What would you do if you lost your reason to live? If you lost your loved one(s) because of some tragedy? Or simply because of life’s circumstances, you no longer felt a purpose to get out of bed each day?
I have an elderly friend who by many accounts has no reason to live—she is unmarried, estranged from her only surviving child, has outlived all of her close friends, lives with her aging dog in a home that she hates in an area of the country that she complains about all the time. She frustrates the heck out of me because despite all of that misery, she is fortunate enough to be in good health and have incredible mental clarity and awareness at the age of 85.
I have known her for several years, and I speak to her several times each month, sometimes for hours at a time. Early in our relationship, I was happy to provide support and social interaction to a lonely person who was cut off from much of the world because she did not have a car or access to the Internet. Her early life was fascinating, and I enjoyed hearing her stories of “the old days.”
But interspersed with her tales is a whole lot of anger and bitterness because of some very real tragedies in her past…as well as a lot of anger toward and impatience with a world that does not live up to her very particular standards. Increasingly our conversations center on her latest tales of frustration or a replay of her past resentments, which I find incredibly sad and painful because she doesn’t want to move past them no matter what I suggest.
I have challenged her on more than one occasion to try to make peace with her past and to find a purpose for her current life. I have tried to point out that even with all of the very real angst she has suffered, there must be a reason she has been “blessed” with such a sharp mind.
I suggested that she get a computer or a tablet and Internet access so that she wouldn’t feel so helpless and isolated. I have encouraged her to write a book about her many experiences with poor customer service from assorted companies and to offer proposed solutions and alternate procedures. I even gave her a title for it—Up to Snuff. I think it would be a great book, but I also wanted to give her something positive to focus on rather than to continue immersing herself in her anger and misery. To each suggestion, she responded with some version of not just “no” but “hell, no.”
Recently her life went from bad to worse when her dog’s health took a significant turn for the worse and a pipe broke in her house, which forced her to move to a hotel for possibly months while her home is repaired. On more than one occasion, she has said to me, “I have no reason to live” or “I want to die.” Sadly, given her responses to my past suggestions and her attitude toward life, I often have no reply. Do I sound heartless? I’m not. But a will to live and a purpose in life must come from inside oneself and cannot be created by the external world.
Many people of all ages experience life-altering tragedies every day. And many people are dealt a bad hand of cards, be it health challenges, family challenges or poor “luck.” Any of these people could easily say that their life is over, but instead they draw new strength from tragedy and challenge. Rather than give up, they find a reason to live.
An example is my friend Amy Dixon, who in college suffered a combination of illnesses that eventually caused her to lose her sight. Rather than give up on life, she changed her path and now is a top American para-triathlete, an advocate for the blind and a speaker.
When tragedy strikes, it is “easy” to channel pain into a raison d’être. But what about when life just slowly shifts or when we hit transitions such as empty-nesting or retirement? When your purpose is no longer what it used to be? My elderly friend had a child to raise, a successful career and an active social life…and then it was gone. Now what?
Consider this. Perhaps the purpose of life is simply to have a purpose—or multiple purposes—and accomplish it. I would argue that we actually have different purposes at different life stages—being a great student when young…pursuing careers and building families as we mature…and later in life, when the careers are “cooked” and families are raised, life’s purpose is to complete unfulfilled dreams, perhaps creative or community-focused ones.
Grandma Moses started painting in earnest at age 78. I know several elderly widows, including my mother, who have blossomed in their widowhood in spite of their deep sadness after losing their spouses. They have become active in charitable work and reconnected with their families in a whole new way. New life stages…new reasons for living. A significant amount of research shows that being active and socially engaged are key to both physical and emotional longevity, so these ladies are doing it right.
The exciting thing about identifying purpose is that as trite as it sounds, it can be anything you want it to be—big or small—as long as it excites you and gives you a reason to get up each day.
Not sure what excites you? Make a plan to try out a whole bunch of things, either through temp work or volunteering or taking classes. We live in an amazing time when choices are endless and access to options is even greater.
There is no reason that you can’t re-create your purpose throughout your life. You just have to allow yourself to do it—or perhaps, as in the case of my friend, force yourself to do it.