Searching For Signs in the World

“Some day, when I have grown sufficiently, I shall attain that which I am destined to attain.”

-Rudolf Steiner

I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely one of those insufferable people who is always looking for signs from the universe/God/whatever, especially when making a big decision or when dealing with some kind of hardship.

Even before before my existential crisis hit, I was constantly searching for something, anything, to validate my choices or infuse me with hope that the answer to my problem lay just on the horizon. Whether it’s noticing a particularly striking butterfly float by, hearing the same obscure person or thing mentioned in different mediums over a short period of time, or even seeing changes in the plants in my home, I tend to read into things a lot.

This week, the sign I convinced myself meant something more came in the form of an aquatic animal: the stingray. First, I saw a few solo rays flying through the clear-blue waters of the gulf, and a few days later, I noticed the tips of stingray wings piercing the decidedly dirtier, gray-green surface of the bay as a few small groups of four or five coasted along the still water beside my running path.

Now, I know what you might be thinking: “You live in Florida. Of course you’re going to see stingrays!” And while my mind would agree with you unequivocally, something else inside of me, something incredibly stubborn, resists that analysis and clings to the absurd idea that those stingrays must bear some greater significance. It’s completely irrational and totally ridiculous, but I think that paradoxically might be why part of me isn’t willing to let it go.

After receiving a “sign” like the stingrays, I immediately investigate the potential significance. (Although my mind knows logically this is an exercise in futility, it can’t help itself but join in to show off its research skills.)

In this case, seeing a stingray apparently means that you have everything you need in place to move forward towards your goal. As one “spirit animal” website explains, “Stingray symbolism is asking you to stay on course and keep moving forward. Henceforth, you must not allow distractions or drama to sway you from your journey. Protect your path if you need to.”

A good kick in the pants? Sure, it could be. But when you have multiple tentacles stretching out in different directions in an effort to figure which option will ultimately allow you to pursue your passion AND earn a living, the explanation doesn’t quite solve the current dilemma.

Perhaps a story from Glennon Doyle can shed some light on this whole charade of mine. One day, her eldest son and his co-ed friend group were at her home playing video games when Glennon came into the room and asked if anyone wanted a snack. The boys all answered with an emphatic, “Yeah!” without hesitating. The girls, however, all looked at each other before one girl whom was silently appointed the speaker answered, “No thank you. We’re fine.” In Glennon’s view, it was as though each girl could not even decide whether she wanted a snack without receiving confirmation from her cohorts that it was the right decision.

Are those of us who search for signs in the world acting the same way as those girls–constantly looking to the universe for validation instead of looking to ourselves? Are we that untrusting of our own instincts that we need the sage guidance from spiritanimal.com to feel okay about our path? Or, are we actually receiving messages from some other realm or being or divine architect as to the next right step in our journey?

Like the boys in Glennon Doyle’s story, my dog Arthur has no problem expressing his feelings about our new hobby. As you can see, he never feels the need to mask his indifference.

Alas, we may never have definitive answers to these questions (and perhaps that’s preferable). However, there have been many people throughout history who found their calling in pondering these and life’s other more tangential questions, including the man whose purpose-driven life we will examine this week.

Rudolf Steiner was a philosopher, architect, writer, social reformer, playwright, esotericist (whatever that means), and self-proclaimed clairvoyant. In addition to founding a new spiritual philosophy, Rudolf Steiner created the Waldorf School model, invented biodynamic farming, and designed 17 buildings, three of which are still considered among the most significant works of modern architecture. What can we learn from Steiner’s life and his fight to find his purpose? Let’s take a look.

Steiner c. 1905

Rudolf Steiner was born in 1861 under the the Austrian Empire in an area that is now part of Croatia. When he was nine years old, Steiner had his first experience with a realm beyond the physical world. He reported seeing the spirit of an aunt asking him for help, though neither Steiner nor his parents were aware that this aunt had already passed away. This and other supernatural experiences in his youth convinced Steiner he was clairvoyant, or someone who can perceive things or actions beyond sensory or physical contact.

When he was 18 years old, Steiner received an academic scholarship to the Vienna Institute of Technology, where he studied mathematics, chemistry, botany, physics, zoology, and mineralogy, and audited classes in literature and philosophy. Like others we have examined, Steiner also left the university without completing a degree.

Steiner’s Secondary School Graduation Photo

After leaving college, Steiner fortuitously received an offer to serve as an editor of a collection of works by Goethe, an icon of German literature. A professor had recommended him for the role, even though Steiner hadn’t technically completed a single university course in literature. Even in the late 1800s, it was astounding that someone as young, inexperienced, and formally uneducated as Steiner would receive such a position. Seemingly, he was already receiving otherworldly assistance in his fight.

At 23, Steiner became an editor in the Goethe archives in Weimar, Germany. He stayed at the archive for eight years, during which time he wrote two books on Goethe philosophy. After that, Steiner returned to school and did receive a degree: a doctorate in philosophy. Two years later, he published another book, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, which would later become the basis for his new spiritual philosophy.

Steiner at 21 years of age

Although in hindsight it seems obvious that Steiner’s calling would relate to philosophy, at this point he still struggled to determine exactly what his calling would ultimately be. At 36, he moved to Berlin to write and edit a literary magazine, but that was a short-lived, unsuccessful experiment. At 38, he published another article on Goethe that attracted the attention of members of the Theosophical Society, a group that believed in the philosophical/quasi-religious movement of theosophy. Another seemingly serendipitous event–the members reading his article–led Steiner to become involved in the Society.

Steiner with the leader of the Theosophical Society

Steiner eventually broke off from that society and created his own spiritual philosophy: Anthroposophy (I still am not sure how you pronounce this after reading it at least 50 times). Regardless, this new philosophy apparently had a more Western take on spirituality, and it was based on the notion that there is a distinct spiritual world humans can experience.

Steiner created his own Anthroposophical Society, and he designed a building, called the Goetheanum, for their annual conferences and theatrical performances. Although he had no formal training in architecture, Steiner’s second Goetheanum (the first burned down) was innovative in its use of visible concrete, has been called a “true masterpiece of 20th-century expressionist architecture” by art critics, and is still considered a Swiss national monument to this day.

The Second Goetheanum
Source: Creative Commons

As a result of his spiritual philosophy and public lectures, Steiner became well-known in the sociopolitical sphere. His opinions were considered controversial, drawing negative attention from world leaders, including Adolph Hitler. After the first World War, Steiner was vocal in his belief that separating the economic, political, and cultural realms could prevent future strife, and he also opposed Woodrow Wilson’s plan to divide Europe according to ethnic groups on the belief that it would lead to extreme nationalism.

During this time, Steiner accomplished astonishing feats as he relentlessly pursued his life’s purpose of using philosophy and invention to help others experience the world in a new way.

The Waldorf School model, which is now practiced in over 1,000 schools worldwide, is based on an education lecture that Steiner gave at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. Children at these schools receive more holistic education than traditional schooling, as there is an emphasis on developing their artistic abilities and imagination in addition to their intellectual skills.

The Waldorf school in Verrières-le-Buisson, France
Source: Creative Commons

Steiner also invented biodynamic farming, the technique Molly and John Chester use in the Biggest Little Farm documentary. In 1924, a group of farmers sought out Steiner to help save the future of farming, and he created a series of lectures on sustainable, eco-friendly practices. Through those lectures, he challenged the farmers to think differently about their land by treating the farm as a living organism that can be self-managed without pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Again, Steiner had no formal training in educational practices or farming, yet his application of philosophy to these areas resulted in innovations that are still being used today.

Steiner’s notoriety eventually made him a target for Hitler and the Nazi Party, which was gaining influence in post-WWI Germany. After speaking out about the terrible potential consequences if the Nazi Party were to come to power, Steiner narrowly escaped an attempted attack during one of his lectures. By that time, he was already showing signs of serious illness, but he continued to lecture over the next few years until he passed away in 1925 at the age of 64.

“Man is already weak at the moment he searches for laws and rules according to which he shall think and act. Out of his own being the strong individual controls his way of thinking and doing.”

-Steiner

Based on his philosophy and lectures, I have to think that Rudolf Steiner wouldn’t scoff at the idea that the world gives us signs we are on the right path. In addition to believing in another realm outside of the physical reality we can touch and feel, Steiner’s journey contained many instances where following the crumbs left for him led to incredible results.

As a 21-year-old college dropout, Steiner received a position which which he was severely unqualified because the door had been opened for him. Walking through that door led to him to discover his passion for philosophy, and it allowed him to see that he did not need to be an expert to make an impact. Later on, his chance encounter with the members of the Theosophical Society brought him closer to his purpose and enabled him to believe that he could create his own spiritual philosophy. And when other opportunities arose for him to use his training and ideology, Steiner took them and made an indelible mark on multiple fields in the process.

Steiner c. 1900

So, other than finding validation for my questionable tendency to look for signs everywhere I go, what is the biggest lesson we can learn from Rudolf Steiner’s fight to find his purpose? The most salient takeaway I see in his journey is that you don’t necessarily need to have the advanced degree, the 10,000 hours, or the 20 years of experience in something for it to be your ultimate purpose. [Disclaimer: this doesn’t mean you don’t need a medical degree, etc. if your purpose is to be a doctor, or anything along those lines…]

It’s true that Steiner’s experience and background in philosophy were invaluable tools in his fight to find his purpose. However, can you tell me how an advanced degree in philosophy would enable someone to design buildings of the highest artistic and structural order? And even though his training certainly influenced his thought process, I doubt that philosophical education in and of itself would make someone believe that he can transform an industry in which he has no experience. Instead, I think it was Steiner’s belief in himself that allowed him to accomplish these and other incredible feats.

“If we do not believe within ourselves this deeply rooted feeling that there is something higher than ourselves, we shall never find the strength to evolve into something higher.”

-Steiner

So, in the end, I think we also need to have supreme faith in ourselves to find and fulfill our purpose. I suspect this unfortunately will require us to truly love ourselves and our unique gifts and flaws, whatever they may be.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m somehow able to get myself there, I have a sneaking suspicion I will still be on the lookout for those metaphysical signs from beyond the rational world. Even if those signs are just a product of stingray mating season.

When Envy is a Good Thing

The moment after we don’t know what to do with ourselves is the moment we find ourselves. Right after itchy boredom is self-discovery. But we have to hang in there long enough without bailing.

-Glennon Doyle

After becoming a little, well, tired of the route we usually take for my dog Arthur’s twice-daily walks, I recently began taking him on the golf course near our home. I’m fairly certain we’re technically trespassing, but in my defense, I only crossed the flimsy rope fence after I saw some elderly walkers doing the same. Plus, I’m banking on the authorities being a little too preoccupied right now to worry about us sneaking onto the cart path before sunrise.

Aside from the change of scenery, walking on the golf course opened up a whole new world of sights (and for Arthur, smells) that we hadn’t explored before. It’s a private club, so the closest we ever came to it pre-COVID was walking by one of the holes adjacent to the road. Shamefully, I took a little too much pleasure in seeing Arthur lift a leg on the bushes lining the course back then.

But today is a new day, and during a global pandemic, scruffy dogs and un-showered, unkempt women can freely traverse what was once reserved only for the upper crust. Along with the +70 crowd, anyway, but they could always trespass wherever they wanted by pleading ignorance, right?

Unsurprisingly, I was taken by the live oaks, cedars, and other trees dotting the course between fairways.

Walking along vivid green carpets of closely shorn grass, I also got a new perspective of the homes lining the course. Most of them are palatial monsters adorned with fine architectural features, surrounded by pristine landscaping and crystalline pools. One even has its own pond with a fountain spraying majestically in the backyard. For whose benefit? Seemingly only the golfers, groundskeepers, and trespassers like Arthur and me, because I didn’t see any signs of life inside or outside the grand home.

Typically, seeing this kind of estate makes me feel a particular way, especially when it always appears to be empty (and there are a decent number of these in Florida). Just like the phases I go through during major life changes, my reaction to this sort of opulence follows a similar pattern each time.

First, I am in awe of the objective beauty of the home and the excellent taste of the homeowner (assuming it’s an understated sort of audaciousness). Then, I feel annoyed and/or angry about the fact that such a massive, picturesque place sits largely idle and unused. Finally, I snap out of it when it dawns on me (each and every time) that my anger is not based on some wealthy homeowner’s offensive lifestyle; it’s simply a product of something inside of me, something generally considered an odious emotion: envy.

Once I reach this realization, I can usually let go of those feelings and return to enjoying my surroundings. And during this time of self-isolation, I’ve been very happy to find that when I see a huge home with obvious signs of life, I don’t feel this way at all. I don’t know about you, but for me it has been strangely comforting to know that even those who seem to have everything–celebrities, athletes, and run-of-the-mill mansion owners–have also been confined to their homes.

I even found a few birds for Arthur and I to stalk from afar.

Honestly, I don’t think my envy stems from a strong desire to own that kind of home (though, I’m not saying I would turn it down). I think it has more to do with a perception of the sort of life a person in that type of home must have–some unattainable ideal.

I know from working in family law with high net worth clients that money definitely does not solve most problems. In fact, my short stint in that career convinced me the opposite is often true (See The Notorious B.I.G’s “Mo Money Mo Problems”). But then again, maybe I’ve convinced myself of this because it’s easier than living in jealousy.

Envy is hard to talk about, isn’t it? None of us want to be seen as envious, and yet, it has been clinically proven that we are hard-wired to covet. Sure, there are outliers, people who never complain, seem genuinely seem content with what they have, and feel only happiness for the success and wealth of others. But most of us feel pangs of jealously from time to time, even if we wish we didn’t and work to stuff those feelings down.

Because we’re taught early on that envy is undesirable, we tend to see it only as destructive or limiting. But what if someone told you that envy can be a good thing? I’m not talking about the phenomenon where envy for a neighbor’s new BMW spurs someone to work harder to purchase one for himself. I’m talking about using envy as a tool to bring genuine good into the world, and perhaps also help us discover our purpose.

Peaceful, serene, and scrupulously manicured. All descriptions that typically have no place in my life.

Fortunately, I do know of one such person, and she is this week’s example of a purpose-driven life. She is known by her community as viscerally vulnerable, sharing all of her emotions, including envy, with the world. What can we learn from author and activist Glennon Doyle, especially in terms of using envy to help us find our purpose? Let’s take a look.

Source: Momastery.com

For anyone not yet familiar, Glennon Doyle is the author of New York Times bestselling memoirs, founder of the nonprofit Together Rising, and “evangelist” for the message that the best way to find resilience in this beautiful and brutal (or, “brutiful”) life, especially if you’re a woman, is to turn inward and listen to your own voice over the voices of others.

Doyle grew up in northern Virginia in a traditional home with loving parents and a younger sister. However, when she was only ten years old, she began binging and purging her food as a way to cope with her emotions. In her teens and college years, she continued numbing her feelings by drinking to extreme excess and trying “all of the drugs.” Though after graduation she managed her life well enough to work as a third-grade teacher, Doyle’s parents were acutely aware that their daughter had a serious drinking problem. They begged her to get help and to stop lying to them, but she couldn’t be convinced to change her life.

“I am a clinically depressed inspirational speaker. I am a diagnosed anxious person whose main job is to convince people that everything’s okay. Please note that if I can be these things, anyone can be anything.

-Doyle

Then, a few months into dating a man she had met in a bar, Doyle found out she was pregnant. While sitting on her bathroom floor holding the pregnancy test, she heard her internal voice for the first time telling her she would be a great mother, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Doyle became sober that day and married her unborn child’s father shortly thereafter.

Seven years later, Doyle struggled as a young mother with three small kids. Rather than turning to booze or food to cope, she began writing her thoughts and feelings. First, she started writing daily emails to her friends, but after one of them sent her to a guide on how to start a blog, she got the hint and created “Momastery,” a mommy blog with a Christian underpinning and following.

Source: Momastery.com

In the years that followed, Doyle’s audience grew, and her Christian parenting blog became one of the most popular of its kind. She then began to self-identify as a writer, and she spoke openly about her envy for the talents of other writers. In an interview, she admitted that although on her blog she was “preaching abundance”–or the mentality that there’s enough success to go around–she “secretly struggled” with her envy for other women.

However, even early in her writing career, Doyle recognized that she could use envy in a more productive way. As she explained, “I used to think that secure women believed in abundance, and that they lifted everybody up, and insecure women were jealous. The awesome and heartening thing I learned was that all of the strong women are jealous. It’s just that insecure women mask their insecurity by tearing other women down. Wise women mask their insecurity by raising women up.”

Based on this realization, Doyle began promoting those female writers she was most envious of and advocating for others to do the same. Her audience exploded, her blog was featured in national publications, and she eventually even drew Oprah Winfrey’s attention. By using her envy to elevate others, Doyle experienced her own dramatic success.

Doyle was tapped to join Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, and her second memoir was an Oprah Book Club pick.
Source: OWN

Though she became adept at lifting up other women in her professional life, this idea would be tested fiercely in her personal one. In 2013 when her first memoir was published, Doyle learned that her husband had been consistently unfaithful to her throughout their marriage.

In her second memoir, Love Warrior, Doyle is raw and honest when describing all of her emotions during this tumultuous time. Unlike many spouses in similar situations, though, she was not jealous of the women who slept with her husband. Instead, she felt only “white-hot anger” towards him for betraying her and their family.

At the end of Love Warrior, the reader is left to believe that after spending a lot of time in counseling, Doyle decided to forgive her husband and start anew with their marriage. Because of this choice, she was lauded among Christian women’s groups as an exemplary wife and mother.

Doyle with her husband and children.
Source: Instagram

Right before the release of Love Warrior, Doyle was still committed to repairing her broken marriage. A few days before the launch, however, she had a chance encounter with Abby Wambach, a women’s professional soccer star who was promoting her memoir as well. Doyle says that when she saw Abby for the first time, she heard her inner voice speak to her again. This time it said, “There she is.”

Shortly after her book was released, Doyle decided to end her marriage. While she did not know what her future held with Abby, Doyle now knew that she and her husband had never truly been in love with each other. They were excellent parents and partners, but with Abby she experienced true romantic love. They wed in 2017, angering conservative Christian groups and her more close-minded followers, but Doyle knew she had to follow her heart and her own message by choosing the hard, right path.

Abby Wambach and Glennon Doyle at their wedding in 2017.
Source: The Times UK

Since that time, Doyle has continued to chronicle her life online and in a recently-released third memoir titled, “Untamed.” In this book, she asserts that while we are all expected to follow social norms, women are especially programmed from a young age to abandon themselves in order to adhere to strict gender rules. She believes that many women need to free–or “untame”–themselves from that programming by listening more closely to their inner voices and by raising up other women so that they may do the same. In the untamed world that Doyle envisions for us, there is no space for the envy that causes women to tear each other down; it can only be used to raise each other up.

Doyle often talks about how supportive her ex-husband has been and how healthy their modern family is.
Source: Instagram

While it may seem counterintuitive, Glennon Doyle’s envy was the key for discovering her purpose of uplifting women through her writing. By recognizing her jealously and choosing to use it as fuel for supporting others, she was able to find her greatest strength and gift.

As Doyle is fond of saying, “Feelings are for feeling,” and envy is no exception. When it arises, I think envy is telling us something about ourselves. In Doyle’s case, her jealousy of other inspirational writers was a signal that she was meant to be a leader in this space. On the other hand, the absence of jealously when she learned of her husband’s indiscretions was likely a sign that he wasn’t the right person for her in the end.

Being human is not hard because you’re doing it wrong, it’s hard because you’re doing it right.

-Doyle

In the broader context of fighting to find your purpose, however, I think the biggest takeaway from Glennon Doyle is that envy can show us our true calling if we take the time to listen. By paying attention to this emotion when it arises, we too can start to read the signs and hear where our own inner voice is nudging us to go.

However, I don’t think this necessarily means I need to psychoanalyze my envy for the person who owns the mansion. Instead of looking at the things or lifestyles or experiences we wish we had, I think it could be more useful to think about people who are pursuing a path we wish we could take, or maybe thought we would take when we were younger.

I’ve always been envious of writers (including Glennon Doyle), so I think this could be more evidence that I’m following the right path. This whole global pandemic has put a wrench in everyone’s plans, including my own, but I’m going to use wide discretion here and self-servingly interpret it as positive reinforcement.

And who knows? By recognizing who we’re envious of and using that to find our purpose, we could end up living in a mansion on a golf course in the future (or my dream home, a villa in Tuscany).

Then again, it could simply mean a future where we’re living purpose-filled lives in which those mansions and villas (or whatever you currently covet) don’t make us feel envious at all.

Change is in the Air

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. We need not wait to see what others do.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

Yes, my friend, it’s time to talk about change. Some changes, like my mood becoming much more hopeful this week, are quite welcome. Others, like the myriad of changes that have descended upon us all recently, are unexpected, unwanted, and at times extremely unpleasant.

I don’t know how you handle change, but I recently noticed a distinct pattern in how I process major life changes. Just as there are stages of grief, I tend to deal with change in three specific phases:

Phase I: Optimism.

If it’s a self-imposed change: “Change! Exciting! This is going to be great because of X, Y, and Z. I don’t seen any downsides to this new situation at all!”

If it’s an externally-imposed change: “Change. All right, this wasn’t what I would have chosen, but it’s going to be okay because of X, Y, and Z. In fact, there are a lot of positives to this new situation if I look hard enough. This is going to be great!”

Phase II: Freak Out.

Either flavor of change: “I don’t know how I ever thought this was going to be great. I have no idea how I’m going to: find the time to get everything done, deal with all of these new stressors, handle all of the different pressures at home and at work, make everyone happy, avoid disappointing anyone…”

Phase III: Acceptance & Growth.

Also any kind of change: “Okay, I’ve kind of figured this out. I feel more comfortable with my situation and will continue to do what I can to make this new normal work for me and the people counting on me. It might not be as great as I was expecting or hoping for, but it’s good, and I’m good.”

Then there is the unofficial Phase IV: Repeat.

As obvious as it seems in hindsight, I only recently realized that I do this every single time a big change comes along. And even with this understanding, I still am unable to change my behavior–temper the excitement and expectations, mitigate the meltdown, or, ideally, jump straight to Phase III.

I also realized in the past five years or so that although I’m someone who admittedly does not handle change well, I often subconsciously seek it, especially when things are calm. Aside from career changes, there was a period of time when I moved into a new apartment or home every year (ostensibly for logical reasons, but who knows?). And to give you a sense of how well I handled those changes, my husband resorted to keeping a bag of gummy bears on hand when I would inevitably get upset on moving days.

So, during this time of what feels like constant change, can we approach it with an intentionality that might help us find our purpose? I’m not totally sure, but perhaps the purpose-driven life of someone who has successfully used change to leave an indelible mark on the world can. This week, we will examine one of the most well-known public figures whose purpose quite literally changed the course of history: Mahatma Gandhi.

Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi was born Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in 1869 in a small town on the coast of what is now the Western Indian state of Gujarat, but was then part of the Indian Empire. The youngest of four children, Gandhi was born in his family’s home and spent the first eight years of his life roaming around restlessly. His sister recalled that his favorite activity during that time was “twisting dogs’ ears.” (Strange, but I sort of get it.) At age nine, Gandhi began attending the local school, where he was a mediocre student overall and known among his classmates as a shy, “tongue-tied” boy.

Gandhi (right) with his brother in 1886

When he was 13, Gandhi married his 14-year-old wife via an arranged marriage, as was the custom at that time. He completed high school and began attending college at the only institution in his region, but he dropped out before completing a degree. Around this time, he also lost his father and his first child within days of birth in the same year. Up to this point, change for Gandhi seemed only to mean anguish and disappointment.

After he left college and returned to his hometown, Gandhi learned about an opportunity to study law in London. Although his wife had just given birth to their second child, he decided to embrace change and pursue that path. To give his wife and mother comfort in the face of this drastic change, Gandhi promised that he would not be corrupted by Western culture and would steer clear of women, alcohol, and meat. With their blessing, Gandhi earned his law degree from University College, London, gaining confidence in his convictions and in his public speaking abilities along the way.

Gandhi when he was a law student in London

Gandhi then returned to India in 1891 at the age of 22 and attempted to start a law practice in Bombay. Unsuccessful in the courtroom, he was forced to close the practice and take on clerical legal work to make ends meet. Then, Gandhi received a call from a contact asking him to consider moving to South Africa to serve as the attorney for a shipping company. Though the pay was scant, he had few other options, so Gandhi took the job and moved to Johannesburg. He spent the next 21 years in South Africa, and the experience there changed him and the course of his life considerably.

Gandhi during his time in South Africa

Before moving to South Africa, Gandhi had considered himself British first and Indian second. As South Africa was also a British colony at the time, he expected the British there to treat him as an equal under the Empire. Instead, he experienced severe racism and discrimination. Gandhi was beaten when he tried to sit with white Britons on the bus, kicked off of paths that people of color were not permitted to use, and even pushed off a train when he refused to leave first-class. According to scholars, the unexpected realization that the British viewed India as inferior dramatically changed his perception of the world and his life’s work. Instead of continuing on as a rank and file attorney, Gandhi began fighting for the rights of Indians (and later, black South Africans as well) by organizing his community and peacefully resisting the discriminatory laws.

If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.

-Mahatma Gandhi

By the time Gandhi moved back to India in 1915, he was known around the world as an Indian nationalist who could effectively lead and organize others. Over the next 30 years, he used nonviolence and civil disobedience to protest British rule in India. Perhaps his most famous effort was the Salt March in 1930, when Gandhi and dozens of volunteers marched 241 miles to protest the British tax on salt. The British reacted by beating hundreds and imprisoning thousands of Indians who barely lifted a hand in response. The horrific story circulated worldwide, bringing global attention to Gandhi’s cause and igniting the national Civil Disobedience Movement.

As part of this movement, Gandhi began wearing his ubiquitous homespun loin cloth as a symbol of his support for the Indian poor and a boycott of British and other foreign goods. Through changes both large and small, Gandhi unabashedly pursued his life’s purpose of freeing India from British rule through nonviolent means.

Gandhi in 1921, shortly after he began wearing the loin cloth

However, Gandhi’s story, like any person’s story, is not perfect. His life’s work also inadvertently lead to the partition of his country, something he opposed. The creation of Pakistan epitomized the challenges he faced in trying to unite Indian Muslims and Hindus–challenges that led him to alienate his supporters at certain times. In his early days in South Africa, Gandhi also initially differentiated between Indians and black South Africans to argue for Indian rights. And, of course, the end of Gandhi’s story is not one befitting someone whose ideas influenced future change makers like Nelson Mandela. In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist who shot and killed him at a friend’s home. He was 78 years old.

Gandhi in 1942

Mahatma Gandhi’s life was undeniably purpose-driven and objectively meaningful. And though I doubt I will ever do anything as significant during my time here, is there something we can take from Gandhi’s life and apply to our own to ensure that we leave whatever mark we are meant to make?

Of course there is. In fact, there are many lessons I think we all could learn from Gandhi’s life, purpose-related or otherwise. But for this post, I believe the most salient lesson we can take from Gandhi is this: Change is inevitable and unavoidable, but we must have the courage to make changes that will bring us closer to finding and fulfilling our life’s purpose.

Gandhi showed incredible courage throughout his life, but especially when making the changes necessary for him to become the transformative leader we remember him as. If he had not left India for London to pursue his law degree, he might have remained “tongue-tied” and shy–hardly the characteristics of an influential activist. And if Gandhi had not moved to South Africa, he might have continued to live under the false assumption that the British were treating Indians fairly, never to fulfill his world-changing dharma.

You may never know what results come of your actions, but if you do nothing, there will be no results.

-Gandhi

While I don’t believe this means we all have to uproot our lives to courageously embrace change (especially during a time when we can barely leave our homes, much less our cities or countries), I do think we can all closely examine our lives to determine if conscious change could point us in the direction of our purpose.

For me, this might mean examining how I react to change in the moment, rather than lament my responses in hindsight (and possibly move more quickly to Phase III, without needing gummy bear back-up?).

If this White Egret can change his hunting strategy to catch lizards on a wall, surely we can change, too.

If nothing else, being quarantined is certainly good for introspection, right? Rather than ruminate on our flaws or approach this as a time for “self-improvement,” though, perhaps we can learn from Gandhi’s example and make a change in our lives, no matter how small, that could help shine a light and guide us towards a more rewarding, purpose-filled life.

You Have Everything You Need in This Moment

“Not only does the small stuff matter. The small stuff isn’t so small…Tiny shifts in viewpoint, in attitude, and in your efforts to be present have enormous effects on your body, on your mind, and in the world.”

-Jon Kabat-Zinn

Okay, so I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I had a hard time this week. Even with all of the coping strategies I’ve amassed over the years: yoga, meditation, gratitude lists, warm baths, cold showers, deep breathing, reading, etc., I still couldn’t shake the heavy frustration and sadness most days. I even followed the advice of self-help gurus and my mom (who is essentially an amateur self-help guru) by posting a bunch of these around my home. Inexplicably, I wasn’t totally convinced by my neon pink post-it notes.

While looking up at the trees on my longer walks around the neighborhood has been helpful, the effect seemed more fleeting this week. And while continuing to see “my birds” on morning runs has been reassuring, the optimism they elicited seemed to deflate within hours of returning home.

Instead of maintaining a positive outlook and focusing on what I can control, I have to admit I’ve been doing a decent amount of stress eating. Although I’m not known to discriminate when I get into these states (you might be shocked to learn that one can, in fact, stress eat kale), I made a downward spiral into the the mother of all unhealthy foods: sugary carbs. And to make sure there’s no confusion: no, I don’t run to train for anything, so this couldn’t count as intentional carb-loading. I already attempted that self-rationalization, and even I wouldn’t accept that excuse.

One of the few dessert options in our kitchen that narrowly escaped my mouth this week.

This wasn’t a case of wallowing all day, binging on Netflix and cookies (though I might have done that if my husband weren’t home to witness it). Instead, I was pretty productive this week. And when I’m productive, I’m less likely to deal with stress by resorting to old, unhealthy coping mechanisms. I’m proud to say that I secured a new freelance client and submitted a long form piece to a food magazine this week. I should have been riding high, energized by the momentum I’m starting to build with my writing. So then why do I still feel this way?

As someone with a roof over her head and plenty of food and toilet paper, I’m ashamed to admit this. I have every reason to be grateful and absolutely no reason to feel depressed, aside from the global pandemic impacting everyone else–many in much worse circumstances. Even when faced with the written proof of my good fortune in my daily gratitude list, I struggled.

I wasn’t joking; I do this every day thanks to Rachel Hollis.

Far from feeling sorry for myself, I just felt blue, and a bit unmoored. I believed everything on those gratitude lists, but I didn’t get the heartwarming lift this exercise usually produces. Logically, I know that a person can be both grateful and depressed at the same time, but when applied inward at this time, it felt shamefully unappreciative.

I was especially disappointed in myself when I saw my dog, Arthur, lying in the sun one day. Similar to a cat, Arthur spends a few hours every day following little scraps of sun around the house for his morning naps. When I came upon this sight, I felt embarrassed. If Arthur can find the bright, sunny spots in his world with a relatively small brain and only one option of decidedly unappetizing food, then why can’t I focus on the bright spots in my life as well?

Even the tiniest patch of sunlight makes Arthur sublimely content.

Don’t worry, I didn’t come here to complain to you about my rough week (or only to complain, anyway). Instead, I wanted to share something that finally worked and gave me some peace in the midst of my inner turmoil: mindfulness.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that before.” Or, if you’re a little less experienced with “woo,” you might be thinking, “Isn’t that basically the same as meditation?” Either way, I’ve thought the same things, too, but this week I finally understood the concept in way that was actually useful for me. Maybe it could be useful for you, too?

Recently, I read “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle, which I understand to be a seminal work in the realm of self help/personal development. In essence, Tolle argues that instead of happiness or other transient emotions, we should seek inner peace, and the best way to achieve that is by living in the moment.

Huh?

I know. And that’s the simplest way I could distill the message. After reading the book, Tolle’s idea sounded plausible, but the “how” still eluded me. I could get on board with focusing on the present, being “mindful” of my surroundings, etc., but how can you hold onto that feeling and experience true inner peace, especially during a time like this?

The one passage that stuck with me, echoing in my mind was Tolle’s explanation, “There is no past. There is no future. There is only now.” Confused yet?

I was, too. That is, until this week when I was feeling less than bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. What was upsetting me? Thoughts of regret for the past and fear for the future. What was reassuring? The thought that I have everything I need right now in this moment. The past is gone, so it cannot hurt me now, and the future has never been guaranteed, as much as I like to think it would have been without this pandemic.

Concentrating on Tolle’s ideas seemed to keep the dark thoughts at bay and help me focus on the light. I definitely haven’t achieved “inner peace,” or the ultimate “woo” goal: “spiritual enlightenment.” But as with most of this stuff, I took what seemed to make me feel better and disregarded the ridiculous rest (which, in my experience, will inevitably turn out to sound completely logical to me five or ten years from now–I’m just not ready or able to understand it yet).

I don’t know if you’ve also been struggling recently, but if it helps, remember this:

You, too, have everything you need in this moment.

I hope this thought gives you the kind of relief it provided me, even if temporary.

I also hope that this week’s purpose-driven life motivates you to seek out other practical ways to be more mindful in these challenging times. If you have any suggestions, please write them in the comments below–I clearly can always use more!

To that end, this week I wanted to briefly look at the life of someone who has been influential in the rise of mindfulness in America. Jon Kabat-Zinn is a professor and researcher who expounded the benefits of mindfulness and trained others to help people like us learn how to use mindfulness to feel more balanced. This week, he is our teacher in mindfulness and in fighting to find our purpose.

Jon Kabat-Zinn
Source: Stress Reduction Tapes

Born in NYC in 1944, Jon Kabat-Zinn was the youngest of nine children. His father was a biomedical scientist and his mother a painter. After graduating from college, he went on to pursue a PhD in molecular biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, he studied under Salvador Edward Luria, a Nobel Prize winner who researched viruses and genetics. In addition to working together in the lab, Luria and Kabat-Zinn were both political activists who protested the Vietnam War, among other causes.

While he was earning his graduate degree, Kabat-Zinn attended a lecture that would change the course of his life. Zen missionary Philip Kapleau visited MIT and spoke about meditation, a new concept to Americans, and Kabat-Zinn was hooked. He began meditating, studying the practice, and learning from Buddhist teachers. This was unexpected and outside the norm at the time, as he explained, “Almost no one I knew was meditating back then, and anyone who was, was considered to be somewhat beyond the lunatic fringe, a drug-crazed hippy communist.”

Kabat-Zinn in his younger years
Source: LearnOutLoud, Inc.

After he completed his PhD in molecular biology, Kabat-Zinn changed his research focus to “mind/body interactions for healing.” He has called this shift and finding his life’s purpose in researching mindfulness his “karmic assignment.”

“I always felt in some sense, from the time that I was a little, that something was missing in the way life was unfolding. It was almost as if it was all about ‘out there’ but nothing about ‘in here.’”

-Kabat-Zinn

In 1971, Kabat-Zinn established the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. With this program, he coined the term, “mindfulness-based stress reduction,” or “MBSR,” and created a curriculum on how to use MBSR for those suffering with chronic pain and stress disorders. His research there and at the subsequent Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at UMass led to findings showing MBSR to be beneficial in treating depression, chronic pain, addictions, and many other conditions.

Source: The Mindfulness Summit

Today, there are more than 720 medical centers across the world using MBSR. Kabat-Zinn’s decades of research showed the impact of MBSR on “psoriasis, pain, anxiety, brain function, and immune function,” and his results have been published in the highly-regarded Journal of the American Medical Association. He has written two books on the subject, and he’s recognized as the leading expert who brought mindfulness to the mainstream. If you’re interested in his method, you can find recent live-streamed meditations with Kabat-Zinn on YouTube.

“Mindfulness is a skill that can be developed through practice, just like any other skill. You could also think of it as a muscle…[that] grows both stronger and more supple and flexible as you use it.”

-Kabat-Zinn
Source: CBS News

So, aside from trying mindfulness as a way to cope with this stressful time, what can we learn from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s life as it pertains to finding our purpose?

I actually think Kabat-Zinn said it best when he wrote, “Over the course of my own meditation practice and of doing the work I do in the world, I have come to see the cultivation of mindfulness as a radical act–a radical act of sanity, of self-compassion, and, ultimately, of love.”

From this and Kabat-Zinn’s story, I think we can learn that sometimes finding your purpose is a radical act–something that others might not understand or support, especially if it’s something new.

For Jon Kabat-Zinn, fighting to find his purpose meant ignoring the criticisms of society, as meditation in the 1960s was seen as “beyond the lunatic fringe.” But think of what would have happened if he had listened to those who called him crazy. The people whose lives and health have been perceptibly improved by MBSR might still be suffering more than necessary, and I might still be in the dark hole I was sitting in on Thursday.

Kabat-Zinn with the Dalai Lama
Source: thenakedmonk.com

Kabat-Zinn’s purpose led him to explore something new to his culture, but I don’t think this lesson is limited to those who are similarly pursuing something outside the norm. It could just be something new for you, something that your family or friends don’t expect from you. In my experience, some people might react as if you’re pursuing something foreign–or radical–simply because it doesn’t align with their vision of you or what they believe in.

It’s not an easy road, but if we’re too afraid of being seen as “radical” to pursue our life’s purpose, then who knows what kind of positive impact we might be depriving of the world?

Planting the Seeds of Our Future Selves

“A new perspective can throw us off our center a bit. Loosen our grounding. Shake things up until they settle into the new normal.”

-Molly Chester

Quick question: Have you been looking around your home/apartment/condo over the past however many days of self-isolation, noticing all of the projects that you have been planning to do but haven’t gotten around to?

Or is that just me?

I don’t know about you, but it seems like this has become a new favorite pastime for my husband and me. He even started a running list where we can name all of our grievances with the house, lest we forget them after we can spend less than 22 hours a day here.

It wasn’t just because of the quarantine, though. Even before this happened, my New Year’s resolution was to make the backyard a space where we actually wanted to spend time. We hadn’t made any real improvements to it since we moved in almost four years ago, despite our initial plans to add a deck and do something to make the grass resemble more of a lawn and less a scratchy patch of weeds.

Even our dog, Arthur, can’t go back there without getting bombarded by plants that cover his snout and paws with various seeds: tiny lime green balls, sticky bean-like pods, and the worst of all, spiky brown burrs that remind me of a Medieval mace. In a somewhat entertaining parallel, when these seeds get stuck in between the pads of his paws, Arthur acts like he’s being tortured. Then again, he also limps when a tiny leaf gets caught in there.

Arthur isn’t allowed to go in the backyard often, but when he does, he comes back covered in these guys.

As glorious and long-lived as the weed kingdom’s reign has been, the time has come to actually follow through on our plans and maybe, just maybe, keep a New Year’s resolution (maybe).

To start the process, we followed the example of many others on social media by building a raised garden. This was something we’ve been planning but haven’t find the time to do, so why not spend a few of the 48 weekend hours in lockdown checking this one off the list?

This kept us occupied for at least four or five hours.

Although at first I just saw the garden as another way to stay busy, I quickly became enthralled with plotting the vegetables we would attempt to grow, researching the techniques that might improve our odds, and watching videos of Florida garden experts sharing their pearls of wisdom. Once we finally finished the annoying, but necessary, step of building the wooden box, I volunteered to get my hands dirty and spread the dank soil around. Digging to plant those specially-chosen seeds was especially satisfying, but it also brought about an intense feeling of déjà  vu.

When I was little, I desperately wanted a garden. My friend Caroline’s mother had an enormous, lush garden in their backyard complete with something called a “compost pile,” both of which I was endlessly fascinated with. After spending hours with Caroline’s mom learning about gardening and then pleading with my mom (probably incessantly), she finally relented and let me have own garden in our backyard.

My dad preferred (and still prefers) a well-manicured lawn, but he relinquished a small square plot of grass behind our shed for the undertaking. Caroline’s parents had a till that her father brought over to turn that green square into what I saw as an empty brown canvas of infinite possibilities. After adding her mom’s preferred fertilizer (which, to my dad’s horror, was pure cow manure), we were ready to go. I don’t recall everything we planted, but I distinctly remember picking plump cherry tomatoes and more undersized cucumbers than we could eat, and I know we planted marigolds around the edges “to keep the rabbits and bugs away.” I loved that garden and the time I spent outside in the sticky hot summer watering and caring for it.

When these memories came rushing back to me, others followed in their wake. Did you ever play “The Game of Life” or “Mash” when you were younger? My friends and I were fiends for both, and I remember always crossing my fingers that I would pick the farmhouse as my home. I know it wasn’t just growing vegetables; I was obsessed with animals as well (I’m sure I’ll share about my foray into breeding leopard geckos on here at some point), but the whole concept of living on a farm was intensely appealing to me.

I clearly didn’t end up on a farm or even with a garden until quarantine-induced boredom set in, so when, exactly, did I turn away from this love? Was it when I noticed all of the other girls crossing their fingers for the mansion instead? When I realized that gardening wasn’t a “cool” thing to talk about around other middle schoolers? Or, maybe I was just like all other kids, who like petting zoos and growing lima beans when they’re young, but eventually move on to other hobbies.

Last year, when we were still allowed to go to the movies, I saw a documentary at our local historic theater called “The Biggest Little Farm.” I had seen a commercial for it when I was in New York for work, and the trailer alone made my heart leap with joy. It took a few months to come to Tampa, and I was so excited to finally see a showing here that I immediately bought a ticket to see it on a Wednesday night by myself. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I cried no less than five times in that theater. Afterwards, I began stalking the farm’s Instagram account, tried to see if I could visit when I was out in L.A. last fall, and pre-ordered a digital copy of the movie. Since then, I’ve watched it at least five times. If you haven’t seen it yet, I obviously highly recommend it.

Source: Neon Films

The documentary follows a couple’s journey to start a “traditional farm,” where instead of spraying pesticides and mono-cropping, they plant a diverse array of fruits and vegetables and rely on nature (with a little intervention) to create a balanced ecosystem where every plant and animal serve a purpose. More than a message about modern farming, it’s a beautifully-filmed and uplifting story filled with hope, loss, and of course, tons of adorable baby animals. (Plus, there’s a love story between a pig and a rooster. It sounds wrong, but trust me, it’s amazing. Made me cry twice.)

Apricot Lane Farms, Source: Neon Films

Before they became farmers, John and Molly Chester both had successful careers in other arenas. Although they’re not household names, or even particularly well-known, can we learn something from their story about finding your purpose? Let’s find out.

Source: Anne Thompson

John and Molly Chester began their journey in 2011 when they purchased close to 200 acres of land with an investor who shared their vision for traditional farming. Before they made the leap to start Apricot Lane Farms, John spent 20 years as a documentary filmmaker and Molly worked as a private chef for celebrity clients in L.A. In the film, Molly seems to be the bigger proponent of the venture, but John was eager to make a change as well, saying in an interview: “I quit the film business with no intention of making this film. It repulsed me.”

The documentary makes it seem as though John had no prior knowledge of farming, but press interviews reveal that this isn’t exactly true. John grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and in his 20s he worked on a few different family farms in this largely rural, agriculture-dependent area. He downplayed this experience in one interview, saying, “I worked on a couple of family farms, but they were, you know, industrial, sort of commercial monocrop operations, growing corn and soy for, essentially, Perdue chickens, but no understanding of soil.”

This experience probably seemed negligible to John, because the only passion he recalls having as a child was for film. He was known as being “really into film and video stuff,” and as a result, one of his teachers sought him out to give him and a few other students dominion over the school’s cable access program. With this group, John started a show called, “OC Live,” which was, in his words, a “parody of us trying to do a local news show being kids.”

Source: johnchester.com

He was in his teens at the time, and unlike other purpose-driven lives we’ve examined, John’s family and friends supported his passion for film from an early age. As he said, “I came from a town that just supported my dream to such a degree. And I think that OC Live was a big part of that. It just felt like the town was lifting all of us up.”

From there, John did work on various farms, but he saw that as just a blip before he moved out to California to pursue his “dream career” of filmmaking. He worked on different docu-series before getting his big break with A&E’s “Random 1,” a series where he and a partner sought out strangers whose lives they might change with a random act of kindness. Based on the success of that show, John went on to direct the critically-acclaimed documentaries, “Lost in Woonsocket,” based on a “Random 1” story, and “Rock Prophecies” about renowned rock photographer Robert M. Knight. As a result of his work, John won won five Emmy Awards for short films.

Source: Steel City Galleries

John was, by all objective measures, very successfully pursuing his lifelong passion of filmmaking. And yet, when John and Molly decided to start Apricot Lane Farms, he said that he was “repulsed” by the film business. This was the industry that not only allowed him to pursue his purpose, it lauded him for doing so. Had John been wrong about his childhood passion translating into his life’s work?

Source: Organicspark.com

As for Molly, she began her career in the entertainment industry as well, working as a producer for John’s “Random 1” series. (Ostensibly they met there, but I couldn’t tell for sure.) After that, she attended The Natural Gourmet Institute of Culinary Arts in NYC before moving to L.A. to start her career as a private chef. Molly’s expertise as a chef centered on cooking “traditional foods,” which I learned from Google means using only nutrient-dense whole foods. In addition to cooking for clients, she started a traditional foods blog called Organic Spark.

Source: Organicspark.com

Molly had no real exposure to farming when they started Apricot Lane, but her training and experience as a chef convinced her that we needed an intervention earlier in the “food chain” to improve our overall nutrition. Molly realized that she couldn’t achieve this through cooking; she had to start in the field and with the seeds to ensure that her food was nourishing and nutrient-rich.

Source: Organicspark.com

So, in starting Apricot Lane Farms, Molly and John both began pursuing their life’s purpose of traditional farming. Or did they?

While they both can certainly call themselves farmers today, I would argue that their journey of becoming regenerative farmers has simply been the best way for each of them to fulfill their very different dharmas, which have been within them since childhood.

Although John was disgusted by the film industry when he made the switch, he couldn’t help but film the entire process of starting and building their farm. As a result, he created what I obviously believe to be his most successful film. It’s apparent to me that his childhood passion for filmmaking still burns inside of him, and I would be surprised if he didn’t create other films for us (me) to obsess over in the future.

Source: Neon Films

And while Molly might tell you that her life’s work as a farmer is limited to her exhausting-sounding responsibilities on the farm and with their product line, I think her purpose is much broader than that. In her cookbook, Molly shares that she became a vegetarian when she was nine years old after learning what eggs actually were made of and deciding to remove animals from her diet. The self-described “soy and carb” vegetarian later realized she wasn’t getting the nutrition she needed and changed her diet again to include grass-fed organic meats. From there, she learned about the traditional food movement and has been an advocate for that diet ever since.

“One thing that I have gained from all of the books and nutrition experimentation I have done over the years is the belief that we have the power to fix many things that are broken in our body and our lives. The food we choose to eat. The path we choose to take. The friends we choose to have.”

-Molly Chester

As with John, Molly’s purpose of discerning and sharing how food, especially the quality of food, impacts overall health showed itself early in her life. She just expressed it in different ways as she learned more about food and nutrition, from deciding not to eat meat to learning about and cooking traditional foods to now farming higher-quality produce and livestock.

So, based on John and Molly Chester’s story, my childhood love of gardening means I should become a farmer, right?

Not quite. Even though my sprouts are starting to shoot up and I’m having dreams of fresh-picked green beans, I think the main lesson we can learn from their story is that while it’s helpful to look to our childhood passions for clues, our ultimate purpose and how we pursue it might look very different from how we expressed it when we were young.

My bean plants are coming in nicely, if I do say so myself!

From the outside and in hindsight, it’s logical that John Chester would take his passion for documentary filmmaking and pair that with his agricultural upbringing to find his life’s purpose in filming his experiences as a farmer. It likewise makes sense that Molly Chester would first examine the nutrition in her own diet, and then that of the food she prepared for others, before pursuing her purpose of improving nutrition at the source through farming. However, neither of them knew that this would be the case when he was a documentary filmmaker and she a chef.

Source: Organicspark.com

And so, the other takeaway I glean from their story is that the experiences we have before finding our ultimate purpose will contribute to it in some way, even if we do not or cannot see it now.

Just like the time John spent working on industrial farms or the years Molly thought she was improving her health by being an “unhealthy vegetarian,” the hours we spent waiting tables or the years we worked for that horrible boss will all somehow be useful to us once we’re living your dharma. We just can’t see it yet.

And what’s more? I do believe those things we loved to do when we were little will play some role as well. I don’t know how this will manifest in my fight to find my purpose, since I don’t exactly have the knowledge or experience to write about farming (or gardens, for that matter). But who knows? Maybe I’ll find my way into nature writing or something along those lines.

Also? Similar to John and Molly, we won’t know for sure until we take that leap and pursue our dreams. More and more, it seems to me that only by taking that chance can we clearly see the purpose our life will serve.

Don’t worry, “my birds” were still back in their little spots this week.

When the Future is Uncertain

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.

-Harriet Tubman

This week, I came upon the scene above during my morning run. I love seeing birds in any setting, but I especially notice them when I run, likely because they help distract me from my burning lungs, my fatiguing muscles, and now, my obsession with staying at least six feet from anyone else on my path.

Living in Tampa, I am fortunate to see a variety of water birds on a typical day: elegant White Egrets sniping fish in the shallows; scores of Seagulls dotting the bay and careening in the sky above; snake-like Anhingas diving deep below the surface before finding a perch to stretch their wings and dry their fluffy necks; and of course, massive Brown Pelicans, who seem to take pleasure in scaring people and wildlife alike when they suddenly plunge from the sky into the water to catch an unsuspecting meal.

And this doesn’t even count the flocks of White Ibis that sometimes scour the lawns in my neighborhood, looking for bugs to eat and leaving a trail of black and white “evidence” of their visit.

I had to sidestep some “evidence” in the street to get this photo

The most remarkable part of this particular morning, though, was that I hadn’t seen any birds until I took that photo. It was strange, because I always see “my birds” when I run; in fact, I look forward to seeing them. Just like my dog, Arthur, “my birds” have no idea what’s going on in the world right now, and part of what I enjoy about them lately is that seeing them takes me out of my own reality, if only for a few sweaty seconds.

As ridiculous as it may sound, I have to admit I felt a little panicked when I didn’t see any birds at first. When I came upon that group of ducks, I felt fairly relieved. But then, when I looked more closely, I noticed it seemed like they were all staring at something across the bay.

Along with the ducks, several people on the path (all six feet apart) were also staring and taking photos of this beautiful, fiery sunrise. It seemed to mesmerize us all with its brilliance, and I had a sneaking suspicion the social media captions for those photos would be some iteration of, “Tomorrow will be better.”

In that moment, I saw a strange parallel with this whole COVID-19 quarantine experience. Just like the Anhinga I usually find in one of a handful of alcoves, or the Seagull that typically sits guard somewhere on the railing, we’re also not in our “normal” spots. Our usual haunts are empty, and many of us are watching the sky, looking for some indication that tomorrow will be better than today.

I’ve also heard a lot of people talking about grief lately. Not for loved ones lost to the virus, but grief for the lives we all had planned for ourselves, or for a shared future that has been completely upended by this crisis.

At least initially, many of us viewed this as temporary, hoping the impact would be minor and things would “go back to normal” soon. I don’t know what stage of grief you’re in right now (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, or acceptance), but I get the sense that many of us are still staring at the proverbial sunrise, holding onto hope that when the dust settles, we will return to the normalcy of our lives before this started.

I’m also not sure which stage of grief I personally fall into, but I recently came to believe that after we get through this, there will be a “new normal” waiting on the other side. I don’t know exactly how the “newness” will manifest; however, I don’t think I can allow myself to believe it will be the same anymore.

One thing I am sure of, though, is that in face of this kind of realization, my mind can be a powerful ally or a formidable enemy (and if I’m completely honest, it’s been more the latter than the former lately). In trying to stay in the light and fight the darkness, I find looking to others who have been resilient and persevered despite their bleak circumstances to be tremendously useful. It helps me to be more accepting of our current situation, cherish the things I have even more, and feel motivated to do anything I possibly can to make the “new normal” manageable for my family, my community, and others.

In that vein, this week I wanted to look to someone who never had a reason to expect anything good to come to her, yet saved hundreds lives, gave ceaselessly of herself, and changed the course of history. This week, I examine the unparalleled life of Harriet Tubman.

You know her name and perhaps her story, but is there something more we learn from her purpose-driven life–one of a someone born without a right to her own life, much less a better tomorrow? Let’s find out.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery. As with most slaves during that time, her exact date of birth is unknown, but it was likely between 1820 and 1825. Born Araminta, or “Minty,” as she was called, Tubman was enslaved at the same plantation in southern Maryland as her parents and nine siblings.

I grew up like a neglected weed – ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.

-Tubman

As a child, she cared for the owners’ children before they began hiring her out to other plantations, where she was whipped and became deathly ill. When Tubman was in her early teens, the overseer at one plantation accidentally hit her on the back of her head with a two-pound weight, practically breaking her skull. He returned Tubman to her owner, bleeding and unconscious, and she was then left for two days without medical care. After miraculously surviving the head injury, she began seeing visions and having intense dreams that she interpreted as God speaking to her. It seems that similarly to John Muir, Tubman credited divine intervention for her call to pursue a life with greater purpose.

Tubman in the late 1860s

During the years she was enslaved, Tubman lost three of her sisters when they were sold, breaking up their family, and she also learned that although both of her parents should have been given their freedom at 45 years old, the next generation owner refused to release her mother. As odious as these practices were, they were common, and this oppressive system and Tubman’s own experiences likely ingrained in her a mistrust in the future, or at the very least, little to no expectation of a better future for her and her family.

When she was in her 20s, Tubman decided to change her reality and her future by escaping from slavery. In her words, “[T]here was one of two things I had a right to: liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.” To tell her mother, she sang a coded song to another slave about her planned departure. Tubman then traveled the Underground Railroad north, walking the nearly 90-mile route through woodlands and marshes at night, before arriving in Philadelphia as a fugitive slave.

While many slaves escaped and understandably focused on preserving their own freedom, Tubman almost immediately went to work fulfilling her life’s calling of helping to free others. Starting with family and friends, Tubman helped around 70 slaves escape over the course of 11 years and 13 trips south. These expeditions were treacherous and life-threatening, but Tubman would not relent in her quest to free as many slaves as possible. This earned her the nickname, “Moses of her People.”

When the Civil War started in 1861, Tubman joined the fight for the Union believing that victory would lead to freedom for all slaves. She began her service as a nurse, but soon after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Tubman was leading scouting missions, mapping the terrain, and providing reconnaissance. She even became the first woman to lead an armed assault in the Civil War in a raid that freed more than 750 slaves.

Tubman wearing Civil War clothing

Although she is an historic figure whose bravery and legacy are undeniable, Harriet Tubman was never truly compensated for her service to our country. And the little money she did earn? She used that to buy land where relatives and other black Americans could come to feel safe, and later in life, to build a home for impoverished elderly people of color.

Harriet Tubman had no reason to believe when she was a little girl, enslaved on a plantation, living within a system that was built to oppress her, that her future would include savings hundreds of lives, serving as a leader for her people, and fighting in the war that would ultimately outlaw slavery. And yet, she did accomplish those and many other incredible feats. Before she passed in her 90s, Tubman even joined the suffragette movement and advocated for women’s voting rights along with Susan B. Anthony.

Tubman in 1911

While Tubman’s experience as a slave seems unimaginable today, her courage and willingness to keep fighting despite not knowing what her future held still applies, especially in times like this.

And in terms of purpose? For me, the biggest takeaway from Harriet Tubman’s life is that regardless of the circumstances, a true calling must serve others in some way. It may never be on a scale as consequential as Harriet Tubman’s, but your skill, talent, or passion must be channeled to help others in order to truly become your life’s purpose.

I believe we all have the right to grieve the plans we made, and I am in no way comparing this crisis to slavery or saying that we are not allowed to feel sad or angry or frustrated because we aren’t facing anything close to the adversity Harriet Tubman faced. Instead, I think perhaps rather than look to the sky and wait for things to return to “normal,” we can be inspired by Tubman and use this time to see if using our gifts to serve others can help us find our ultimate purpose.

Then again…

After writing the beginning of this post, I went on another morning run along my usual route. And guess what was waiting for me when I arrived at the water?

It was one of the most stunning sunrises I have ever seen. And another promising sign?

“My birds” were all back in their little spots along the bay, completely unaware that I had been missing them, or that I was overjoyed to see them again (except for my creepy long stares, anyway).

So, perhaps the “new normal” will be better than today, and we’re not wrong to take a few moments to gaze longingly at each new sunrise. We won’t know for certain until far in the future, when we’re able to look back with the clarity of time. But thanks to Harriet Tubman, we can at least sleep soundly with the knowledge that we don’t have to know exactly what the future will bring in order to find our purpose and help others in the process.


Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.

-Harriet Tubman

Are You There, God? It’s Us, All of Us

“Into the forest I go to lose my mind and find my soul.”

-John Muir

Hi, how are you?

This is one of the simplest questions we hear countless times each day from loved ones and strangers alike. Before this whole coronavirus thing, I wouldn’t have thought twice about the answer. Something alone the lines of, “Good, and you?”

I don’t know about you, but I recently started noticing how difficult it has become to provide an adequate response to this question. Somehow, “Good, and you?” doesn’t seem to cut it right now. However, I’m also not sure, “Currently riding an emotional rollercoaster that fluctuates wildly between feeling relatively okay, focusing on the things I can control, to my sanity hanging on by a thread I’m convinced will only stay intact if I eat the entire sleeve of Girl Scout cookies, and you?” is what the internet tech support person wants to hear, either.

It’s such a weird time that we find ourselves in, isn’t it? One of the most challenging parts about it is the uncertainty. Did our collectively “brave” act of staying at home, laying on the couch, and eating too many carbs help to flatten the curve? Will things return to some semblance of normalcy in the near future? And perhaps most intriguing, will those people who a) hoarded toilet paper and hand sanitizer, b) thought self-isolation meant throwing block parties and continuing to play contact sports, or c) went on camera during spring break to say, “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not letting anything stop me from partying,” experience what most of us have agreed are the only possible silver linings to this whole situation: clarity about what is actually important in our lives, and an immense gratitude for those things?

I’m obviously in no position to answer those questions, but I have dug deeper to find additional coping mechanisms that I hope may help you stay somewhat sane, too.

In writing about my dog, Arthur, last week, I noticed one reason we’re all finding comfort in our pets (aside from the usual, of course: emotional support and unconditional love), is that these little creatures have no idea what COVID-19 is. There’s something soothing about being in the presence of something completely unaffected by this entire crazy experience (aside from getting 16 hours of sleep instead of his usual 20), isn’t there?

Fortuitously, I started reading a phenomenal book a few weeks ago that takes this idea to a whole new level. The Overstory by Richard Powers won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction last year, and if you also have some unexpected free time on your hands, I highly recommend it.

One of the main themes of the book is that humans are often so caught up in their own busy, important lives that we fail to see the natural beauty all around us. Specifically, we often fail to appreciate majesty, abundance, and intelligence of trees.

Light from a lamp post shining through the branches of a tree on my early morning walk with my dog, Arthur.

If being around an animal comforts us because they lack awareness, then perhaps the opposite is also true. Dogs are said to have no understanding of past and future, because they are only capable of thinking in the present. But what about something that has been on Earth for hundreds of years, and will continue to live for hundreds, if not thousands more?

I tend to think something with that kind of longevity can offer us a calming sense of perspective about the impermanence of most things, including a deadly virus and an economic recession. In the life of a tree, a few months isn’t even worthy of a new ring in its trunk, right?

Another tree that I began to notice after reading The Overstory.

Although this week’s purpose-driven life is not the author of The Overstory, he was undoubtedly inspired by it. This week, after reading this wonderful book and receiving a sense of peace (if only briefly) from the trees around my home, I wanted to explore the life of John Muir, naturalist, author, and preservation advocate.

John Muir c. 1902

You might not know the name John Muir, but you certainly have heard of Yosemite National Park, right? How about Sequoia National Park? Or, maybe The Sierra Club? None of these would exist today if John Muir hadn’t fought for his purpose.

Muir was born in Scotland in 1838 and immigrated to the United States with his family when he was nine years old. He grew up wandering the woods, but it wasn’t until Muir’s first botany lesson at University of Wisconsin-Madison that his true purpose began calling to him. As he described it in his autobiography: “This fine lesson charmed me and sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm.”

Although it seems Muir sensed what his purpose would be, his life took many turns after that initial glimpse. He never graduated from UW-Madison, because the unusual courses he chose didn’t amount to an actual degree. When we was 26 years old, he traveled around the Southern Ontario wilderness, hiking and collecting plant samples, until began working in a factory. Two years later, Muir returned to the U.S. to work in another factory, where an incident occurred that would irrevocably change his life.

While using a file, Muir’s hand slipped, and he cut the cornea of his right eye. He then had to spend six weeks in a dark room, hoping that his blindness was not permanent. Fortunately, Muir’s sight did return, and when it did, he knew he had to change course and dedicate his life to the purpose that had always been calling his name.

c. 1875

“This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.”

-John Muir

From there, Muir began a 1,000-mile walk from Kentucky to Florida, taking what he described as the “wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way [he] could find.” He then boarded a boat to Cuba, where he visited the botanical garden and studied plants in Havana. After that, Muir finally made his way to San Francisco and to Yosemite, where his life’s purpose would ultimately culminate and impact our country in a way that extended far beyond his 76 years of life.

Muir spent years in Yosemite Valley, first in a cabin he built and then during solo excursions where he would bring only tea, bread, and Ralph Waldo Emerson to read. He became a recognized expert there and would go on to welcome both Emerson himself and President Theodore Roosevelt into Yosemite to share and advocate for his precious wilderness. His reputation having preceded him, Muir was also asked to help form and preside over a club for people with a passion for the mountains. In creating The Sierra Club, Muir gave his purpose of preserving nature both longevity and teeth. During Muir’s life and after his death in 1914, The Sierra Club has not only educated others about the wonders of nature, it has also protected it through advocacy and lobbying efforts.

Yosemite Valley

Interestingly, when Muir convinced Congress to establish Yosemite National Park, arguably the greatest accomplishment of his life, he was only able to do so through a craft he expressly disliked. Although he later published many nature books, Muir apparently despised the writing process and considered nature writing infinitively inferior to an actual experience in the mountains. He wrote in 1872, “No amount of word-making will ever make a single soul to ‘know’ these mountains. One day’s exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books.” Paradoxically, Congress created Yosemite in 1890 largely based on the recommendations Muir wrote his articles, “The Treasures of the Yosemite” and “Features of the Proposed National Park”, which were both published that same year.

Muir in 1907

So, aside from appreciating the “wilderness” near you as a way to stay sane during uncertain times, whether that’s an empty field, the trees along a sparsely-populated path, or even a single plant in your apartment, what can we learn from John Muir’s purpose-driven life?

Even an indoor plant, like this orchid from my friend, can bring you joy and remind you of the world that waits on the other side of this crisis.

First and foremost, sometimes it takes an act of God to force us to hear our life’s calling. I will probably share my own “act of God” at some point later on, but suffice it to say, I definitely needed a shove from him or her to take action and start on my journey. I hope for everyone’s sake it doesn’t mean physical injury or potential blindness like it did for Muir, but I have to imagine that years from now, we’ll hear about many people who changed their course and began pursuing their true calling as a result of this virus and its aftermath.

[Disclaimer: I am not saying this is a good thing by any stretch of the imagination, and I am in no way saying that the loss of life or economic effects are “happening for a reason,” or anything along those lines.]

Another takeaway from Muir’s life? Even if you’re living your dharma, sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do in order to make the biggest impact with your gift. I’m not quite sure what this will mean for me in the end, but I will try to bear this in mind when I find myself working on something that I believe is in line with my purpose, but perhaps feels like complete drudgery.

Stay safe out there as you try to stay physically and mentally healthy. And in those moments of panic? Look outside and try to breathe. I don’t think I’m going insane when I say that it could help you, too, to think about the trees and remember all of the things they have already seen.

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”

-Muir

When Your Purpose is Bringing Joy to Others

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).

Arthur at the dog park on his 8th birthday pre-coronavirus

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.

From Ellentube.com

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.

Johnny Carson/Youtube

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.

NBC Studios/Shutterstock

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?

Everything is Open to Interpretation

There is no such thing as failure, there’s just giving up too soon.

-Jonas Salk

Wherever you’re reading this, I know it has been a trying week for you. The COVID-19 Coronavirus has affected everyone across the world, and the fear and uncertainty have put a lot of things into perspective for many of us. As a general rule, I think, global health crises tend to have that effect.

In contemplating this week’s post, the situation made me feel guilty about dedicating so much time and energy to finding my purpose and sharing it here. How could I be so self-absorbed to think this is worthwhile, when there are people dying and susceptible populations living in what seems to be a well-founded fear of leaving their homes?

Yes, I am not completely unaware of the fact that many would consider this pursuit–this fight–as wholly the product of egotism, perhaps verging on narcissism.

But then I started to dig deeper. I sincerely believe that we are all here for a reason and that by finding and living our individual purposes, we will all live better, more fulfilled lives. And in my experience, people who live better, more fulfilled lives seem to treat others with more respect and understanding. They seem to be (even if slightly) more secure, less fearful, and more willing to choose compassion over fear or hatred. So, if my little blog can help move our society’s needle in that direction in even a microscopic amount, is it still a selfish pursuit?

I am not certain of the answer, and perhaps it will always be that way–open to interpretation. Either way, I obviously did decide to continue with a post this week, if for no other reason than the hope it will provide you with something to think about other than COVID-19, which seems inescapable right now.

To remind us that this too shall pass, and that there are brilliant minds working around the clock to make sure of it, I wanted to highlight a scientist whose pursuit of his dharma was undoubtedly selfless. Unlike many in his profession who show a passion for their field at an early age, this scientist wasn’t born with a love for science. He knew his heart’s calling, but it took some time to figure out how to best interpret and act on it. Thankfully for us all, he did win that fight, and in the process he saved millions of lives.

This week, we will attempt to learn something from the purpose-driven life of Dr. Jonas Salk, the American medical researcher and virologist who developed the polio vaccine.

Dr. Jonas Edward Salk

“As a child, I was not interested in science. I was merely interested in things human, the human side of nature, if you like, and I continue to be interested in that.”

-Dr. Jonas Salk in an interview with the Academy of Achievement

Born in New York City, Jonas Salk was a child of Ashkenazi Jewish parents who had emigrated from eastern Europe. Although his parents weren’t well-educated, Salk’s intelligence and scholastic aptitude were recognized early on, and he entered high school at the age of 13, college at the age of 15. Salk’s purpose began calling to him when he was young, but it didn’t relate at all to scientific discoveries. According to Salk, “As a child, I was not interested in science. I was merely interested in things human, the human side of nature, if you like, and I continue to be interested in that.”

Although Salk originally had aspirations of being a lawyer, his mother persuaded him to become a doctor instead. Consequently, he spent his college years earning a Bachelor’s in chemistry and taking all of the prerequisites for medical school. However, he soon realized that, despite his mother’s wishes, his purpose was not to practice medicine. Instead, he discovered a passion for research.

The laboratory work gave Salk direction and sparked his curiosity, but his own words reveal that in research he merely found the right conduit for his life’s purpose: to help humankind. He said in an interview, “I had opportunities along the way to drop the idea of medicine and go into science…I was told that I could, if I wished, switch and get a Ph.D. in biochemistry, but my preference was to stay with medicine. And, I believe that this is all linked to my original ambition, or desire, which was to be of some help to humankind, so to speak, in a larger sense than just on a one-to-one basis.”

Salk in 1955, the year his vaccine was announced a success

From there, Salk was exposed (pun intended) to virology through work on influenza and a postgraduate position in a laboratory focused on virus research. In virology, Salk had discovered the best possible vocation for channeling his purpose. He was granted his own lab, but a call from a national foundation asking him to study different strains of polio led him to the work that would change all of our lives.

At the time, polio was one of the most feared epidemics in America. In 1952 alone, it infected tens of thousands of people, killed several thousand, and left over 20,000 children paralyzed. In 1955, when Salk announced the success of the clinical trial for his vaccine, the world responded with gratitude and action. Several countries began employing his vaccine immediately to protect their people, and as a result of Salk’s work, the threat of polio has been almost entirely eliminated.

So, while Dr. Jonas Salk had a keen sense that his purpose was to help humankind, his interpretation of how best to accomplish that purpose changed several times over the course of his life. He initially thought it would be through the practice of law, then medicine, then in the lab, and finally, in researching viruses.

If a young person told you they believed their purpose was to help humankind, what would you expect them to go on to become? I personally tend to think of an activist, a politician, a religious leader, or perhaps a member of the PeaceCorps. Salk himself seemed to think it would be as a lawyer at first, but through his changing interpretation of what it means to help human kind, he was able to fight to find the best fit for him to carry out his calling.

So, the lessons from Dr. Jonas Salk? A purpose is something innate, something within you that screams to be acted upon. However, how you act upon it is up to you, and your interpretation of that purpose is the only one that matters. And thanks to Dr. Salk, we now know that our interpretation can change over time until we find the best way to carry it out.

Be safe and stay healthy. This too shall pass, and soon we will have our own Jonas Salk to laud as the one whose purpose led them to defeat COVID-19.

Nothing is What it Seems

“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.

Royal Crescent in Bath c. 1829

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.