There is a lot to explore in the idea of changing the mindset of recovery to that of finding purpose for the future. Just as I could undo the belief in my perpetual illness, I could also undo the belief that there had been little meaning or value in what I had done in the past. In other words, purpose might not be something I have yet to discover.
The insistent verdict of depression that I’ve accepted for so long, with its refrain of my worthlessness and failure as a person, only undermined the idea that I could ever have done anything of value in the past, or could in the future. I’ve known for a long time that what depression told me wasn’t true, but I believed that it was. I had to be able to change that mindset, and I remembered a couple of famous quotes:
– Pascal said in his Pensees about the search of a doubting man for God:
“You would not be seeking Him, if you had not already found him.”
– Gandhi once said in a speech, as quoted in Conquest of Violence:
“The bond of the slave is snapped the moment he considers himself a free being. He will plainly tell the master: I was your bondslave till this moment, but I am a slave no longer…”
I had to stop thinking I was a slave to this condition; I had to see the purpose I had already found.
I do not in any way mean to imply that major depression is only a matter of mindset and belief. No distortion of thought and emotion that can drive people to kill themselves could only be that. But it has been true for me that until belief, conviction and thinking had started to change, there was no hope for dislodging depression as the major force in my life.
How could I begin to sort out my experience and find this purpose and direction – or meaning, as Viktor Frankl puts it? I wanted to focus first on my work life, where I had recently made a huge breakthrough. The new sense of excitement, however, had only served to heighten the contrast with the negative feelings I still had about what I had done in the past. To change that old belief about my life up to that point – especially my work life – I needed some method to start sorting it out and help me cut through the confusion that had previously made this task so difficult.
Though it’s somewhat embarrassing to admit it, I found a simple tool not in the writing of a philosopher, spiritual leader or psychologist but in a blog post by one of the online gurus of marketing. Chris Brogan *wrote* about the idea that people trying to market their own services needed to present a simple story about who they were, what their passion was and what unifying purpose tied together everything they had done in their careers.
Taking this method out of the context of “personal branding,” I looked back at the types of work I had done to find that unifying story. A couple of things stood out.
I have always tried to interpret between groups and individuals of different values, cultures and histories so they could more effectively communicate and learn from each other.
I have always done this work with people in conflict and have had a driving interest in learning what they had faced in their life experiences and how these encounters had shaped their values and beliefs.
I have worked through many media and professional roles, but my most effective and fulfilling has been writing.
To get to the heart of my work life: I’m a writer, interpreter and mediator. Writing is what I’m most passionate about because I love the written word and because it is my method of discovery. It doesn’t even matter how good I might be. It’s what I do.
This is not news to me at an intellectual level. What has been building for some time – and is new – is the inner conviction, the felt belief, that there is plenty of meaning and value in the essential work I have always done. My purpose is already there, and I’m running with it. This is my way of acting in the world instead of hiding my fearful and doubting self in a thick blanket and imagining I’m invisible.
That’s an insight about my work life. It’s only step one.
What have you found in looking back in time to find the purposes that have shaped what you’ve tried to do? Whether you’ve been successful or frustrated is not the point. What’s been there all along?
Image Credit: Some Rights Reserved by farlane at Flickr.
I have had two sets of purposes: meeting and exceeding the expectations of others (including God), and the second is what is left after I have stripped away the expectations of others, including God. I don’t think the great revelations in life just “come upon us.” They are not a “visitation.” The revelations in my life as far as purpose is concerned are a product of evolution. A survival of the fittest and most durable behaviors and ideas and beliefs out of all the stuff I have tried over the years — the ones that have moved me away from the need for approval, away from the fear of judgment, and toward what brings peace and contentment and genuine appreciation for the moments I can help someone else.
Yeah, that sounds a little self-serving and even dubious. But I will give an example of what I’m talking about. The stripping away of others’ expectations would have come in handy when I was 18, but it didn’t start happening till I was 55. I found the part of the steel trap that bit into my soul and kept it chained to depression was all the things I had been TOLD I would love to do. Play the piano! Pursue art! Make friends — the more the better! Obey God! Since I was convinced this was the way (mostly by my mother) I tried harder and harder. Practice piano 5 hrs a day. Get a degree in fine art. Read the Bible and pray. Be a good girl. I never got the “make friends” thing because I was a very private introvert, but I certainly tried. I still deal with these things every day because I believed the lie for so long. The cult of family values, I call it. Sometimes when depressed, I return to these old stand-bys trying to get relief. The revelation was: It is okay to do what I like to do. It is okay to stop doing what I don’t enjoy doing. As Bertrand Russell said, “Time enjoyed is not time wasted.” Now, I write for hours. Even if no one ever reads it, it is the most joyful and rewarding thing I have ever done. And because of that, I have pried the teeth apart on that steel trap and begun to explore my environment like a young child.
If you are told over and over that doing this or that results in a reward, what do you do? You salivate when that bell rings, expecting reward. I found that while I was good at art, it was not my passion. Even when I was praised for it, even when I was commissioned to do it, even when I won awards for it, my soul was dying in the teeth of the trap. Bleeding out all my energy and time. Now, I understand why I never felt rewarded, why it depressed me to keep doing art. Now I understand why I can write all day and half the night and never get tired. I have to literally pull myself back from the keyboard and use a timer to remind myself take breaks.
Most importantly, for me writing is the salve on all the wounds of life. It is how I figure out what I want to do next. It is how I learn about relationships, and what needs to be put into play to make relationships work. It is more important to write ABOUT art than to create art.
And I’m going on too long here. But try silencing all those bells and voices that have conditioned you to follow a certain career or life path. Reward is where you feel it, not where you are told to dig.
Isn’t it amazing to discover / uncover our vocation? In my experience, there’s been an organic unfolding over time … over many years, since I was about 21 years old. I’m now 50 and just beginning to *convict myself* to the work that I do best: writing, editing, reading, thinking, conversing. It’s so much more challenging for those of us who aren’t market-oriented (?) to create our place in the working world … but to arrive at this place of conviction, no matter what happens with it, is such a gift … and a relief.
Viktor Frankl’s convictions have been reminding me of what is possible (in so many ways) for about 26 years now …
Thanks, John …
Jalya – It’s also taken me a long time, not so much to find out what my work was, but to knock down a lot of inner walls that stood between me and getting into it as my primary activity. I wish I had found Frankl 26 years ago – and discovered everything I’ve learned in the past two years back then. However, it’s onward from here! I’m so glad you’ve gotten to this point – and can communicate so beautifully what your experience has been.
My best — John
Bobby Revell says
Hi John! This is an very meaningful article. Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” is possibly the most important book I’ve ever read (in a deeply personal way).
Had I not been a drug addict, had I not been homeless, had I not suffered tremendous depression; lack of self belief and really poor self-image, I would have been a totally different person, and I honestly in no way could imagine who that person would have been. I’d say more than anything, it was the horrific events and rising up through it all that shaped exactly who I am. I should be dead, but I am not and I thank God for this gift of life I hold so dear at this very moment. My true love is writing fiction, and I am absolutely dedicated to what I do. I will be published and only death can stop me. Death is my guide to life, and knowing I will die makes me appreciate living. I cannot cry for or bask in past mistakes, but I can live now and for the remainder of my days 🙂
Hi Bobby – What a powerful statement this is! Living now without worry about the past and with determination to do what you’re dedicated to – that is the same lesson I’ve learned. Reading Frankl also helped me see that the struggle I’ve been through to get here is part of my purpose – it has taught me so much, painfully to be sure, but taken me places I needed to go.
Thanks so much for summing up your profound sense of the gift of life.
All my best to you — John
Wellness Writer says
I enjoyed this post a lot. I have recently gone through a similar period, and I’ve decided that for me, it’s all a question of perception.
When I am depressed, it seems like nothing I’ve done has been important, and I can’t find the threads that suggest I’ve been perfecting the skills I’m now using.
I think about the failures rather than the successes. I look back on years when I wasn’t happy at work, or decided I was pursuing the “wrong career,” and think of it as time-wasted.
When the depression is over, I look back and realize that everything I’ve done has enabled me to be where I am today, and that’s a good thing. I realize that even when I wasn’t writing about themes that are as important as what I’m currently writing about, I was perfecting my skills.
And even though it sometimes feels as if I haven’t learned one thing from a lifetime of depressive episodes, I’ve learned a lot.
When I read the comments from the people who read my blog, I realize that my ability to help and motivate others is due to everything I’ve learned, and my ability to write about it with the clarity that comes from years of perfecting my craft!
Hello, Susan – Damn straight your writing is clear – always beautiful work. And you’re so right about all the past work helping to perfect skills rather than being something negative. Isn’t it strange how we can flip from one way of looking at life and another – it’s very opposite?
One thing that helps me stop the negativity about the past is to realize that whatever regret, pain, harm to others happened – all that was part of a purpose too. That struggle with life in my particular way was what had to be for me to get a much deeper understanding – and, as you say, to inform my writing and help me to share insights with others.
Thanks so much for this really helpful comment!
All my best to you — John
Great food for thought, John. I need to stop by more regularly (things have been so incredibly hectic for me–as usual, lol).
One of the things that I have struggled so mightily with is accepting myself as a ‘good person’ –and it really is as simple as that. Likely because of the abuse I endured as a child, I grew up thinking something was terribly wrong with me–I was insecure and lacked self confidence. I believe what happened to me (in part) was a self-fulfilling prophecy; where I had become so used to believing I was ‘bad’ that I became a ‘bad’ person in many ways.
In recovery, I had to reframe how I viewed myself. And this was on the deepest, most fundamental level. I was not even ready to think of what ‘purpose’ I might have in the world (such as being a psychologist, or a teacher, or a writer), but just in viewing myself in simple, positive terms. That had to be my purpose.
And it became a real purpose with me–to become a better person and it is something I still work on constantly. To help people who need my assistance–either in small or big ways and to do whatever I could to be of service to the world. That was my purpose and it still is.
Those random acts of kindness and in giving myself in service to the world have greatly redefined how I view myself. Because I finally started viewing myself in a more positive light–I could then go in further directions with my purpose–such AS being an insightful psychologist, a passionate teacher, or a fledgling writer.
I loved thinking about this again–thank you, dear friend–
That’s so true – I’ve been through a similar process – first dealing with the feeling of being wrong, fulfilling some of the negative expectations my parents conveyed, then working for years to change my inner beliefs about myself. For some of us, I suppose, the difficulty of simply trying to live and figuring out how to do that forms the purpose of life. Once through that, we can feel and believe that we are at last who we’d hoped to be – if we survive to get that far. That sense of service to the world – trying to help people through these struggles – is something I should probably have emphasized at the end of this post.
Thanks, friend, for telling that part of your story here.
All love to you — John
I’m here to shed light. Once someone understands or finds their core my distinctive work is over. They will probably want support, help along the way and so – all that is follow up. My job is the shedding of light. The other stuff other people could probably do just as easily (though usually people want to maintain the relationship). I hope this makes sense.
That does make sense, and it’s a wonderful way to put it. Being able to say it in a concise way like that indicates real clarity about who you are and what you do. No surprise, of course, given the wisdom and calmness of your posts.
Thank you — my best as always –