Follow your passion. Stay true to yourself. Never follow someone else’s path unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path. By all means, you should follow that.-Ellen DeGeneres
There are two things I think everyone can benefit from right about now: dog pictures and comic relief. Or even better, in the immortal words of Joey from Friends: “Put your hands together.” I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure at least 50% of my ability to stay sane right now is thanks to the funny or adorable animal videos on my Instagram feed.
For my own contribution, I present you with a few recent photos of my miniature schnauzer mix, Arthur. And to be completely honest, I had to be selective in picking only six photos of him from this past month–an embarrassing number of others didn’t make the cut.
There are people and some religions that would have you believe dogs, or any animal for that matter, do not have a soul. Though I prefer not to dignify that statement with a response, I will say that just this morning when I walked by my dog and yawned, he yawned in return. I think we all have consumed enough documentaries, pop psychology, and Criminal Minds to know that when you yawn after seeing someone else yawn, it’s a subconscious show of empathy. I’m sure there’s at least one CSI-type show where the suspect didn’t yawn, and the investigators used that to determine he was a sociopath. If my dog doesn’t have a soul, then how do you explain his empathetic yawn, huh? But I digress…
Aside from showing off like a true proud dog-mom, I wanted to share with you one of the funniest things in my life: Arthur. He’s a little clown of a dog–a small, strange creature whose eyebrows and beard grow much faster than the rest of his fur, and whose legs are much too long for his body. Our best guess at his mix is miniature schnauzer and miniature pinscher (or “schnau-pin,” as we like to say), but I think my grandmother’s husband says it best: “That dog looks like he was made by committee!”
We adopted Arthur from the Humane Society when he was about a year old (the best they could tell from his teeth), after he was transferred to our local shelter from Polk County, Florida. For those of you not as familiar with Florida geography and local news, Polk County is the home of Sheriff Grady Judd. This was the sheriff who, when asked why the cause of death was listed as “natural causes” for a cop-killer who was shot 68 times, replied, “When you are shot 68 times, you are naturally gonna die.”
An X-ray early on revealed that Arthur, too, had been shot before. He had a pellet from a bb gun lodged into one of his hindquarters, but fortunately, it didn’t cause him any longterm issues. Although we didn’t have any other information on his background, we could safely assume Arthur came from tougher conditions.
When we first met him, Arthur was somewhat standoffish (especially with men), malnourished, and his long, unkempt fur was saturated with dirt. The people at the shelter had given him the name “Schultz,” I suppose because schnauzers originated in Germany. When we first met him, “Schultz” was a sorry sight, indeed.
Bony, shaggy Schultz could never have known at the time what his future would hold as Arthur. Not only would be become a beloved only dog-child with three beds, more than a dozen of “his favorite” kind of toys, and endless food and treats, he also would be the star of our house. His jumps and twirls when we come home, his funny muppet faces, and his odd preference to spend a few hours a day by himself underneath the guest bed provide us with more joy and laughter than we could have hoped for when we adopted him. Ragged little Schultz from Polk County likely never expected to play this starring role and be so well-loved for it (if dogs can “expect” anything that tangential, anyway).
Now that I’ve gushed more than enough about the hairy comedian in my home, I think it’s time to introduce this week’s example of a purpose-driven life: Ellen DeGeneres. Ellen brings more positivity and laughter into the world than almost anyone else, but like my dog, it certainly wasn’t always easy or clear to her that this would be her path. Let’s see what we can learn from her fight to find her purpose, shall we?
We all know Ellen as a hugely successful TV host, comedian, and actress, but her start and the road that brought her where she is today were fraught with obstacles and traumatic experiences. By the time we all started watching Ellen dance over to her couch to interview celebrities that clearly adore her, or make us all cry by helping a family in need, we might not have guessed that the woman who tells us to “be kind to one another” did not receive much kindness during certain periods in her life.
Ellen was born in Metairie, Louisiana and grew up in a relatively normal family. However, her parents divorced when she was a teenager, and her mother remarried soon after to man who molested Ellen when she was 15 or 16 years old. When she told her mother about it a few years later, her mother did not believe Ellen and stayed with the man for an additional 18 years. As tragic as this is, it’s only the first traumatic experience along Ellen’s road to becoming the joy-bringer she is today.
After high school, Ellen completed one semester of college at the University of New Orleans before dropping out and working a string of random jobs, including administrative employee for a law firm, retail associate for J.C. Penney, waitress at TGI Fridays, house painter, hostess, and bartender. She wasn’t working these jobs while performing stand up; this seemed to be a time when she was lost, trying on different hats while making ends meet.
Then, when Ellen was 20 years old, her girlfriend died in a car accident. They were living together, and after her death, Ellen could only afford to move into a basement apartment in New Orleans that was “infested with fleas” where she was “sleeping on a mattress on the floor.” She wasn’t working in comedy yet, but she was writing in her spare time. Her writing about that experience, namely wishing she could call God to ask him why her girlfriend was gone and why there were fleas there instead, ended up being the basis for the stand up she later performed for Johnny Carson.
After writing that material, Ellen slowly started gaining experience in stand up, performing in coffee shops and small clubs. Although stand up was the most logical way to start a career in comedy, Ellen didn’t particularly love it. She has said, “I didn’t go searching for it; I didn’t go, ‘How can I get on stage?'” Her purpose of bringing laugher to the world was just beginning to show itself, but the original modality wasn’t necessarily something she felt called to do.
While I was doing stand-up, I thought I knew for sure that success meant getting everyone to like me. So I became whoever I thought people wanted me to be. I’d say yes when I wanted to say no, and I even wore a few dresses.-Ellen
After building her career and touring comedy clubs across the country, Ellen performed the aforementioned set on the Tonight Show, where she was the first female comedian to be called over to Johnny’s couch. This led to national exposure and new career opportunities for which any comedian would have given his left arm. From there, she began acting in different TV shows and ultimately got her own sitcom, Ellen.
Referred to as the “female Seinfeld,” Ellen was widely-viewed during its run, but in 1998 it all came crashing down when Ellen came out as gay both personally and on the show. The NBC executives did not want her to come out, but Ellen felt she needed to in order to be her true self, and she bravely proceeded without their support. The episode where she came out was hugely successful, but then NBC stopped promoting the show and essentially let it die on the vine, leaving Ellen out to dry.
After the show was cancelled, Ellen became the butt of late-night jokes and an untouchable in the entertainment industry, with no agent and no prospects. Even those in the LGBTQ community like Elton John were unsupportive of her during this time. With only a small amount of money saved (even at the height of Ellen she made a fraction of what her male peers earned) and no opportunities to prove she was more than just a platform personified, Ellen became depressed. She was out of the public eye and out of work for three years. After realizing the only way out was going back to basics, she began writing and touring again, but this time to mostly gay audiences.
Then came the perfect vehicle for Ellen to live her dharma of bringing joy to others. The Ellen DeGeneres Show premiered in 2003, transforming her life and the daytime talk show landscape. With her show, Ellen brought positivity, laughter, and dancing into living rooms across the country. She used her unique sense of humor and obvious penchant for personal connection, both with celebrities and the audience, to make joy radiate through the TV screen into your home.
So, my question is: how could someone who has suffered such tragedy, rejection, and personal and professional hardship turn all of those experiences into a purpose-driven life based on the exact opposite principal: that the world is a kind, loving place where human beings treat each other with respect and empathy?
Perhaps Ellen explained it for us best: “Instead of saying my career and my money is more important, I realized that actually making a difference in the world and just being honest about who you are, whether it’s that you’ve been molested or whether it’s that you’re gay, or whatever it is, because whatever your secret is, there are lots of other people out there [with] that same secret.”
From this, I think that the best lesson I can glean from Ellen’s purpose-driven life is that you are more likely to find your purpose when you are living as your most honest, vulnerable self. If you share my goal of fighting to find your purpose, then it seems placing more value on money or prestige or other conventional forms of success will not help us get closer to winning that fight.
Find out who you are and be that person. That’s what your soul was put on this Earth to be. Find that truth, live that truth, and everything else will come.-Ellen
And who knows? Maybe by living a life more aligned with our true selves, we can also experience those traditional fruits of success that Ellen has clearly received. Although Ellen’s message is that money became less important the closer she came to living her dharma, she also reportedly earned close to $90 million in 2018 (!).
Either way, I am grateful for Ellen right now. Not only for the example she gives us to follow as a woman courageous enough to put everything on the line to fight for her purpose and to live as her authentic self, but also for the hilarious videos of her interviewing celebrity friends via FaceTime during this period of social isolation.
Even if you’re not currently fighting to find your purpose, let’s all take a page from Ellen’s book and see how we can find a way to bring joy to others during this crazy time. From the face and tail wagging he’s giving me right now, I know Arthur is fully committed.
How about you?