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Finding My Purpose: Is That All There Is?

At 60, this author and professor searches for meaning in her life

By Michele Weldon

The lyrics in Peggy Lee’s pop song “Is That All There Is” seemed as inscrutable to me as she was. But it was 1969 and I was 11. What did I know of the world, observing this honeyed-voice guest on one of many TV variety shows I watched in the family room?

Finding My Purpose: Is That All There Is?
Credit: Adobe

 “Is that all there is? Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing. Let’s break out the booze. And have a ball.”

Her refrain stuck with me because I disagreed. The meaning of life surely could not be just booze and dancing (though I will occasionally make a case for the dancing).

Viewing Life as More Finite

Today, at 60, I am viewing life as more finite than I have — ever. Twelve years a cancer survivor, I am realistic; I had the type of breast cancer that comes back.

At my annual mammogram recently, I spilled tears of anticipation just signing in at the front desk. It was here in 2006 that a routine checkup found my cancer, without symptoms, without a hint.

I was reassured when the doctor on my latest visit showed me the 360-degree views indicating there was no change and explained that I am likely to survive many more years. The deadline pushed ahead, I could breathe.

Purposefulness: A Buzzword for My Boomer Generation

Purposefulness, mindfulness, meaning — these are multi-million-dollar buzzwords for my boomer generation, worthy of conferences, webinars, guidebooks, coaches, consultants, counselors, TED Talks and keynotes, all aimed at understanding the point of it all.

I am not alone in my self-questioning (an extension of the persistent Imposter Syndrome, I gather) that whatever I have done or will do may never be enough. There are always those whose imprint on the world and history are infinitely larger; Antoni Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona comes to mind, along with the indelible legacies of artists, teachers, scientists and thinkers across the globe and across time.

Some may argue the quest for meaning is sheer hubris, a byproduct of the self-indulgence of privilege, at a time when millions of people work just to survive, pay bills and cover medical costs. And, for so many, the looming insecurity of retirement without a financial cushion is daunting. Purpose, perhaps, is a frivolous consideration.

Still others are content with their accomplishments as well as their limits.

Happier When Finding Purpose

It's not that purpose will make you delirious or pay your mortgage and your prescription refills, but I’ve found that as a writer engaged in many different types of work, I am happier when I am working on projects I feel matter beyond the immediate.

I’m not alone. A University of Cambridge study recently found that women in all socioeconomic classes felt suffered less frequently from anxiety disorders if they believed their lives had meaning and purpose.

Part of my growing focus on finding purpose is about getting older.

As I age, it is natural that there are more funerals I attend, more appropriate flowers I send and more Facebook comments I post saying I am sorry for your loss. Lately the fallen friends, lovers, spouses, mentors, even icons I don’t know personally are often around my age. I am always doing the math. In doing so, I am trying to inject urgency into the meaning of the days of my life I have remaining — not that I am privy to my own expiration date.


My Parents' Peaceful Resignation

I lack the incandescent faith my mother and father possessed in their lives and deaths, aiming for what they always imagined to be a happy ending.

My father died in 1988 in his early 60s; my mother in 2002 at 80. I believe both of them (devout Catholics for life) knew where they were going all along.

The devoutly faithful have “cognitive flexibility,” I understand, and like prolific author C.S. Lewis, see the paradox of discomfort and pain not as punishment, but as a chance for a growth spurt in faith, and a peaceful resignation that in the end, all will be revealed.

A recent study in Scientific Reports focused on genetic contributions to a person’s sense of well-being, and whether that well-being was hedonistic (associated with happiness) or eudaimonic, associated with the meaning of life. The results from more than 220,000 DNA samples show a genetic correlation between the types of  responses.

Wired to Find Meaning in Our Lives

Some people, the researchers found, are wired to find meaning in their lives. That may include me.

The other night I had a dream, and in it my mother was about 50, the age she was when I turned 16. In the dream, I was the age I am now, sitting in an uncomfortable chair next to my younger mother in a crowded doctor’s office waiting room. I was in line for cancer treatment.

It is not new for me to dream I have cancer. Every year, I think the cancer will return silent and apocalyptic. And when I do, I worry that I have failed as a person because I have not done enough with my life, not demonstrated true purpose, not accomplished much nor inspired many.

Sure, I could glance at my resumé filled with years of impressive job titles and hyperlinks, or a stack of my published books with my name on the cover and spine. I can look at the photos in my home of my three grown sons — doing well — whose lives have depended on me. I can make a rapid mental inventory of people I have mentored, influenced, hopefully helped.

But is it enough? Am I enough?

I know I do not have the capacity, intellect, genius or skillset to change the world on a big scale. But I do want to feel this is not all there is.

Michele Weldon
Michele Weldon is an author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University, senior leader with The OpEd Project and editorial director of Take The Lead, a global women's leadership initiative. Her latest book is "Act Like You're Having a Good Time." Read More
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