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Sep 10 2014

“Live with Purpose” or “Live one day at a time.” Which will it be?

Published by at 7:16 am under Knowing Relationships BLOG

teeter totter



I had a very interesting conversation over the weekend with a man I’d just met. The conversation was so good that  we ended up with a better question than an answer. It’s always very satisfying to walk away with something to think about. I’ll share the question first, then the story of how we got there, then how I think I’ve answered it.

First, here’s the question:  How can you live your life according to your highest purpose and also live in the moment? And this wasn’t an idle question. It had serious consequences.

It all started on a Sunday afternoon in late August in one of Montreal’s most beautiful city parks. There was a lake with ducks, people wandering the paths around the lake, a white lodge with a café on the terrace serving lunch under the trees, a man playing accordion near the lunch tables, a great lawn with many picnic tables and grown-ups and kids and dogs all over the place, everyone very happy. Cyclists and joggers passed by one the paths and mountainous clouds passed by overhead.

My friend and I went up to a picnic table in the middle of the lawn in order to speak to two dogs who were there with their owners and soon we found ourselves in conversation with human couple as well. The big one, a friendly and thoughtful bulldog, was under the table near the woman, watching carefully, ears up for while but then got bored and settled down with but his face close to the woman’s feet, perhaps enjoying her scent. The little fluffy white dog with the cheerful smile was the man’s lap at the end of the table. The man couldn’t sit at the picnic table because his legs were unusable.  He sat in an extravagant motor operated wheel chair.

I spoke with the man.

He loved to travel when he was younger and asked me about California. Then I asked him why he was in a wheel chair and he said that in his late 20’s he had strange symptoms and after a year of chasing after a solid diagnosis he finally learned he had multiple sclerosis, an extremely unpredictable disease. He was fifty now.  For the past ten years, he’d been unable to walk or stand. He said all this rather straightforwardly and so I asked, “What had this condition taught you about life?”

He said it forced him to learn to live one day at a time. It had taken him a while to figure that out. Sometimes he still had to remind himself but basically, now, it had become part of his habitual mind-set. “Live in the moment and be grateful.” That’s what he had learned and that’s what he told others.

Earlier in the conversation, though, he had also mentioned Pastor Rick Warren’s book, “The Purpose Driven Life.”  He liked it and read it twice. However, now he wasn’t sure what his purpose was anymore. Yet he did not seem to be a man in despair, or a man depressed; not at all. The key was to live in the moment.

I thought about those two teachings and I asked him, “How can you live in the moment and also live according to your life’s purpose?”  I do think that was his question more than mine, but it was a great question. I just picked up on it and said it out load.

(I think that doing that for others is part of my own life purpose. Maybe it’s my love of learning and my curiosity. They run deep in me. I’d always rather have questions than answers. )

I said, “Are those two pieces of advice, ‘live in the moment,’ and ‘live with purpose,’ in contradiction?” I suspected that, somehow, they were like a yin and yang. If you are truly following one, then, necessarily, you will be following the other. But how would that work? How would they fit together?

That’s where we left it. That was two days ago. I’m still puzzling over it. I think that if I figure it out I end understanding something important. And I can see how it works in intimate relationships, which is one of things I am constantly studying.

When couples are settled in, i.e., on their right path, following their purpose, then  every bump in the road is no longer about whether they are on the right road, but rather about how to navigate it. As my wise collaborator in the book Rabbis in Love, Marilyn Bronstein, said, “It’s no longer a question of ‘if,’ but ‘how’.”  The shift from “if” to “how,” brings “living in the moment” and “finding your purpose” into alignment. As my wise daughter said about her wonderful marriage, “We only have two kinds of arguments. There’s the blowing off steam conversations where you sympathize and just let the smoke dissipate and don’t get too involved – just let it pass – and  then there are those other ones, real problems to solve, and those are really interesting.”

People in great relationships believe in the relationship itself. Everything else is done in service to that relationship, including all the ways you have to stand up for yourself in dealing with your partner’s blind spots and imperfections. And all that stuff is part of the “being-in-the-moment.”

Now this couple in the park did seem to have figured that much out. They had each accepted (or at least seemed to in the moment) the challenges of their situation at least as far as it had an impact on their life as a couple.  They liked their togetherness, their conversations, the fussing with the dogs, their life in Montreal with its vibrant cultural side and ease of access. They seemed very comfortable with each other and with their lives together, the way that settled down couples do.

But there was a hole it in all for him. The problem for him was that he was still struggling on how to accept his situation as an individual.  He didn’t know what to do with the fact that he loved traveling and really missed it.  There was still a nagging voice that he has to shush and say, “Cool it. We’ve got to learn to live in the moment.” He was still in tension between accepting the present and living out his purpose.

In my opinion the way to deal with that tension is not to shush up that voice of impatience. I think the answer is to think more deeply about your purpose.

Think about your purpose in life, your reason for being, and you’re on sacred ground. But what does that look like? Well, usually it feels really good. It’s whatever is completely engaging. It’s whatever you do that makes time stop. It’s what entrances you, puts you in a trance. What do you do that makes you most feel like you are in your element?  There is a part of you that already knows the answer to this question.  There is no way that you can have lived without knowing it. It is wired into you. The challenge is to name it in a way that you can think about it and plan for it.

How? Look for what you love, and not just the things that are pleasant, but the things that turn you on. Look at all those things, and then look for the underlying and unifying concepts. With this man, well, he was first a traveler, then a reader. He loves the culture in Montreal. He loves feeding his curiosity. He loves seeing things. He loves talking about what he reads. He loves exploring. He loves learning. Therefore, he is most in the present moment when he is learning and teaching.

And so it starts to add up. As long as he is doing that, he’s a happy guy who is connected to his purpose. He’s on his path. And that means he is savoring every moment. This is true for him and his wife as they carry on their relationship. This is true for him as carries on his education.

The only thing missing in the picture, as far as I could see, briefly, was that just discovery and learning won’t be enough.  So my guess is that he’ll complete the package when he’s also producing, i.e., teaching, or something like that.

I don’t think I’m protecting my own psychology onto him but I do see similarities between us, and it was there from the start in the extraordinary ease of our conversation. . After all, this blog, sharing what I’ve learned, is a labor of love and a pleasure.

Finally, speaking of sharing, let me offer this last piece: I don’t think enlightenment is a all-at-once-and-in-all-areas sort of thing. I think it’s more like building a garden, one part at a time. At first you can be restless about getting the job done, but after a while, the pleasure is in doing the work and you really don’t want it to be finished.

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