I sometimes feel adrift. I’m 48, likely more than halfway through my life, and this drifting has become clearer to me as I look forward a decade or so and think about what life might look like in retirement. It used to be that our kids gave our lives structure. Now that one has moved out and the other drives, they provide structure on a macro scale — what days we all have off together — but not so much at the daily level. On a daily basis, work gives my life structure.
When I think about it at the surface level, retirement sounds phenomenal. No demands on my time, no obligations, my life is completely my own to direct however I want. But sometimes, when faced with time without demands or obligations, even just on weekends, I realize, I don’t know what direction to go.
If you’re a regular reader, it will come as no surprise that I found some great insights in a podcast episode. I tell you, I love the Hidden Brain podcast. On my post-Thankgsiving run, I listened to their Cultivating Your Purpose episode, where they open with a scene from The Graduate, where a young college graduate floats in a swimming pool, not looking for work, not looking towards graduate school, just adrift while his dad asks him what his plans are next, now that his parents have spent all this money to put him through college.
On the podcast, they talk about how a lot of us feel adrift like that, especially in transitions like graduating from college, mid-life, or as we begin thinking about retirement. We feel a sense of languishing. Those who have a sense of purpose feel less adrift. They have aspirations for the future, and those aspirations give them direction. On the podcast, they share two questions you can ask yourself to see if you have a sense of purpose:
- Do you feel like your life has a clear direction?
- Do you feel your daily activities are engaging? Important?
The first question I can answer easily: no. If my life had a clear direction, I don’t think I would have been so eager to listen to this podcast, and I don’t think I’d be wondering so much about what to do with myself when the kids are gone. The second question is more clear to me. I do feel like most of my daily activities are engaging: I exercise my body and mind, I learn, I laugh, I share joy and love with my family and friends, I help keep our home tidy and our bodies fed, I eat dinner with my people every night, I pet and feed and love the cats, I give my energy and brain power to a company I feel has integrity and whose mission I believe in, I appreciate beauty and excellence, both in human creativity and in the natural world.
Are these things important? I think so. They don’t save lives or the planet, they’re not activism, but they matter on a small scale.
I’m hung up on the direction thing, though. I don’t know what my direction is, and I feel like that’s pretty important to purpose. For example, if I had a year to do whatever I wanted, what would I do? My first instinct is to say I’d travel, slowly. By that, I mean that I’d spend significant time in each place I visited so that I could get a true taste of what life is like there. But even then, what would I do on a daily basis? I’m not saying I don’t want to travel or that this is a terrible idea, I’m trying to get at why — why do I want to travel? What’s my driver? Because that’s what will give me direction on what to do on a daily basis.
My husband and I went to see The Banshees of Inisherin Friday night. In the beginning of the movie, the main character, Pádraic, is abandoned by his best friend, Colm. We soon learn that Colm does this because he considers Pádraic to be dull. Dull, dim, and “a nice guy.” Pádraic, the good one of all of them on the tiny island off of Ireland. Not super sharp, pretty clueless, but honest to goodness nice.
Throughout the movie, Pádraic suffers loss after loss until I began to despair for him. Sometimes I am comforted by our smallness in the vastness of the universe. We are insignificant. Our smallness provides a sense of proportion when life’s problems seem overwhelming. Other times, our smallness, our insignificance, our meaninglessness in the grand scheme of the universe raises the question of “If we don’t matter, what’s the point? Why bother?” This is the feeling I began to get on behalf of Pádraic.
And I think this is where purpose comes in. Not meaning, which looks backwards to make sense of the life you’ve already lived, but purpose, which looks forward to the life you continue to live for. In the movie, when it seems Pádraic really has nothing left, and he may as well just give up on life, you realize, no, he does have a reason to live. His life has purpose, he has purpose: to care for the innocents, to stand up for himself, to be good and nice. In that sense, Pádraic the dullard has a strong identity and is less adrift than others in the movie.
So what’s my purpose? My first thought was that it’s to appreciate being alive. To enjoy and love the world around me. To acknowledge the gifts of life, to notice them, to receive them, and to celebrate them, like in The Color Purple when Shug says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
But is that enough, though? Is “appreciate being alive” direction? Loving my husband, my kids, my family, and my friends is a huge part of that appreciation, but I think they need a specific mention. The most important thing to me is to love my people, and to make them feel loved. It’s something I’m by no means perfect at, and will keep working towards for the rest of my life.