The Road to Character Blog

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PURPOSE: Chaos Starts in My Head

by Alina Winter

Age 22. Germany

I feel like as soon as I want to define myself or my purpose in this world, chaos starts in my head and no possible answer would forever perfectly define my personality or purpose.

Sometimes I wonder whether I’m a phoney, cause I’m so many personalities at once…


Sometimes I wonder whether I’m a phoney, cause I’m so many personalities at once… I can be shy, outgoing, thoughtful, reckless… different groups of friends through different parts of my life would draw my picture completely differently. Which is weird. But then I don’t want to and I don’t see a reason to define a character or purpose for myself. This would limit me. This would mean I’m done, I’ve figured it out. Instead I wanna keep my mind open and be inspired by always changing thoughts and ideas… One day I’m in love with Nietzsches Geneology of Morality, another day I’m going for Kants perpetual peace. And another day I hate the idea of thought and intellectual occupation. I don’t express my ideals as other do, cause I know that probably they are just a phase. I don’t wanna restrict myself to just one idea, or the world to just one meaning.

But then I don’t want to and I don’t see a reason to define a character or purpose for myself. This would limit me. This would mean I’m done, I’ve figured it out.


To some people I might appear empty, without opinion or passion… the truth is, I have too much of it. Sometimes it makes me feel lost and confused not having defined myself and instead I feel myself being defined by other people in so many wrong, too simple ways. And sometimes I’m envious of some of my friends who already seem to have arrived, selling their character traits and telling each other, “that’s so you!” But then I don’t wanna be stuck to a role, not just yet? Maybe I could say that, following my instant emotions and desires, has brought me many magical moments, but also alot of trouble. But I’m less afraid of trouble than I am of losing my impulsive self and becoming too reasonable and self-restrictive with age.

 

PURPOSE: I Wonder If I Can Do It

by Howard Handlen

Age 85. Jekyll Island, GA

In a short story by Somerset Maugham, entitled SALVATORE, the author writes about a simple fisherman who lives on the Italian island of Ischia. Maugham begins by saying, “I wonder if I can do it.” He goes on in just a few pages to recount the life Salvatore had.

It was one with constant disappointments; he had to spend a wretched time in the king’s navy, ever longing for the island home he loved so. He fell ill to chronic rheumatism in China and was invalided out of the navy. Arriving home his sweetheart tells him she cannot marry him, as his family thinks him in too humble circumstances and she herself will not marry a man who would never be strong enough to work like a man. Though his life is shot through with misfortune, he never complains; he never blames anybody for anything.

In young manhood Maugham describes him as “a fellow … still with that ingenuous smile and those trusting, kindly eyes that he had as a boy. He had the most beautiful manners I have ever seen in my life.” Maugham concludes by saying “I started by saying that I wondered if I can do it and now I must tell you what it is I have tried to do. I wanted to see if I could hold your attention for a few pages while I drew for you the portrait of a man, just an ordinary fisherman, who possessed nothing in the world except a quality that is the rarest, the most precious and the loveliest that anyone can have. Heaven only knows why he should have so strangely possessed it. All I know is that it shone in him with a radiance that, if it had not been so unconscious and so humble, would have been to the common run of men hardly bearable. And in case you have not guessed what the quality was, I will tell you. Goodness, just goodness.”

The road to high good character is paved with acts of goodness.

Who can say that Maugham was wrong? The road to high good character is paved with acts of goodness. In my life I came early to understand that a life well lived cannot be without just plain goodness. Such a life hinges on adhering to the the moral rights and wrongs I learned from my parents, the moral constraints and philosophical reasoning taught by my teachers, and not least the observation that came late to me that the truly happy people in this world were those who owned that precious goodness Maugham spoke of in its many manifestations, irrespective of social place and standing.

every right carries with it a corresponding responsibility

The moral principle that ran through all these things was this: every right carries with it a corresponding responsibility; every right is conditional. I cannot think of one that is not. Means and ends are always joined; when they are forced apart, nature is aggrieved, as, for example, it is in our time when sex is contrived to be irrelevant to, and separate from, its self evident purpose universally demonstrated in all of biological nature.

Some famous people have noted the inseparability of rights and responsibilities, means and ends: Justice Holmes famously asked, “Does one have the right to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater (when there is no fire)?” Justice Potter Stuart put it this way: “It’s not so much whether one has the right to do something, as it is whether the something is the right thing to do.” The Catholic prelate Fulton Sheen actually offered a definition of the concept ‘freedom.’ He said that there were three versions of human freedom abroad in the world: one had it that freedom is the right to do as you please (in western societies) or that it is the right to do as you must (in totalitarian societies), and finally the true definition, the right to do as you ought. In the moral order, he argued, rights and wrongs are not subject to the democratic whim of the voters. “In the moral order right is right if nobody (none of the voters) is right, and wrong is wrong is wrong if everybody (all of the voters) is wrong.” He added that legality does not always mean morally right.

the essential purpose of life is to know what really matters and what really does not, and do them however inconvenient they may be.

The separation of rights from their constraints in societies is in my view the basic cause of the anxiety and unrest in its members. Indeed the most often words heard in public speech are ‘rights’ and ‘freedom.’ But I have not heard anybody define these words. We hear then shouted in every public forum; and not just shouted; we demand them as we we march in the street. The Founding Fathers acknowledged them, especially in the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. The Fathers certainly knew that such rights did not come without conditions, but they did not make a Bill of Responsibilities. Nobody asked for it then and nobody shouts or marches now demanding responsibilities.

I regret to say that I have not always acted out these convictions; I simply know that no life really worth living is possible without understanding this simply. I am a very old party now but I can attest to the wisdom of all the people who told me, in word and deed, that the essential purpose of life is to know what really matters and what really does not, and do them however inconvenient they may be.

 

 

PURPOSE: But I Am Interested in Love

by Alayne Crossman

Age 42. Ottawa, Ontario

I have always felt somewhat inadequate in that I have never had big ambitions career-wise. But what I am interested in is love. I am keenly interested in learning how to love people as fully as possible, with openness and with vulnerability. This is a scary endeavor because it does open you up to all kinds of potential hurt and heartache. However, it may also save you. How does one love with no strings attached or is that even possible?

But what I am interested in is love.

I am very lucky in that I was born into a family so full of love that it cannot be contained or toned down. We are protective of each other. I do not want my sisters, my mother nor my children to get hurt and yet, isn’t that limiting their experiences? Part of being human is risk-taking and when we risk by loving others, it is joyful but it also opens us up to sadness. When someone we love hurts, we hurt too.

Without the love of my family I wouldn’t be who I am today. It means I cry during “Frozen”, every single time. It means I cry when I listen to Van Morrison’s “Ancient Highway.” I am ridiculously sentimental because I chose to remain open to this vast, messy thing we call life. I would be doing a disservice to life if I closed myself off in an effort to fend off the pain of being human.

I am ridiculously sentimental because I chose to remain open to this vast, messy thing we call life.

I am moved by the tender moments of my life such as my daughter singing “Hey Ho” to me over Skype when I was away from her this week. I am moved by my nephew’s first grade “graduation” when he stood up in front of the whole class to get his High Flyin’ Friend award; he was so proud that his mum (my wonderful sister), his grandmother (my wonderful mother) and his auntie were there to witness this seemingly miniscule but meaningful event in his young life.

I don’t deny that being loving when it is combined with a lot of passion has its drawbacks. It means I left a marriage because I was unhappy in it. But it also means that I haven’t become bitter or cynical about love. I refuse to be bitter. It may seem the opposite of love to leave a marriage but it was the right choice for me and because it was the hardest decision I ever had to make, I will never judge any other person who gets separated or divorced. Love is liberating in that it forces you to think for yourself about the particular ethics of a situation. It can mean that you withhold judgment or even opinion on a subject if you care about that person and try to see things from their perspective.

But it also means that I haven’t become bitter or cynical about love. I refuse to be bitter.

I think choosing to love people means you value the ordinary moments a little bit more. In fact, it means that you consider ordinary moments to be sacred. It means you try to live in the moment a bit more by listening to others and by trying to love someone in the way in which they need you to love them.

Needless to say, learning to love whole-heartedly and fully is a life-long journey, and it is one that I intend to continue to explore in my life.

PURPOSE: PREPARE, HELP, UNDERSTAND, PRACTICE

by Lyle Nelson

Age 80. St. Paul, MI

In response to your complicated question “do you think you have found the purpose to your life” I must qualify my answer by saying my purpose in life has changed as I’ve progressed through the aging process.  I’m currently 80 years old with a life expectancy of 8.8 years.

At this time my purpose in life is to:

1.  Make preparation for death in an orderly and logical manner in all areas.

2.  Help my children(3) and grandchildren (4) to meet the vicissitudes of life.

3.  Help my 125 year old inner city church survive for the immediate future.

4.  Participate in politics at all levels in a relaxed manner.

5.  Write letters to the editor to comment on whatever issue that gets my attention.

6.  Maintain a small garden to experience the miracle of growing things.

7.  Eat breakfast periodically at the Salvation Army with 200 homeless people to get an understanding of basic survival.

8.  Practice philanthropy in the broadest sense.

I found my purpose in life by living day to day.

PURPOSE: “I Had Been My Whole Life A Bell”

by Hal Harber

Age 79. Tucson, AZ & Seattle, WA

Discovering that there is no meaning or ultimate purpose to my life was one of the most freeing, exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had.  A weight came off my shoulders, I rushed outside and saw the asphalt shimmering –asphalt! The trees were aflame, and I danced with joy. What a relief!

Without her presence I’d probably still be drinking scotch and playing golf at the country club.

For most of my life, until Labor Day weekend 1978, I had looked to authority figures, older people I thought were wise and books for guidance. I had read John Dewey’s pragmatism and knew I was responsible for the consequences of my acts.  In college I voraciously read everything I could by Harry Emerson Fosdick. When I got a divorce my first impulse was to try to figure out what went wrong. Not knowing then that one can’t “figure it out,” I read Lucretius On the Nature of Things. When I recall that now, my heart goes out to that young man. But it wasn’t until much later that I had a realization that Jean-Paul Sartre, like most thinkers, was caught in his mind – like the poet who said, “I’m a stranger and afraid in a world I never made.”

If it weren’t for our profoundly handicapped daughter who, though non-verbal, asked questions that I was unable to answer and forced me, inexorably like gravity to confront my own life – without her presence I’d probably still be drinking scotch and playing golf at the country club. Nobody I know willingly surrenders in defeat, but that’s what it took.

“I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until that moment I was lifted and struck.”

After having a direct inner experience of what is really true – not knowledge or more information from outside myself – I realized how trapped I’d been not knowing who and what I am. Understanding is the booby prize. In my experience feeling fulfilled has little to do with culture, much of which turns out to be a hindrance.  By nature I’m sort of a loner and Western individualism is my default position, but try as I might, I couldn’t do it alone. It took teachers, not to tell me but to guide me to my own inner experience.

Words can’t get me home. Words can only point the way. And poetic language has worked best for me. As close as I can come to describing my own experiences is to quote Annie Dillard who said, “I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until that moment I was lifted and struck.” As my wife says, “Until you see it, you don’t see it!” For me Goethe gets to the nub of it when he says,”…And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow, you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.”

After those transformative experiences I saw life as a great mystery and that my unconscious attempt to cover over my essence as love was the only way I knew to survive, so my ongoing task is, not to do things that I think will bring more love and joy into my life but to peal away my defenses that obscure what is, in fact, the love and joy that is already present.

“peace of mind” is an oxymoron. I can never find peace when I’m only in my mind.

My life probably looks to others as quite ordinary, but my inner life has changed and now whatever happens is simply grist for the mill. I realize I no longer have to search to quell a yearning for purpose or meaning because that yearning simply dropped away.

If I lose the feeling of being in a flow, I stop and clear my mind by changing my level of consciousness because I know that “peace of mind” is an oxymoron. I can never find peace when I’m only in my mind. Contrary to my Western culture, I now know that I’m not in charge.

PURPOSE: TEACHING, AND THEN WHAT?

by Bradley Stone

Age 47. Miami, FL

I stumbled into my purpose.  I was a moron with a moron’s GPA at the University of Florida; the only upper division college it seemed I might be able to gain admission to was the College of Education- and so, I became a teacher.

I ended up teaching middle school in urban Chicago for 20 years.  The only thing I’d known growing up

TEACHING INDEED MATTERED, SO MUCH THAT IT WAS DOWNRIGHT INTIMIDATING AT TIMES.

was that I wanted to do something that “mattered”; as it turned out, teaching indeed MATTERED, so much so that it was downright intimidating at times.  Every single day was important; every minute of every day was important.  The great majority of my students were English language learners and below-level readers.  They were brilliant, but needed work to be able to show it.  LOTS of work.  I would tell them that they were welcome to waste time once they’d graduated from college; until that point, they were to get busy.  And, very long story very short, it worked.  Those kids and I forged exceptional relationships and accomplished tremendous things- far more than I’d have guessed we’d be able to do.  Every single working day of my life was pure purpose:  doing vital things that vitally needed to be done well.  Every single day, my presence truly mattered.

So today I’m sending this note from behind a computer at my new job, doing paralegal work for my brother’s law firm.  A variety of office politics-type conflicts, some of my own making, others not, saw to it that I angered two successive principals and was forced out of education.  My purpose is gone with my career.  There’s nothing vital in this job; nothing important; nothing that MATTERS.  A day of “accomplishment” means billing a lot of hours.  Whether or not I show up matters to my wallet, but that’s about it.

I’m tremendously thankful to have this job,

WHAT THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO DO NOW?

and I’m aware of how spoiled I had the luxury of becoming by having a career that brought me such a constant sense of purpose and satisfaction.  Those things said, however, I have to ask:  What the hell am I supposed to do now?

HERO: My Husband, Tom

by Neal Biggart

Age 72. El Cajon, CA

Tom, my husband of almost 50 years, is the kindest, but also the strongest person I know.  He could be anything, but chose to be an elementary school teacher at a time when a man who went into elementary teaching was thought of as probably not able to do much else.  How wrong!! He worked in the ghetto, and provided a strong role model to lots of boys without Dads.  We celebrated over the years as they went on to High School and College.  His other passion is plants. He is a well-known landscape gardener, an orchid grower, and ceramic potter.  He doesn’t seem to need approval to fulfill his needs and passions.  I admire him, and maybe more importantly, I rely on his strength and judgement.

PURPOSE: Soften the Journey

by Marge Clark

Age 73. Toledo, OH

Man has wrestled with the answer to the meaning of life forever and no one has come up with a definitive conclusion. Victor Frankel comes close in his, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” We usually end up with the “It’s a mystery” answer when confusion sets in.

 Scott Peck says, “Life is difficult.” I agree and get annoyed with the in vogue expression, “It’s all good” response to whatever happens. No, it is not all good!

 I am 73 years old, have 4 adult children (one is handicapped for whom I am still a full time caretaker of 48 years), 7 grandchildren and 8 greats. Setting aside not knowing the meaning of life, my purpose has been obvious to me. I fly under the radar of the mystery and try to not let it overwhelm me.

 I try to live my life being a companion for others as we travel the journey. There is enough pain and misery without my adding to it, so my efforts are to help alleviate or soften the difficulties as we travel together. The “we” is everyone who enters into my day.

I TRY TO LIVE MY LIFE BEING A COMPANION FOR OTHERS AS WE TRAVEL THE JOURNEY.

I often fail at this, but that is my purpose. I worked in a hospital for 25 years and plenty of opportunity to practice.

 Emerson says that a friend is one before whom I may think aloud. I have friends like that who help center me. Thomas Merton, Pema Chodron, Thomas a Kempis are authors who help me try to focus on the moment, to think not of myself, but the needs of others. I cling to their writings because wisdom and purpose can often be fleeting and it is easy to get weak and confused.

 Knowing ones purpose if not a one time eureka event, but a daily, moment to moment attempt to focus on our goal as we journey towards it. Sometimes that goal or purpose changes as we get closer to the mountain top. Fear, frustration, and anger can disrupt our endeavors.

KNOWING ONE’S PURPOSE IS NOT A ONE TIME EUREKA EVENT, BUT A DAILY, MOMENT TO MOMENT ATTEMPT TO FOCUS ON OUR GOAL AS WE JOURNEY TOWARDS IT.

We are forever trying to get back up on that balance beam and it is difficult to do it alone. We all need a “coach” to teach us whether it be a friend, an author, a family member or our faith. Sometime we just need to jump off that balance beam and go hide under the covers until the energy and motivation return

 Plato said, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Let your words heal not hurt.” When I can focus on that, I find fulfilling my purpose is easier and it gets my ego and self-absorption out of the way. Like anything in life, it takes practice, commitment, patience with failure, and trust that renewed motivation will keep returning when fatigue and apathy take over.

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.

HERO: Jim Abott’s Parents

by John Van Cleve

Age 58. Pittsburgh, PA

Jim Abott was a terrific pitcher for the NY Yankees and other teams. He even threw a no hitter for the Yanks in 1983. What makes him really remarkable is that he only had one arm. I read an article about him many years ago and his parents raised him to believe his disability didn’t need to stop him if he had the talent and worked hard enough. I have found it pretty darn challenging to raise my kids to have courage and self confidence. I can’t imagine doing that with a disabled child. Those parents are my heroes.