Life Does Not Have A Purpose

It’s Memorial Day weekend and my sons and I traveled to a place my ancestors helped settle. There’s even a monument honoring my great-great grandfather. This got me thinking. His life had obvious purpose. He accomplished something lasting. What about my own life? I was sitting in a doctor’s office several years ago devouring an article that told me the sure way to be happy was to figure out my purpose and not be distracted from it.

I defined purpose as one’s intention or objective and I set out to find my own. Mind you, I was already over 40 and had likely lived the majority of my life. It took me two and a half more years to figure it out. I did it through watching Ted Talks, and scouring libraries of self-help advice. I did it by honestly answering the soul-scouring questions:

  1. What am I passionate about?
  2. What did I dream of being before the world told me I couldn’t be that thing?
  3. What makes time fly for me?
  4. What are my natural talents?
  5. If resources were not limited, what would I do?

All valid probes. And once I had the answers, off I went like a lit firecracker. I chided my grown children for not getting on their own paths to purpose. I pounded out a book to help others find their purpose. I preached from pulpits that we’re all on this earth to follow a path that leads to our own happiness. It worked. The book sold. People told me they were inspired by the message. (My still-searching kids, of course, avoided me like.)

Looking back on that stretch of effort, I cringe. Because now I know that I was wrong. Life does not have a purpose. Don’t stone me for saying so. It’s true. YOU have a purpose. Life is not about finding the “right” road out of a zillion possibilities. It’s about traveling as many as we can. It’s about the journeys we take and not just the destinations at which we arrive. That means life has many purposes. YOUR life has many purposes and you decide what they are.

To prove this, I conducted a little field research. I talked with all kinds of people from all kinds of places and stations in life. The one commonality they had was that they were all living a life of purpose. That means they were happy. Fulfilled. And useful to humanity. Here’s where we get so confused and frustrated. We mistakenly think that purpose is what we do. It’s not. My definition of the concept was technically accurate, but far from complete. Purpose is about WHY we exist. WHY we create. WHY we do what we do.

Right now, as I type this fire is crackling inside of my soul. It’s true. It’s simple. And it will change your life if you just remember that your purpose is within and not without.

A half dozen things I learned from people who live purposefully include:

  1. Staying aligned with the Source who grants life. This is key. As long as you’re connected to that type of inspiration and guidance you can travel all sorts of roads without getting lost.
  2. Trusting that you’re not here by random selection. Your existence at this time and place is no accident. The omniscient Source of life doesn’t make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean mistakes aren’t made. It just means there is perfect purpose in all things, including you. So even if you can’t yet understand it, believe that there is One who does.
  3. Learning as you go. This allows for mistakes to become teachers and not punishers. Think about that for a minute or two. There is wisdom and growth in every experience if we are open to receive it.
  4. Life changes and changes us. What we do changes from day or day or hour to hour. WHY you do what you do should never change. If you’re here to learn and serve then let those motivations be your polar stars, so that no matter what you’re doing, you’re still living your purpose.
  5. Believe that your Source loves you. Einstein said that the most important question we will ever ask is whether the Universe if friendly. I promise you that It is. And when you believe this, you automatically connect to unbounded resources, a higher vibrational energy, and a sustainability that is beyond comprehension. You feel alive!
  6. Gratitude is awareness. Being grateful puts you in a place where other people’s opinions about your purpose don’t count. It keeps your thoughts, emotions and actions in harmony with your purpose. It allows you to come back when you detour. Gratitude invites that connection between you and your Source.

You can tell I’m stoked because I’ve finally learned something valuable. I no longer nag my son that he must figure out what he’s doing to do with his life. (Ha-ha—key word here is HIS life.) I no longer think every student has to declare a major when they’re freshmen. I don’t look at my chore checklist and say, “What did I accomplish?” I look at it and ask, “WHY did I do the things I did?” This keeps me living purposefully.

We’re all different. We all have worth. Every life has many purposes. And it’s not mine to tell anyone else how to live. But I do hope that you find something useful in my ramblings. I share these things because I really do love people, and if I can keep someone from making the same painful mistakes I’ve made, then chalk one up to our common, all-caring Source.

The “Up” Side To Divorce

I got caught off guard the other night. A man I was talking to said, “Tell me about you.”

All I could think of to say was, “Uh…I used to be funny.”

“What happened to your funny?” he asked.

“I got divorced.”

There was a thoughtful pause before he whispered, “Me too. I used to be funny. I’d forgotten that about myself.”

Divorce. It changes people. The picture is of me this past week out hiking over some pretty sharp, big rocks. It’s not very flattering, but it’s real. And divorce is real and dangerous.

Those of us who have been through it belong to an association of soldiers with all the battle scars, but none the badges. There is no honor in divorce. But guess what? It’s time we come together to rid society of the stigma attached to divorce. While there is no honor, there should be no shame. Our situation became untenable and we decided to advocate for ourselves. Simple and complex as that.

In the beginning, when my pain was off the charts, and my heart was still shattering and my life still unraveling, someone gave me a book about divorce. It was a big ol’ clinical thing warning about the damage I was doing to my children. After that I ventured to the library and checked out a whole basketful of books to advise me how to navigate the raging mess the dissolution of my marriage had become. Let’s just say that over the years I read hundreds of books because I was desperate for help. I sought counsel through all types of therapy. I did a bunch of #$%@. Some of it worked. Some felt like a waste.

What did help was what I’m going to share with you because if you’re not divorced, it’s likely you love someone who is. I hope that if something strikes a chord with you, that you’ll pass this message along because I really do want to help wherever and however I can. It’s why I get so blasted personal.

Truth is, the divorce rate worldwide is declining. Know why? People are no longer taking the plunge. That’s right. Marriage isn’t the desired and sacred institution it once was. For those who do marry, the odds of divorce hover at about 50 percent. So, if you’re among the brave and lasting, kudos to you.

There’s a destructive power in divorce, and if you ever even gotten close to it, you know the soul damage it can do. It smothers your self-worth. It makes you question everything and everyone. It magnifies memories so that you’re not sure what’s true and what’s just recalled. If you’re not careful, it will make you say and do things that just aren’t you. In short, it skews you and it skewers you.

It also does something wonderfully transformative.

Number One: Divorce earns you a mandatory doctorate degree in Inner Reflection. Or at least it should. Nothing you do in life will test you like divorce will. It will make you burrow down deep into the pockets of your own heart. You’ll revisit the child you once were, you know, the one with all the dreams of unending romance. You’ll recall the teachers and nurturers and tormenters of your life. You’ll return to the roads that led you to where you are today. You’ll see which paths misled you. And hopefully, you’ll discover that no matter what’s been said by whom, you have incalculable worth. Your dreams still matter. Your mistakes do not define you. Regardless of how deep your wounds are, you can heal. You’re meant to heal and be whole again. Divorce might be the end of your marriage, but it is not the end of you.

Number Two: You get to be you again. This isn’t so much about who you become as who you un-become. That’s up to you, but you do have power to let go of the fear, the regret, the anger, and most of all the pain. Those things are not your enemies; they are your teachers. I was married for nearly a quarter of a century. That’s a long time to identify as a couple. I had completely abandoned the idea that I was an individual. On my own I felt weak and unstable. With no one there to lean on for support, I had to steady myself. That hurt at first, but eventually made me stronger than I’d ever been. I got acquainted with my own likes and dislikes, and figured out that the adjectives that had been used to describe me were not accurate at all. I got to define myself and that, my friends, is empowering.

Number Three: You learn to appreciate your comfort zone. Loneliness is associated with divorce. You used to share a life and now you don’t. That hurts. It’s scary as any monster can be. All of a sudden all the work falls to you and you have no one to divide it with. That’s unfair. But those of us who lived for any time in a disconnected union know that you can be lonely even when someone is lying next to you. Divorce tends to be hectic. After divorce, you’re busy. You don’t get a lot of free time, so you appreciate it when that opportunity comes. The blessing is becoming someone you want to spend time with. Sometimes I’ll say aloud, “So what do you want to do tonight, Toni? Netflix? Gym? Sleep?” Reading usually wins. I’m still not socially strong enough to request a restaurant table for one, but I really do admire the people who are comfortable doing that. And for someone who is not strong in math, I now understand the concept that 1 + 1 sometimes equals more than 2. That happens when two whole and healthy individuals unite. It’s mathematical magic that doesn’t happen when one partner is insecure and uncertain and needy. When I’m whole and steady and interesting, 1 + 0 can equal enough.

Number Four: You learn to value valuable people. (Please read that again because sometimes my thoughts only make sense to me.) What I’m trying to say is that divorce is a divider. You’ll soon learn the people who love you from the ones who only say they do. It might surprise you who shows up and who stays away. Just because someone shares your DNA doesn’t mean they automatically act like family. Friends tend to become family during a divorce. This is the stage where you learn to let go of the people who don’t help you evolve. This is when you get to use your pain to help others heal. That’s right. In the midst of your suffering, you’ll heal by helping someone else heal. Hurting people hurt people, but they also help. And when the sorting is done, you’ll know who to value because they’ll be the ones who value you too.

Number Five: You grow. You get to pick up the pieces of your shattered life and decide which ones you want to keep and which ones just aren’t part of you anymore. As for those tucked away dreams, with no one there to tell you that you can’t, it’s a whole lot easier to convince yourself that you can. You can survive. You can regain your health. You can pay the bills. You can get that job. You can go back to school. You can be ready when love finds you again. This shift in thinking expanded my world in all kinds of ways. Where there were barriers, there are now open doors. If there is a downside to this personal evolution it’s this: I no longer have someone else to blame for my failures. I must take complete responsibility for my choices and their consequences. It’s called adulating and it’s the skill that we divorced folks master first.

Divorce is not an end; it’s an exit. There you are driving full speed ahead on a road you think is going to last forever, when suddenly life whips you around and puts you on a different path. It changes the passengers in your vehicle. It slaps you behind the wheel. Don’t stop, my friends, use your pain to fuel you. Use the lessons you learn to help others. And use to the love you have left to love again. It’s within you to keep moving. If there’s an “up” side to divorce, it’s that no one will ever again hold you back or hold you down again, because from now on, only you decide your direction.

Do This Simple Trick To Elevate Your Mood

What a glorious day, friends! Hope the light is finding you. For over two decades I was a professional portrait photographer. I specialized in family and children’s portraiture. One of the things that set me apart and kept me in business was an ability to put people at ease. I learned some of my best tricks from a master: Marriott Smith. Presidents and movie stars posed for him. Together, we once photographed Bill and Hillary Clinton when Bill was first running for high office. That was memorable. But there’s something else that stands out in my mind even more vividly. He taught me to make people blink.

“It gets rid of that deer in the headlights look folks tend to get when they’re in front of a camera,” he said.

I’ve learned it does more than that.  A blink re-focuses our attention. It re-sets our brains. Science estimates that we blink far more often than we need to to keep our eyes lubricated. We blink 1,200 times per hour or 28,800 times per day. Your brain knows what it’s doing when it engages your occipital lobes. Try it if you don’t believe me. Blink right now. On purpose. Longer than you might. And with meaning.

It’s like a windshield wiper swipe over whatever you’re fixed on at the moment. Your problems don’t vanish, but your view becomes clearer. You’re able to think cleaner.

Yesterday was a brutal day for me. I was in a rare, dark mood. Maybe it was the weather. Last week temps here hit above 80 degrees. Yesterday brought a blizzard. Maybe it’s because I’m editing a novel that is so real to me the characters’ problems weigh me down. Or maybe it’s just life. You know. It delivers “those days” for no apparent reason.

My friend, Karla, picked me up around 7 p.m. She let me gripe for a good ten minutes before she pulled into a parking lot with THIS view in front of us. I blinked and suddenly everything changed. Darkness lifted. The neurotransmitters in my brain altered their distribution. I got out and snapped this photo with my phone, and instead of grumpy, I became grateful. I became aware that a return to winter can be a majestic thing. And whatever troubles had seemed so big, were dwarfed when confronted with genuine grandeur.

So, next time you’re feeling gloomy, anxious, or frustrated, try closing your eyes and letting the darkness come. Then open your eyes to welcome the light back. It works when you’re tired. It works in the middle of an argument. It’s a simple readjustment, but I promise that it works—all in the blink of an eye.

I’m Celebrating Mother’s Day Differently This Year

I must love and trust you all because I’m sharing something that’s sacred to me: a portrait of my mother. It is, after all, that time of year to honor those who gave us birth and those who’ve given us life. (think about that for a sec, will ya?)  I’ve always loathed Mother’s Day because I leave church as wilted as the little pink geranium passed out to the mothers in the congregation. I never measure up to the standard preached from the pulpit. I never will.

This year I’m in a mind to turn the whole thing upside down. Mother’s Day is no longer about my kids honoring me. It’s about honoring the women who have mothered me. They are legion. My own mother was my world when I was growing up. She was an alcoholic, so my childhood was mapped with all kinds of experiences: good and anything but good. Mom was gone long before I became a teenager, leaving me an orphan, someone in dire need of mothering.

John Updike believed, “It’s easy to love people in memory; the hard thing is to love them when they are in front of you.” I spent most of my life assuring myself Mom was a wonderful mother because to say anything less would be disloyal to her memory. But then I went to therapy. That’s where I learned I could still be loyal, still love Mom, and still tell the truth. That’s when I saw my mother as something more than a woman who had given birth. She was a woman with a past, a woman with dreams that came true and disappointments that devastated her. She had relationships. She had talents. She had secrets and desires. She had addictions and she had breakthroughs. My mother’s wild side led her to a long-term friendship with Judy Garland, a fur coat from Howard Hughes, and a catastrophic plunge from the top of a building.

Being able to admit that Mom wasn’t anywhere near perfect brought me blissful freedom. If I could love her—flaws and all—I could love my very imperfect self. That set me free to love others, and to celebrate the phenomenal mothers my daughters have become.

We don’t just love people for their strengths. We love them for their struggles. I suppose the lesson is in learning to trust that God trusts us. Flaws and all.

That means this Mother’s Day I’m celebrating unconventionally. I honor women who have never even given birth, but still they’ve mothered brilliantly. I honor the mothers who cry real tears, not over the messes they’ve had to clean up, but over the messes they’ve made for others to clean up. I honor the bruised, broken, battle-scarred women who are still in the fight. I honor the ones with the guts to present themselves genuinely. I honor those who sew and bake from the home front and those who march on the front lines. I honor those with stellar faith and those who admit God is foreign to them. I honor all their shapes and sizes. I dance in happy circles at the rainbow of their cultures and varying skin colors. Oh, how blessed am to be encircled by so many different women who mother.

This year let’s focus on miracles instead of mistakes. Let’s lavish love. Forgiveness. Joy. Let’s let go of the judgment and the self-criticism and simply celebrate that we’re partners with the Giver of life. That puts us, not on a pedestal where we can fall, but at an elevation where we can see clearly: we’re all in this together doing our best.

My friends, I love you. I love you because you try. I love you because you dare. I love you because you give it all you’ve got. I’m thinking of my friend whose child is incarcerated. I’m thinking of my friend who sings lullabies to the world’s babies. I’m thinking of my friend whose only daughter died this month, and another whose son is in his last days of cancer. I’m thinking of my friend whose child hasn’t spoken to her in a year. I’m thinking of my friend who desperately wants to bear a child, but can’t. I’m thinking of aunties, grandmothers, and an abundance of friends. I’m missing my own Mom. A lot. Maybe because I’ve matured enough to ache for a sit-down with her to discover who she really was: “How’d you get that scar? Why are you scared of the dark? What’s life like from your viewpoint, Mom?”

If you’re blessed to still have your mom available, please get curious about who she is as a person, not just a mom. Get to know her and to appreciate her for more than the resources she offers.

No judgment, no justifying, just loving. Celebrate those people who’ve managed to love you when you weren’t so easy to love. And do me a favor…please release the stranglehold you’ve held on your own throat. Inhale. Exhale. There. That’s better.

Now have a safe, memorable, peaceful weekend, celebrating love. Isn’t that what this day’s really all about?

What Your Inner Voice Has To Say

One night last year darkness refused to fall. I was on a bucket list adventure to Alaska and it was my first experience with daylight at midnight. Water sparkled like it was made of melted blue diamonds. That’s our forty-ninth state for you—brush-stroked a bazillion shades of blue. We’d been driving around, me with my camera clicking at wonder after wonder. But now every part of me was exhausted. I nestled the camera in my lap, laid my head back and shut my eyes for the duration of the ride back to camp.

Sometime later a voice inside my head commanded, “Open your eyes and see!”

I opened my eyes and saw only the road in front of us.

“Look and see!” the voice insisted.

I looked and saw a whale breaching right next to our little truck. A wonder indeed, one I would have missed if I’d ignored my internal instructor like I so often had.

Yes, I’ve heard voices. That doesn’t make me crazy; it makes me human.  Gandhi, who forged India’s independence from Britain through non-violence, relied on an inner voice for guidance. Carl Jung received advice from a source he deemed “neurosis,” yet his unseen guardian seemed “almost physically real” someone he referred to as a “guru.” You can call them auditory hallucinations, but they aren’t. Joan of Arc, Beethoven, William Blake, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga, Charles Dickens, are just a few people who’ve admitted to experiencing voices. We’re not always talking about audible voices either. We’re talking nudges, sensations, melodies to musicians, equations to scientists, and clarity to the confused. We’re talking inspiration from a source that isn’t seen.

Bottom line: We all came equipped with an internal gauge to guide and inspire us. Inspiration is ours when we tap into the Source that often manifests through voices. The more we recognize the various voices that speak to us, the more likely we are to stay safe, learn more, recall with keener accuracy and be inspired. In research for my brain book I talked with people who’ve been awakened at night by voices guiding them, kept safe from harm by voices urging them to move out of harm’s way, or informed by unseen sources of information they could have not have known.

I’ve learned that there are both benevolent and malevolent voices. The ones that remind us of our past mistakes and make us doubt ourselves are usually the shrillest and loudest. Unfortunately, they get the lion’s share of attention. Maybe the best piece of advice I’ve come across is this: Listen to the kindest, softest voice you hear because that’s the one you can trust.

For most of my life I’ve entertained voices I haven’t even been aware of—yet I’ve believed them, especially when they’ve been critical. But I’m learning to recognize and attend to the circus that goes on inside my own head. Now I want to pay attention to the whispers Ralph Waldo Emerson declared “affirmations of the soul.”

This one little practice has changed my life, and I want that experience for you, too. Heeding your inner voice might not reward you with a breaching whale, but I promise you a whale of an opportunity if you’ll silence all the voices that tell you who you are not, and learn to listen to the voice that reminds you who you really are. It’s the one that will bring peace, security, and love. So my wish for you today is that you’ll clear out the clutter in your own mind and trust your truest voice—your own.

The Blessed Life of the Un-Damned

The photo is of my son, Collin, flying over Lake Powell, doing something he’d never done. I hope you can feel the joy and excitement and life in this shot and that those emotions never leave you.

When I was a girl I tagged behind my grandpa as he irrigated a budding grain field. To my horror, he mercilessly whacked at weeds that I thought were pretty. He flung rocks out of furrows like they were mortal enemies. I watched him in wonder as he wielded his shovel. Then he stopped and explained to me how precious irrigation water had to reach all the way to the end of every furrow in order to nourish every little spout of grain. If not, the crop would wither beneath the sun’s scorch.

He then knelt and showed me how a single weed or rock “damned” the flow of life-giving water.

That’s when I realized that damned literally means: to be stopped from progressing.

Being damned is the worst feeling in my world. It’s harsher than fear or even rejection. And here’s the kicker I’ve discovered—damnation is self-inflicted. God doesn’t damn me. Satan doesn’t damn me. You don’t damn me. I do that all by myself. I do it by accepting life’s roadblocks as something that I can’t get over or go around. I do it by embracing my doubts as truths. I do it when I let fear freeze me in my tracks. I do it by staying stuck in my own muck.

Trust me, I’m not saying life doesn’t stop us. Disappointments bludgeon us. Trials thwart us. Health problems hobble us. I’ve been showered with my share, but I’m weary from the weight of damnation. I’m tired of feeling like I’m not progressing. I want to move forward and I want that for any of you who feel like you’ve been stuck too. So, here’s what I’ve learned in this journey:

  • Give yourself credit for all you’ve accomplished. You’re still breathing. Consider all the things you’ve learned in the past year. Reflect on the relationships you’ve built and the ones you’ve repaired. Think of the service you’ve rendered. The places you’ve explored. The work you’ve accomplished. Don’t discount your desires to do better. They matter. Nothing wrong with patting yourself on the back hard enough to jolt you into giving yourself credit where credit is due. Stop demeaning your own accomplishments!
  • Quit comparing yourself to anyone else. They haven’t lived your life. They don’t dwell in your physical body. Don’t let unforgiveness, or resentment or envy corrode your own happiness when you see that your Facebook friend just danced with penguins in Antarctica. It doesn’t matter that someone else got a promotion or the graduate degree that you so desperately want. Focus first on you. Move toward your goals and don’t get distracted by someone else’s success. When we learn to celebrate the accomplishments of others (especially those we don’t believe deserve all the good things that come their way) life has a way of paving the path for our own successes. What’s the saying? Success isn’t the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success!
  • Don’t you dare give up. Excuses are like feet: we all have ‘em and they all stink! Lack of resources like time, health, money are only excuses. People get what they prioritize. Don’t worry about pace as much as progress. As long as you’re moving in the right direction, you’ll get there. Love yourself along the way and savor the experiences along the journey. Learn to look for the good in every situation. Your end goal or destination isn’t nearly as important as the person you become along the route to get there.

I ramble when I get excited. I’m excited. I’m releasing myself. Forgiving myself. Finally moving forward as a risk-taker and an opportunity-maker. There’s wonder in not knowing how my best-laid plans will either come to fruition or come apart. That’s life, but staying stuck isn’t living, is it? So let’s get out there, by small steps or giant leaps, into a world I believe we agreed to enter to experience everything we possibly can cram into a lifetime. The love. The beauty. The truth. The faith. The mysteries. The stories. Oh, the stories! And stories, dear friends, are not cobbled with words as much as they are with freedom. Freedom to choose, to move, to feel, to learn and to grow. So let’s remove the weeds and rocks and clods that clog us from receiving our allotment of life. Let’s un-damn ourselves and help each other to be about the business of fully living!