Are you living a life filled with purpose?
That's the opening line of the latest issue of "Mind, Mood and Memory," a publication of Massachusetts General Hospital. My answer to that question: "No."
I wish I could give a loftier response, one that reflected decades of concentrated effort toward one or more noble goals that, once achieved, would benefit humankind. Alas, the best I can point to is a series of hopes, dreams, wishes and vague plans. Some of them came true. Others didn't. But none of them was a product of a long-held, carefully crafted purpose.
The MGH article says "Living a purposeful life is associated with greater cognitive, emotional and physical health." It also helps ward off depression, withstand diversity, and perhaps produce a healthier immune system and a longer life.
One Mass General expert says that, for many people, living a meaningful life simply means having a positive impact on the lives of others. Well said. I hope that by the time a COVID-19 vaccine is developed we'll have seen millions of positive impacts take place in all parts of our beleaguered globe. From what I see and read, they're already happening.
Can you list the positive impacts you've made — or are making — on the people around you? I can think of several in my life. One of them is my cat, Ellie. I supply her with food, water and an occasionally scooped litterbox. That's about all she asks. In return she gives me affection and psychological counseling; it takes the form of a blank stare when I ask her: "What is the meaning of life?" Her silence is probably as good an answer as any.
To lead a purposeful life, many of us do have specific goals. Such as eating regularly, paying our bills, wearing our COVID masks and trying to decipher President Trump's press conferences.
It also helps us to review our past performances, to see which goals came through and which ones fell flat. To our surprise, some of life's happiest events can be our stupid purposes that somehow turned out well. A common example: our fanatic pursuit of a lover who, in the end, was exposed — just in time — as a missionary from hell.
I agree with the MGH article that says a well-defined lifelong purpose can be a marvelous thing. But to those of us who never found one (and probably never will), I submit the following adage: "An unaimed arrow often finds a worthy mark."
What does that mean? Example No. 1: At age 24, Helen had no idea of what to do with her life. Not a trace of a "purpose." But she enjoyed serving as soloist in her church choir. One Sunday, a visitor from Manhattan heard Helen nail "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" as if she owned it. After the service he handed Helen his business card. "I'm a talent scout. Call me, please." She did, and soon entered a life in show business, singing, teaching and signing autographs. Not bad for an unaimed arrow.
Example No. 2: Ralph, 17, grew up in a forgotten village in an obscure valley in Appalachia. On his high school graduation night, someone said, "Ralph, what will you do now? What is your sense of purpose?" Ralph blinked and said, "Are you kidding? No idea. Just escape, I guess." Which he did. Into the U.S. Marine Corps. Five years later, pinned down in an Iraqi hellhole, Ralph and his well-aimed rifle saved his squad by depopulating an oncoming stream of ISIS warriors. The moral? Sometimes even your enemies can provide purpose for you.
To summarize for my fellow archers who may feel worthless in lacking a life's purpose: Take heart. Just remember what you've achieved by fulfilling — or at least chasing — the goals, dreams, hopes and enthusiasms that have inspired you. You grabbed your bow and a quiver full of arrows, and let 'em fly. You didn't just sit and wait for Madam Purpose to anoint you.
And each time one of your arrows hit its target, who cared how well or poorly it was aimed?