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?


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.

When I Grow Up To Be A Man

On the day I turned twenty-one, a good friend emailed me the lyrics to the Beach Boys’ song, “When I Grow Up To Be A Man” and told me I should read the questions asked therein, think about my life, and imagine the man I wanted to be some day. He was joking, but took his email to heart and spent a few minutes thinking about it. It was a good time of personal reflection and by the time I went through and answered each question to myself, responded to his email to say thanks, and moved his message to my recycle bin, I was feeling simultaneously good and challenged about the man I was and the man I wanted to be.

In just over three weeks, I will turn 29 years old. As I find myself knocking on the door of my thirties, I thought I’d go back to this song, re-visit my answers, and see where I am today as a man.

When I grow up to be a man:

Will I dig the same things that turn me on as a kid?

Yes and no. I still love University of Oklahoma football, music, pancakes on a Saturday morning, swimming, and acting a fool. I’m not as keen today on playing in the dirt with my Hot Wheels, riding my bike everywhere, getting on my older brother’s nerves, lighting things on fire, and playing video games… though I still have my old Nintendo with Game Genie and my favorite game, Contra: UP UP DOWN DOWN LEFT RIGHT LEFT RIGHT B A B A START baby!!!

Will I look back and say that I wish I hadn’t done what I did?

Sure, but then again, maybe not. Would I have liked to avoid picking up a handful of destructive habits along the way? Would I have liked to avoid a few mistakes, road traps, and bumps in the road? Definitely, but everything I’ve done (good or bad) and every decision I’ve made (right or wrong) up to this point in my life has helped shape who I am today.

Will I joke around and still dig those sounds when I grow up to be a man?

If by “those sounds” the boys of the beach meant those that come from our posterior bits when we’ve had a little too much fiber, then by all means, my answer is yes. At almost 29 years of age, my immaturity betrays me here. My 4 and 6 year old nephews aren’t the only ones who still think farting is funny.

Will I look for the same things in a woman that I dig in a girl?

I’m not really “looking” anymore but considering I married my high school sweetheart, the answer to this one is probably still yes. Having said that, I’d be giving my adolescent self too much credit if I said I was attracted to the same things about her at sixteen as I am today at twenty-eight. If I’m being perfectly honest here, at sixteen I was more interested in how good her tan legs looked in that dress the first day of class our junior year than any of her more intrinsic qualities. I still dig all the same things about her today that I did back then, but the attraction is so much deeper now than it was back in 1998. Before you start getting all pukey on me, I will move on to the next question.

Will I settle down fast or will I first wanna travel the world?

Both. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to some pretty cool places in my day despite technically being “settled down.” After college, the wife and I backpacked through Europe for about a month. We slept on trains and in hostels, ate a lot of bread and cheese, showered less than once a day, did our laundry in the sinks of public bathrooms, wore the same three or four pairs of clothing the entire time, and visited about 12 different cities in 5 or 6 countries before coming back home. Since then, we’ve been blessed to go to Australia (where she grew up), back to Italy, the Bahamas, and all over the good ol’ US of A. I’ve always valued travel and I don’t think being settled down precludes you from the adventure of traveling the world. There’s still a lot of places we want to go.

Well I’m young and free but how will it be when I grow up to be a man?

Life is hard sometimes. Bills need to be paid. House and car repairs need to be made. People pass away. Friends move away. The lawn needs to be mowed. Balancing family, church, work, and volunteer commitments can be a struggle. No important decision is ever black and white. The heights of my selfishness and the depths of my failures become painfully obvious at times. But then again, life has a funny way of being just as beautiful and good as it is difficult. Relationships deepen. Work can be delegated. Children come along. Passions are discovered and cultivated. Memories are made. Redemption is found. Priories become easier to prioritize as we know ourselves better.

Will my kids be proud or think their old man is really a square?

Hopefully both, but it’s probably too soon to tell. Without a ton of effort on my part, if I’m just around, I know Izzy will probably adore me for at least 9 or 10 good years before she hits that pre-teen stage that marks the beginning of my 5 or 6 six year slide in coolness. And that’s OK. Some of the best parents I know aren’t highly esteemed as cool in the eyes of their kids, but they are loved and respected. I will act a fool at times, I will make dumb jokes, and I will probably unintentionally and even sometimes intentionally embarrass my kids. However, when they get to be my age, I hope they will appreciate me just as much as I do their grandparents.

When they’re out having fun yeah, will I still wanna have my share?

It’s probably too soon to tell on this one also. Though I do commit here and now that I will not try to live vicariously through them… at least not in an unhealthy way. If the last twenty-nine or so years of my life are any indication, I’ll probably still enjoy the same mix of mature and totally immature hijinks that I do today.

Will I love my wife for the rest of my life when I grow up to be a man?

You better believe it!

What will I be when I grow up to be a man?

A husband who’s wife loves him? A family man who kids adore him? A good man known for his generosity, kindness, sense of humor, and warm, calming spirit? I hope so.

When I grow up to be a man.

How about you?

When I’m an Old Man (Serious Version)

On Wednesday, I wrote a list of things I will do when I’m an old man. Most, if not all of them were pretty tongue and cheek. It even inspired me to create a new category to post it in. However, as I was writing it, I kept thinking of more serious things that I wanted to be doing when I’m an old man. And that’s what this list is all about. Without any further ado, when I’m an old man:

  • I will still buy flowers for my wife and take her on dates. Just doing my part to keep the lovin alive. If I outlive her, I will take flowers to her grave on a regular basis.
  • I will rise with the fish before the birds. I will watch the former and catch the latter. Go ahead… just try to analyze that one. I dare ya.
  • I will give away lots of money. I have no idea what “lots of money” will mean for me when I’m an old man, but I’d love to be giving away at least half of whatever annual income I have at the time. If I have any wealth to speak of, I hope to leave it all to charity also. Sorry Iz… hopefully by the time you’re in your 50’s you won’t need your dad’s inheritance.
  • I will mentor younger men. If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you’ve probably figured out by now how much I value mentoring. Most of my experience with mentoring so far in life has been on the receiving end. I hope to some day be on the giving end.
  • I will retire because it’s time for me to step aside not because I want to check out mentally or live a life of ease. I value working and though it’s not the most important thing I do, I’m a firm believer that men were meant to work. There’s nothing wrong with retirement, but I enjoy what I do for a living and can’t see myself quitting just so I can spend more time on selfish pursuits. I may work less when I’m an old man and eventually I will retire, but I will do it because I feel a tugging in my heart to do it and/or for the benefit of whatever organization I’m working for at the time not because I think it will make my life easier.
  • I will read lots of books. I love to read and don’t make as much time for that these days as I’d like but when I’m an old man, I will make time.
  • I will write memoirs of various significant events from my lifetime. My mom’s dad, who I’ve written about before, did this about his time in the Navy and I love going back and reading that stuff.
  • I will affectionately call my grown children and grandchildren, “Kiddo.” I learned this from my mom’s dad and, even in adulthood, having him call me kiddo always made me feel good inside.
  • I will take my grandchildren (if I’m blessed enough to have them) fishing. I envision this being like the opening scene from The Andy Griffith Show. I will instruct them on the ways of silent fishing and tell them that talking scares the fish away even though I know there’s no truth to that at all.
  • I will tell my grandchildren stories from my childhood and early adulthood. My dad’s dad has Alzheimer’s and so his short term memory is pretty much non-existent. His long term memory, on the other hand, is completely spot on. I love listening to him tell stories about his teenage years, how he met my grandmother, his first job, what his college days were like, etc. I think telling stories to your grandkids is one of the greatest gifts a grandparent can give.
  • I will tell my grandchildren stories about their parents. I also love listening to my grandparents tell stories about my mom and dad. It’s almost like a nostalgic form of voyeurism into a time and world which I have no firsthand knowledge of… I can’t get enough of it!
  • I will wear bib overalls with nothing under them on a regular basis.
  • While neither Wednesday’s version of this list or today’s is meant to be all inclusive, if I’m blessed enough to live into my 80’s I’d love to think that some of the items from both lists would be a part of who I am and how I live.

    Now that I’ve got my 80’s all figured out, if the good Lord grants me a long life, it looks like I only have 51 more years of manhood to figure out between now and then.

    When I’m an Old Man

    Photo by Avi Revivo {}

    For the purposes of this post, I am defining an old man as someone in his mid to late 80’s. When I’m an old man:

  • I will carry candy in my pockets to give to kids at the grocery store and at church. Who knows what society will be like by the time I’m an old man… maybe I’ll need to stick to doing this at church.
  • I will wear bib overalls with nothing under them a large majority of the time. Obviously when special occasions, such as the ones listed above, call for it I will change my attire. However, I’ve always thought there’d be something really freeing about spending my days wearing a pair of bib overalls with nothing under them. Unfortunately this is a luxury of the old… but I’m willing to wait.
  • I will be really nice to some people and really mean to others. I will be really inconsistent with this one and make a sport out of trying to be obnoxiously rude and overly kind to the same people multiple times each day. I know this will throw people off, but I will get a good kick out of watching how they react. This would never fly today, but when I’m an old man, people will probably just take it and think to themselves, “Bless his heart.” or “He comes from a different time.” This too is a luxury of the old.
  • I will offer my advice on life to anyone and everyone who will listen and even those who won’t.
  • I will start a lot of sentences with the phrase, “Back in my day…” Who am I kidding, I already do this now. I hope to get worse and worse as time goes by.
  • I will drive down the street with my windows rolled down listening to gangsta rap, or whatever’s the equivalent of gangsta rap in 2061. I plan to give “they see me rollin” and “catch me ridin dirty” entirely new meanings at that time.
  • I will use Facebook and YouTube and Twitter prolifically. Admittedly, I realize these three services might not be around still when I’m an old man, but that’s not the point. The point is that I commit now to becoming adept at some current technology that seems (because of my age) a bit out of my grasp. At parties and family get togethers, people will comment, “Grandpa Michael sure does love the YouTubes. Did you see the video he posted yesterday of himself wearing bib overalls and handing out candy in the grocery store?”
  • I will call younger men brochacho, broseph, bromigo, and occasionally brojangles. I don’t know how you feel about this one, but I would immediately have a lot of love and respect for any man in his 80’s or older who called me by one of those terms of endearment.
  • I will fist bump. People may talk about me behind my back for this one. They may say smirk and say to themselves, “Bless his heart. He comes from a different time. He’s still so stuck in the 2000’s.” but I don’t care.
  • I will walk around the men’s locker room at my local YMCA wearing nothing. I’ve seen older dudes doing this before. Admittedly, I always find it a bit unsettling at first, but honestly… I’m just impressed they’re still coming to the gym and working out in their 80’s. I say wear that nakedness like the proud badge of honor that it is old brotha.
  • I will get people’s names wrong on purpose and see how long it takes them to correct me and/or whether they correct me at all. This is just fun and plays to the side of my personality that enjoys the occasional social experiment and the awkward interactions that follow.
  • If by some off chance I happen to outlive the lovely and talented wife, I will regularly and harmlessly flirt with women half my age. If one of these 1/2 my age 40 year old women happens to respond to my flirting, I will turn every topic that comes up in our conversation back to a story about my late wife.
  • I will no longer wear sunscreen. I’ve always hated the way that crap feels on my skin, and if I make it to 80 the last thing I’m going to worry about is death by skin cancer.
  • I will have a dog that appears older than I am, but that (in reality) is just really lazy. Preferably said dog will have long droopy ears and eyelids that hang way down over his eyes. I will call him Hound Dog.
  • I realize it’s awful presumptuous for me to assume I’ll even live to see my 80’s. I’ve been to nursing homes before, and let’s be candid here… there are just not a lot of old 6’4″ dudes walking around those places. Being tall may have its perks, but when it comes to longevity of life, I think the short guys have the advantage. The term, “little old man” had to have come from somewhere, didn’t it? However, if I do happen to make to the glorious old age of 80 and beyond, these are just some of the amusing things I hope to be doing at that time. I will post a more serious list later in the week.

    Celebrating the Small Stuff

    I lost my wallet yesterday. I’m pretty sure that I accidentally threw it in the trash in the morning whilst cleaning out my car. I didn’t realize I’d lost it until the afternoon, and by that time the trash can’s (at my place of employment) contents had been taken to the dumpster, and as luck would have it Monday is trash day, so I couldn’t even go dumpster diving.

    When I realized what I’d done, I was pretty angry at myself. Recovering from a lost wallet is such a hassle–a real time suck. Calling credit card companies, replacing insurance cards, and worst of all a trip to the DMV…it would be a real inconvenience.

    But that’s about it. An inconvenience. Nothing would be permanently hurt (the good thing about my wallet ending up in a landfill is that credit card fraud would be highly unlikely). I lost nothing that couldn’t be replaced (except the wallet itself…that thing was my favorite wallet since high school).

    In the past, it would have taken me quite a while to understand this. I might have stomped around for a while, literally grumbling, figuratively fuming, and probably being an all-around jerk.

    Yesterday, though, I kept things in perspective. Now, I’m not perfect–I did speak a bit shortly to my wife even though she’d just helped me by giving me a phone number to our bank. But in general, I feel like my response to losing my wallet was pretty manly.

    So I’ll celebrate the small victories and try to improve for next time. (I’m sorry babe!)