Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Purpose of Life

The purpose of life is not to be happy. 
It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate,
to have it make some difference that you lived and lived well."
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson 

For a magazine article I was working on, I asked my mother how her two daughters -- me and my sister -- are alike despite seeming so different (most notably, my sister has seven children through birth and adoption whereas I have none by choice).
Part of my mother's answer included a statement about how we both read a lot of non-fiction books that expose us to new ideas and different perspectives. Then she said, "You are both trying to make the world a better place in your own way."

This observation stayed with me because every day I wonder whether my life makes a difference, if I'm making any situation better, or anyone feel better.
All I do is write.
My time management sucks, my organizational skills have tanked, which makes tackling multiple projects a challenge, but I have one talent I can count on, one thing I know how to do.
I write.
Having written in isolation for so long, as a mere byline for articles, that the enthusiastic response to the Field Notes book is rather overwhelming. Not in a bad way; it's overwhelming because it's the first time I'm getting a sense of how the stories I write affect people.
I am grateful for this reassurance, and appreciate the connection I'm making with readers.
It proves something I've observed casually for many years: the importance of small gestures. Not everything we do has to be grand.

I've just finished reading "The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters" (Viking) written by Emily Esfahani Smith. It's one of the best books I've ever read. It's the same kind of book I wrote about in my March 15, the kind of book that set me on my path as a writer.
Using personal stories to anchor her ideas, EES examines the five pillars of meaning: Belonging, Purpose, Storytelling, Transcendence, and Growth. It is an immensely readable book and I highly recommend it.
In the chapter about "Belonging", EES shares the experience of hospital cleaners who are ignored by doctors.
"The cleaners spoke often about how doctors and nurses, whom they would see and work with every day, would walk right past them in the hallway without saying hello." (page 68)
The cleaners believe they play an important role at the hospital yet feel they aren't noticed or appreciated. They make a point of saying how meaningful it is when patients express gratitude.
This resonated with me because, for some reason, I am conscious of those who provide a service -- cleaners and wait staff, for example -- whose effort and hard work may be overlooked, particularly in busy locales and cities where people are rushing around and preoccupied.
I try to make eye contact and smile at people who are usually ignored. This is the small gesture I make because it's within my power to do so. What cost eye contact and a smile? And I tend to make it more when I'm in an urban centre, like Moncton or Halifax, than I do when I am in my rural area; not that acknowledgement isn't needed here, it's just that I think we notice each other more. The odds that we know the cleaner or the person serving our coffee are greater.

This reminds me of an interaction my husband and I had several years ago at the train stop near my sister's home in Atlanta, Georgia. Besides the two of us, the only other person on the platform was a guy sweeping the concrete. Sadly, it's significant that he was black because in the American South, racism is still thriving. A local white couple would not have even acknowledge this gentleman, let alone speak to him; they might have even left the platform and waited for the train near the security guard.
I'm not kidding.
My husband, being a Maritimer, started talking to this man about the weather (!) and we had a really good time chatting with this cleaner while waiting for the train.

I share this as a reminder that each of us is likely already doing something nice that matters to someone else, and we may not even realize it. There is great power in a smile. A smile goes a long way to lifting others' spirits. You know how I know this? Members of a congregation sitting in the church pews on Sunday morning don't realize how unfriendly their "resting face" looks. Unless we make a conscious effort to keep a pleasant look on our faces, we tend to look at best neutral, at worst, unhappy. It's rather shocking to speak for ten minutes and not be sure if anyone likes what I'm saying.
What I say, over and over, is that we need to do all things from love.
That begins with smiling at each other. Lift your spirits, lift theirs...and so on down the track that good feeling travels.
There's that idea about compassion: "Be kind. You never know the struggle someone else had to simply get out of bed today.
A small gesture of kindness can make a big difference.

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