“It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.”-Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
What do you see when you look at this picture? A beautiful sunrise peeking over the top of a thick line of low-lying clouds? The mesmerizing reflection of a piercingly bright sun streaking across the surface of the glassy water? Perhaps the pleasing juxtaposition of the ruddy, white-gray columns against the picturesque marine background? Or maybe you’re just thinking, “Eh, it looks like a basic Instagram photo.” No matter the answer, you wouldn’t be wrong.
But if you said any of those, you might have missed the one thing that made me feel as though I had to take this photo during a morning run this week.
If you look more closely, you’ll see this: a small, scared creature curled up into a tight ball, hiding in the corner of the balcony. The creature in question? A rat. One of the most detested, unwanted rodents on Earth. Just ask my husband, who still has nightmares about the rats that got into our attic a few years ago.
Why is this rat important? It isn’t, really. But when I saw this poor rat, curled up and shivering, terrified for its life in spite of its idyllic surroundings, I could only feel one thing: empathy. For even though the rat was in what most would consider an ideal place, a scenic path along the water during a glorious sunrise, it could only see concrete and bars. It was distressed, despite the fact that by all measures it had no reason to be. This realization made me feel a strange kinship with the rat, one that would most certainly mortify my husband.
What does this have to do with fighting to find your purpose? I’m glad you asked.
Although there’s no way to verify this, I have a sneaking suspicion our dharma heroine this week also felt this way at one time or another during her short life. For International Women’s Day (and my birthday), I chose to examine the life of my favorite author, Jane Austen.
When I think about Jane Austen, I think about her exquisite novels (Emma, Persuasion, and Pride and Prejudice are my personal favorites), I think about her powerful female protagonists who know and speak their minds and guide their own destinies, and I think about her indisputable legacy in literature. In my humble opinion, Austen is the best writer of all time. Her works still stand out as masterpieces of literary magnificence; the subtle plot twists, well-developed characters, and intelligent narration take you to another world and elicit tears of heartbreak and laughter. In short, I have always thought of Austen as a successful author whose life immaculately mirrored that of her own heroines: undoubtedly difficult because of the time period in which she lived, but ultimately enviably intentional and purpose-driven.
In looking deeper into Austen’s life story, I discovered that just like with my picture of the sunrise, her life wasn’t exactly what I assumed it to be, either.
Throughout her life, Austen’s family did appear to support her desire to write professionally, despite it being unconventional for a woman at that time. She wrote poems and short stories before reaching her teens, and Austen finished writing her first full-length novel before she was 20.
This is about the time I usually stop reading a biography, because I can’t relate to this experience. Austen knew what she wanted from a young age and received all of the encouragement necessary to pursue that path successfully, right? Well, not exactly.
In 1801 when Austen was in her mid-twenties, her father unexpectedly quit his job in the English countryside and moved their family to Bath, a larger, more populous town. By many accounts, Austen was shocked and dismayed at being plucked from the only home she had known and forced to move dozens of miles away. Although scholars have differing opinions on the cause, most presume that Austen did not write in those first few years in Bath. Even if she did, it certainly wasn’t in the fired-up way she had previously.
While some suggest this was because she was so enmeshed in the lively social scene in Bath and didn’t have the time to write (under this theory, the only reason she was so proliferative up to that point was due to boredom in the country…), I tend to think the alternative explanation makes more sense: Austen was deeply depressed about her life being upended against her will, and as a result, she lost her passion for writing, which we know in hindsight to be without question her life’s purpose.
Austen lived in a place that, while seemingly contemptible to her, was historically known to be a preferred destination for travel and a desirable place to live, especially for young unwed women. While in Bath, Austen also received, accepted, and then reneged on a proposal from a well-educated, land-rich man. Instead of being inspired by the circumstances that would have considered ideal, or at least using them as fodder for her writing, she was forlorn and lost. Rather than finding solace in her purpose as a writer, she turned away from it. Austen was the proverbial rat in the corner of what appeared to be the perfect conditions for her to pursue her dharma.
So, what can you and I learn from Jane Austen’s life story, aside from the motivating notion that she persevered and wrote some of her greatest works after facing this setback? No one, not even Jane Austen, is always 100% passionate about their purpose, even when it seems like everything is perfectly aligned. I don’t know about you, but that thought is pretty comforting to me.
When you’re like me and you didn’t get it right the first time (or second, third, or fourth time), you inevitably start to doubt yourself. Right now, I honestly don’t completely trust my own judgment about what my purpose is (thus the study in people who managed to get it right). As a result, it feels even more consequential when I’m not in the mood to do the thing I think I’m meant to do. I think, “If I don’t want to write today, does this mean I’m off track again?” I don’t know about you, but I’ve been tormenting myself with these kinds of thoughts, terrified of getting it wrong again.
But thanks to Austen, I know that those feelings don’t necessarily mean I’ve gone astray. You and I can take solace in knowing that our times of self-doubt or discouragement might just be our own version of Austen’s years in Bath: minor impediments on the long journey to finding our true purpose; moments that no one will remember when we reach our intended destination.
Oh, and on the way home from my run, that little rat was no longer huddling in the corner of the balcony. It had found the courage to keep moving, too.