, imaging the heart broken open into new capacity, holding more of both our own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope.

That is what I now seek to do, live with a heart broken open.


This image of the heart broken open has become the driving force of my life in the years since my wife’s death. It has become the purpose to my life. For it’s one thing to have your heart broken open, but it’s another thing altogether to live in such a way that seeks to keep the heart broken open – open to new possibility; open to hope; open to the hurts and fears of others. That is what I now seek to do, live with a heart broken open.

 

PURPOSE: “Formidable Advocate”

by Georgian Lussier

Age 65. Wallingford, CT

It seems I find purpose though critical events.  Those times when you are challenged to go beyond your experiences to date.  My moniker could be ‘formidable advocate.’  Advocate for people I love, issues I think I am informed about.  An early example: Michael, my beloved older brother, suffered a traumatic brain injury when I was 25, in 1975.  I learned to challenge medical ‘experts’, fight for benefits, and basically hang in there with him during his 13 years of total disability.  A professional example is more recent.  In 2010, after running a jobs program with Stimulus funds, I realized older, accomplished women were uniquely disadvantaged in the ‘recovering’ market.  I formed a small group, self-published a book, and now host a community TV program that highlights women’s stories.  So my purpose is to use my talents to speak up and pitch in.  It’s not always pretty, but comes from a deep commitment.

My moniker could be ‘formidable advocate.’  Advocate for people I love, issues I think I am informed about. 


I am lucky to have loyal people in my life, who cheer me on (although the traumatic brain injury experience was isolating). While I am not church-going these days, my Mom was religious, and I went to Catholic schools.  I sent my daughter to a Catholic school because I wanted her to be in an environment where values were explicit.  Life does get complicated, but trusting my moral compass helps me to act on what my inner voice says is the right direction.

HERO: Jane Goodall

by Susan Morris

Age 57. Livermore, CA

I have lots of heroes. Some I follow in the news to guide my thinking, some I call on Sunday mornings to check in, some are fictional but they inform my personal myth. But of all the real people today that I look up to, Jane Goodall has been a lasting and quiet but powerful inspiration. I have always loved her soft-spoken, unassuming way of going about things. Public voice only existed to get her what she needed. She never seemed to want to say, “this is who I am” so much as “this is what I need to do.” She wasn’t given her life with the animals. That life seems to have come to her, and she simply embraced it wholeheartedly and proceeded to pour all her time, money and talent into doing the task before her.

I love that everything she does seems to look easy;

YOU GET THE SENSE THAT SHE COULD QUIET A NOISY CROWD…JUST BY CLEARING HER THROAT.

the research, the speaking, the fundraising… When you see her she just looks quiet but powerful. You know she must be exhausted but she seems to have a connection to some limitless well that both guides her and feeds her. You get the sense that she could quiet a noisy crowd and get them to focus just by clearing her throat. “Excuse me,” she might say. “I need to go save the world for the next generation. Could I have tea and biscuits to go?”

PURPOSE: A Wayside Wildflower

by Ellen Linza

Age 54. Aldie, VA

Have you ever wondered how it is that a single magnificent tree or wayside wildflower so effortlessly fulfills its mission

Truly good people reflect the inner light you spoke of encountering because they believe in goodness as life itself and connect with it.  They are attracted to the loving presence in all living things and have great empathy and compassion.  They seek out natural beauty and find much wisdom in nature.

Have you ever wondered how it is that a single magnificent tree or wayside wildflower so effortlessly fulfills its mission – its divine life purpose – so perfectly and joyously?  Seek out the goodness in the world and you will find it reflected in the myriad of living things all around you.  Gain hope from natural beauty and try to replicate the profound simplicity of radiating the love of goodness in each moment of awareness.

 

PURPOSE: The Basics of Geometry

by Carolyn Mahaffey

Age 69. Midland, MI

Before class, I sometimes would sit in the chair of a student who was having a lot of trouble and pray that I might be a blessing to him that day. 

The smell of the chalkboard has always thrilled me.  I never minded the mess from the  copy machine. Before class, I sometimes would sit in the chair of a student who was having a lot of trouble and pray that I might be a blessing to him that day.  Yes, for 37 years I was a teacher, the last 25 as a high school special education teacher.  That was my purpose, that was my calling.  It was enough, it was challenging, and of course there never was a dull day.

But now I am retired and I am adrift.  What is my purpose now? I struggle with it every day.  When I was teaching I would bound out of bed 6:15 every morning.  Now I wake early, but stay under the covers, filled with a world’s worth of anxiety.

It might have been better had I died why trying to teach students with learning disabilities the basics of geometry.

 

PURPOSE: On October 11, 1995 My Daughter Was Born

by Scott Addington

Age 54. Fort Collins, CO

I began an earnest search for purpose at age 18, when I dropped out of college (I wasn’t finding my purpose there!) and spent the next thirteen years drifting. I moved to Wyoming and then to California, played music, lived in a tent, started an organic vegetable farm and lived a minimalist life. During this time I also looked inside books, hoping an author could explain purpose to me.

As is often the case, my purpose became clearly evident after I had stopped looking for it.


As is often the case, my purpose became clearly evident after I had stopped looking for it. On October 11, 1995 my daughter was born. Beginning with that moment, there has never been the slightest doubt regarding the purpose and source of meaning in my life. Being a father is the most meaningful and rewarding pursuit a man could ever hope to experience. Perhaps that is built into our survival as a species – that our greatest purpose can be found in the very act that perpetuates our existence.