Chasing My Shadow Purpose

I’ve written recently about how temporary and seemingly trivial things have a strange way with interfering with our purpose in life. I don’t know why I’m so interested in the idea of purpose right now, but it’s something that’s been occupying a lot of my thoughts lately.

What is my purpose?

What am I supposed to do with my life?

Are all of the seemingly unrelated steps I’ve taken so far preparing me for something else? Something bigger? Something I was created for?

These are not new questions for me. In fact, I’ve been asking them for several years and though I see glimpses of answers from time to time, I still feel like I’m searching for that place where (to paraphrase Frederick Buechner) my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

And I’m perfectly OK with not having all of the answers on this one. Where’s the fun in solving all of the great mysteries of life before the age of 30 anyway?

However, while I often wonder what my purpose in life might be, I know without a doubt what my shadow purpose is.

An extension of one of Jung’s archetypes, a shadow purpose is simply something that seems like our true purpose but in reality is just a poor copy. A shadow purpose is not inherently bad or evil — it is, in most cases, just a simple yet powerful distraction.

For example, if the purpose of my life is to throw everything I have into serving the poor, then my shadow purpose could be to simply live a decent moral life that is filled with good things but that does not involve serving the poor. That’s just one example, but most shadow purposes could probably be summed up by the phrase, “eat, drink, and be merry.”

And while there’s nothing wrong with a little food, drink, and merry making from time to time, I think we’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would honestly say that’s the highest purpose of their life.

Like I said, there’s nothing inherently evil about a shadow purpose.

For another example, consider Oskar Schindler (you know, the man who had a list and saved the lives of more than a thousand mostly Polish-Jewish refugees during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories). With history on our side, it’s fairly easy to surmise the purpose of Schindler’s life. His purpose was to save the lives of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.

I obviously don’t know a ton about Shindler, but I would guess that he was probably never in danger of becoming a Nazi. The thought of persecuting the Jewish and participating in the genocide himself probably never crossed his mind. Becoming a Nazi was probably not something that could have ever interfered with his true purpose. Schindler was clearly not a monster and he would have never wrongly assumed that something so terrible was his life’s purpose.

However, a shadow purpose for Schindler would have been anything that might have distracted him from protecting those people. What if Schindler had just kept his nose down and thought to himself, “My purpose is to run my factory and survive this war.”

Although there’s probably nothing wrong with that attitude, the lives of over a 1000 Jewish refugees might not have been saved.

Like I said, while I often wonder what my purpose in life might be, I am intimately and keenly aware of what my shadow purpose is.

For me, my shadow purpose involves living a life of comfort and ease. It’s going to lots of movies, reading tons of books, and enjoying time with friends and family. It’s chilling in my recliner and filling my evenings with the internet and television shows. It’s investing all my spare time and energy into renovating my house. It’s all those things plus a hundred other distractions, none of which are harmful in and of themselves.

But I know without a doubt that the purpose of life is so much more than those things.

I may not be privy to all the details on what it is my life is supposed to accomplish, but I know that it’s about more than the pursuit of my own personal happiness.

And so as I continually search for that place where my deep gladness AND the world’s deep hunger meet, I have to constantly remind myself that I’ll never find my life’s purpose if I’m only focused on the first half of that equation, that is, those things that make me happy.

What kinds of things make up your shadow purpose?

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I’m Bringing Sexy Back

In January of 2006, I weighed 255 el bees. By June 2006, thanks to Weight Watchers plus a whole lot of grit and discipline, I weighed in at 195.

But… it didn’t stick. Sure, I kept the weight off for a while. Then, slowly but surely, I started gaining about a pound a month for the next four years and on the first of this month, I tipped the scale right at 238 pounds. Unacceptable. I’m a dad now. I gotta take care of myself so I can be around for the long haul for little Iz and her lovely and talented mama.

So… I’m back at it, and with the help of my Weight Watchers routine, the el bee’s have already started dropping. This morning I checked in at 230 lbs. My goal is 200 by Christmas.

And I’m not alone in this quest. If you’re into the Twitterz, you can follow the progress of several other peeps who are attempting their own version of the weight loss hustle by participating in the Sexy Back Health Challenge 2011 with the hash tag: #sexyback11

Here’s my before pic:

P.S. Don’t be thrown by the word sexy in the name. This is not about being sexy. To quote the guys that came up with the challenge, “It’s just a flashy name to build community and support around the larger concept of dropping pounds and grabbing life. Everyone who is participating is doing so for different reasons and will have different kinds of goals.”

On quitting my Ph.D. program

Over the course of the last few weeks, I have wrestled with and done a lot of soul searching on whether or not to continue in my pursuit of doctoral studies. I made a list of pros and cons, I enlisted the wise counsel of several people I really respect, I read just about every other blog post ever written on why you should and shouldn’t quit a Ph.D. program, I prayed about it, I thought about it as I held my daughter sleeping in my arms, and then as Christmas break ended and the start of a new semester began, I went to class last week.

As I sat in my first class last Tuesday night and listened as the professor went over the syllabus and the requirements for the semester, it hit me and I knew the answer to the question I’d been asking myself for the last month. Sure, I was afraid to admit the answer for a couple days, but I knew what I needed to do.

When I applied to graduate school this time last year, I was in an entirely different place in my life. The lovely and talented wife was pregnant, but we didn’t know it yet. And then January 25th rolled around and we got the best news we’d ever received in our married life together when we found out we’d be having a baby. Fast forward a few months and I had been accepted to grad school. Not knowing all that fatherhood would bring into my life, I decided to go ahead and give the Ph.D. program a shot. As August arrived, Annaleise was 8 months pregnant, I destroyed the side door to our home (should have seen that one for the omen that it was), and I began taking classes. I thought to myself, if I can get through these first few months of graduate school while having a baby and making the adjustment to fatherhood, the next five years of studies will be a piece of cake. And so I slogged my way through it.

Despite not being extremely passionate about becoming a scholarly researcher, I managed to enjoy myself and stay pretty well on top of things (reading all of the reading assignments, completing all my written assignments on time, etc) for the first month of the program. That is, until September 23, 2010… the day my life changed forever with the arrival of our beautiful baby girl. She came on a Thursday and I had a paper due the following Tuesday. I did not complete the paper on time, asked for an extension for the first time in my life, and turned it in a week late.

From that point in the semester on, I started but did not complete every single reading assignment and I was lucky to begin working on any of my papers and other assignments more than 24 hours before they were due. In the process, my daughter was growing up before my eyes and I felt like I was missing more and more each day. I managed to finish the semester with an A in one class and a B in another… all in all a pretty good semester considering everything else I had going on.

However, despite what the two grades on my transcript seemed to indicate, I hadn’t given my best to anything in my life since the beginning of the program. My work had suffered, I wasn’t giving my wife and daughter (or the rest of my family & friends for that matter) the attention or time they deserved, I was neglecting all of my civic involvement (sorry fellow Rotarians), and my involvement in our church had plummeted severely. And to make matters worse, I hated the fact that I was enrolled in those classes but not actually pouring myself into the learning.

After the semester was over, I knew in my heart that I would probably not be going back in the spring though I was afraid to admit it to myself for the fear of the stigma of quitting. And then I REALLY enjoyed my time off over Christmas break. I read two books, I spent a lot of time with Annaleise and Izzy, and I did a lot of things that I wanted to do and that were important to me. And I enjoyed it all… a lot.

When it was all over and it was time to go back to class, I knew what I needed to do even though I wasn’t ready to admit it yet. However, after class last week I was finally able to be honest with myself and say that the cost of giving the next five years of my life to a degree that I want but really don’t need just wasn’t worth it to me at this time in my life. And so I made the choice to drop out of the program.

After making that decision, but before actually dropping my classes and emailing my professors, I felt like a hundred pound weight had been lifted off from around my neck. I felt free again. Free to spend my time on things that were important to me as a husband, father, friend, and man not on things that were important to me becoming the best Ph.D. student I could be. And so on Friday afternoon, I logged on to OSU’s website and officially dropped my classes for the semester. Shortly after that, I emailed my professors and let them know. And it was one of the best weekends I’ve had in a long time.

In the end, even though I know I could have pushed through and made it work the next few years, there were just too many other things that I wasn’t willing to sacrifice between now and then. I realize that I will not have a Ph.D. now and there will be career and professional opportunities that will always be just beyond my reach because of that, but (as cliche as it sounds) I am confident that I will not look back at the end of my life and wish I’d had more professional success.

And so here I am, a college dropout, who all of the sudden has a whole lot more time and cognitive surplus on his hands. I don’t know what else 2011 has in store for me, but I know two things for sure: 1) I won’t be writing any more problem statements and 2) APA style is now dead to me… at least for the next 20 years or so.

To quote an email I received over the weekend from another guy in the Ph.D. program who also dropped out this semester for reasons similar to mine, “Sometimes it takes a journey like this to understand we can’t do it all.” Amen sir. Amen.

And with that, I happily cross off #2 from my 30 before 30 list.

What happened to all the wheelbarrows?

“Once a upon a time, there was a Russian factory worker who was, it is told, responsible for pushing the factory wheelbarrow through the factory gates at quitting time. Every evening the guards would inspect the wheelbarrow and, in finding it empty, let the worker pass. This went on for some months, until one day it was discovered that the worker had been stealing wheelbarrows.”

From “The Anthropological Lens: Harsh Light, Soft Focus” by James L. Peacock

***********

The guards’ mistake was that they were so busy inspecting the contents that they ignored the container. Their focus was, too narrowly and unfortunately, on the parts and not the whole. It’s easy for me to empathize with the guards because they remind me that all too often, I too fail to see the things happening all around me from a holistic perspective. I know I’m not the only one either. All of us are blinded by our own perspective from time to time. It’s not until after we’re all out of wheelbarrows that we realize what we’ve been missing all along.

We live in a busy world. Every day, most of us (if not all) exist in a swirl of family, professional, civic, religious, personal and other types of responsibility and activity. If we’re not careful, it’s all too easy to not pay attention to and miss the myriad of significant events and important moments being wheeled past us each day. As a busy new dad, I’m trying to be intentionally conscious of and fight against this phenomenon as it plays out in my life.

What are the wheelbarrows in your life that are being stolen right out from underneath your nose… and, more importantly, who or what is steeling them?

You’ve Gotta Swim

So apparently being the dad of a newborn baby and taking a full academic load as a doctoral student are eating my lunch. I’m managing to stay afloat in those things in my life that matter the most these days but not much else. I know this is just a season of life and it will get better as I adjust to my new routine and things eventually start to level off.

However, in the meantime, I do find myself doubting whether or not I can manage this load for the next five years. And really, it’s actually not a matter of whether or not I think I have the ability to finish. What I really find myself thinking these day is this, “I know I CAN do this, but I’m not sure if I WANT to do this.”

Suffice it to say, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed and was starting to wonder if I was the only one.

Apparently I’m not.

Last night in class, our professor had what she called a, “coming to the Lord” talk with us about our adjustment to doctoral studies. She had a list of about 15 difficult adjustments that new grad students in doctoral programs typically experience in their first few months, and as she read each one, I watched as the rest of my classmates (every last one of them) began letting their guard down and nodding their heads in agreement. The guy across from me let out an audible sigh at one point and several of the ladies in class had tears in their eyes within a few minutes. After talking about each adjustment, my professor repeatedly stopped and assured us that all the feelings and struggles that we’re all having are COMPLETELY normal. She then began sharing some stories about her grad school experience and several things going on in her life right now that are causing her to feel the same way. It was one of the most real, vulnerable, and poignant academic experiences I’ve ever had.

An hour and several puddles of tears later (thanks to our more sensitive and emotionally attuned classmates), class was over and it was time to go home to our families.

When I got out to my car, I plugged in my iPod and hit shuffle. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, the song that serendipitously came on was “Swim” by Jack’s Mannequin. It’s a song written and performed by Andrew McMahon who wrote it after being diagnosed with cancer in 2005.

I’ve always really really liked this song because of how honest, real, and full of emotion it is, but last night it was exactly what I needed just when I needed it.

When you’re feeling ho hum down and overwhelmed by the world, there’s nothing quite like hearing a song about staying afloat while facing trials written by a dude who survived cancer to make you realize how insignificant your problems are. What’s that you say? You’re having a hard time staying afloat balancing work, family, school, church, and volunteer commitments? Oh… OK… well, I survived cancer.

Needless to say, by the time the song was over, I felt a lot better about everything.

I’ve included the lyrics below for anyone else who might feel like they’re expending every last ounce of energy they have just to keep their head above water. Maybe your problems aren’t as bad as trying to win a battle against cancer, but maybe they’re worse than what I’m going through right now. If so, I hope this song will be just as encouraging to you as it was to me last night. The bolded words are my doing because they’re the ones that really spoke to me last night.

You’ve gotta swim
Swim for your life
Swim for the music
That saves you
When you’re not so sure you’ll survive
You gotta swim
And swim when it hurts
The whole world is watching
You haven’t come this far
To fall off the earth
The currents will pull you
Away from your love
Just keep your head above

I found a tidal wave
Begging to tear down the dawn
Memories like bullets
They fired at me from a gun
A crack in the armor
I swim to brighter days
Despite the absence of sun
Choking on salt water
I’m not giving in
I swim

You gotta swim
Through nights that won’t end
Swim for your families
Your lovers your sisters
And brothers and friends
Yeah you’ve gotta swim

Through wars without cause
Swim for the lost politicians
Who don’t see their greed as a flaw

The currents will pull us
Away from our love
Just keep your head above

I found a tidal wave
Begging to tear down the dawn
Memories like bullets
They fired at me from a gun
Cracking me open now
I swim for brighter days
Despite the absence of sun
Choking on salt water
I’m not giving in
Well I’m not giving in
I swim

You gotta swim
Swim in the dark
There’s no shame in drifting
Feel the tide shifting and wait for the spark
Yeah you’ve gotta swim
Don’t let yourself sink
Just find the horizon
I promise you it’s not as far as you think
The currents will drag us away from our love
Just keep your head above

Just keep your head above
Swim
Just keep your head above
Swim, swim
Just keep your head above
Swim

These days, I’m doing a lot of drifting. Despite my best efforts, some days it’s taking all I’ve got to simply try to find the horizon. On days like that, I have to learn to settle for just letting the current pull me along… because it will. Eventually, no matter what trials we’re going through, we’ll all get to where we’re trying to go. We just have to keep our heads above water and swim.

What counts?

Apparently there used to be a sign hanging in Albert Einstein’s office that said,

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

Profound yet simple. Think about it for few minutes. I did and I still don’t have my mind wrapped around it completely but I suspect it has a lot of implications for becoming the man, husband, father, and friend that I want to be.

You Have Exactly Enough Time

The following post is from Mark Henson of the Spark New Thinking blog. Mark is the “chief imagination officer at sparkspace, the most exciting retreat center on the planet.” I had the pleasure of hearing Mark speak earlier this summer when he came and did a one day retreat at the university where I work. It was a great seminar and I already blogged about it here. As someone who tends to struggle with balance, over-committing, priorities, and contentment from time to time, the following post was exactly what I needed to hear when he published it this past Tuesday (which coincidentally is both my busiest day of the week and the day that has seemed quite cursed for the last several weeks).

You Have Exactly Enough Time
There is a piece of artwork from the very fun and amazing collection at Storypeople that says:

“Everything changed the day she figured out there was exactly enough time for the important things in her life.”

We’re crazy busy in both our professional and personal lives. We rush from place to place, project to project, checking our smart phones in between meetings (yes, even while driving) just to make sure we don’t miss anything. And God forbid we don’t respond to someone’s/everyone’s urgent request within milliseconds in our completely electronically-tethered world. So we type our thumbs to the bone, we make special trips to Staples to look for a bigger inbox, and we’re late for dinner because, well, we have WORK to do.

Then there’s little Timmy’s soccer, baseball, football, lacrosse, swimming, violin, trumpet, piano, karate, dance, gymnastics, art, and advanced nuclear physics classes. All between school and bedtime.

And, don’t forget: you’ve got to volunteer for the food pantry, the homeless shelter, Habitat for Humanity, Church, the old folks home, the latest disaster relief, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and the International Society For Crazy Busy People. Yes, I made that last one up, although I’m thinking of starting a local chapter anyway.

Finally, don’t forget to update your Facebook and twitter status at least 7.3 times per day or you’ll look like a total loser who simply doesn’t have much going on in his life. Because it’s not enough to be busy, it’s critical to let the world know just how busy we are.

Why do we do all of this????????

Because it’s all IMPORTANT, right?

After all, if it wasn’t all important, we wouldn’t do it, right? RIGHT???

Admit it, you smiled at those lists up there because your lists ‘aint all that different. And you do it all because it’s all important, right? (Another smile, perhaps?)

“Everything changed the day she figured out there was exactly enough time for the important things in her life.”

Confucius said it another way: “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”

Excellence at work (or home) does not come from being busy, it is the direct result of spending our time on the truly important things. To be amazing at what we do, we have to break free of the unimportant things. That’s counter-culture, counter-intuitive, and just plain hard…at first.

Busy rarely equals productive or effective.

Can you be busy being productive? Absolutely, but only after you’ve stopped being busy with all the unimportant things. You’ve had days where you were just rockin’, haven’t you? On those days you produce more in that single day than you normally do in an entire week. On those days, you drop all that stuff you normally label “important” and you focus relentlessly on being excellent, producing quality, and getting things done. That leaves pretty much zero time to do anything else. What happened to all that other “important” stuff? Hmmmm, maybe not so important after all, huh?

To practice what I preach, in order to write this article I’ve eliminated several “important” things I was going to do today. Because writing this article is more helpful, productive, and important than pretty much everything else on my list. The funny thing is, when I get back to my list I’ll end up eliminating half of it because I won’t have time to do it all. And the world will keep spinning anyway.

If you haven’t done so already, start evaluating all the things that fill up your time and take up your energy. Interrogate each item as if it was a potential life-threatening enemy: “Are you truly important, or am I just pretending that you are? If you’re not, you’re gone, amigo!”

Try it at work today. The next time you catch yourself doing something that’s busy but really not important, drop it. Trash it. Completely black it out on your to-do list with a Sharpie.

Because you (only) have exactly enough time for the important things in your life.

Guilty, convicted, and inspired sir. Thank you for your insightful ways and your positive aura.