By all accounts, I had a normal childhood: loving mother, father, brother, a cat, enough to eat, a comfortable place to sleep, and no major illnesses to speak of. That all changed when my father died suddenly from a major heart attack when I had just turned 13. My loss was so great that I was nearly unable to function, even considering that a teenage girl doesn’t have that many responsibilities. The despair and heartache I felt were almost indescribable, although my grief was probably no greater or lesser than what others feel who lose a loved one. Worst of all, I felt lost. That aimlessness and anguish continued for years as I both sought to overcome it and find purpose and meaning in life.
The journey toward stability, an overall sense of well-being and finding and embracing purpose in life proceeded in a fitful fashion, sometimes with great progress, while other times either at a stalemate or falling a bit backward. What helped me find purpose? Thinking back over the years, I’ve arrived at this list of things that clarified the path and smoothed the transition.
1. I became a voracious reader.
My fondness for reading was a natural result of my father reading me bedtime stories. After the shorter children’s books, he graduated me to longer ones. I eagerly anticipated each night’s installment and looked forward to what came next. As I coped with his loss as a teen, I turned to books for solace. They did not disappoint, but rather allowed me to immerse myself in times and places where I could grow and learn and experience life without pain.
I found a list of the 100 greatest books ever written and began to read them one by one. Some of the world’s greatest authors became my constant companions: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Chekov, Camus, Sartre, Shakespeare, Balzac, Hesse, Steinbeck, Tolstoy and more. Realizing that many others had searched for purpose in life aided my own search by making me feel less alone in my struggle.
2. I learned to appreciate nature.
It sounds too simple to say that learning to appreciate nature helped me find purpose, yet, it’s true. Nature, in this sense, is all-encompassing, for it includes walking in nature, gardening, picking wildflowers, watching birds and animals go about their way, helping harvest the truck garden we cultivated behind the house, noticing what happened during the four seasons and such.
Nature never stagnates. There’s always change. Things grow and bloom and die, only to return. This circle of life impressed me with its deep-rooted symbolism. There is a purpose to everything, and everything has a purpose. This gradually became evident to me and formed a foundation for my growing self-confidence. To this day, whenever I feel unsettled or uncertain what decision to make, taking a walk in the nearby nature trails is often enough to clear my mind and help me choose.
3. I found travel liberating.
Just as nature served me well, so too did travel. We had always taken lengthy summer vacations when I was growing up, although those were few and far between in the years immediately following my dad’s death. I had caught the travel bug, however, and still love the planning and anticipation as well as the trip itself.
Not only does travel introduce new sights and sounds, it opens new experiences. You see things in a different light. You also notice that people in unfamiliar surroundings must cope with similar problems and situations as you do back home. There’s something strangely comforting in knowing that you’re not alone in trying to find your way, to deal with life’s everyday stressors and challenges, and somehow find the good that’s often hidden in the negative.
4. I began searching for my strengths.
After wandering somewhat aimlessly through my 20s trying to figure out why I was here, even with two small children who depended on me, it occurred to me (with the help of my therapist) that I had things I was good at. Instead of focusing only on my weaknesses and failures, I began a tentative search for my strengths. This took some time, as I wasn’t practiced in identifying anything good about myself. In addition, suffering from low self-esteem meant a slow step-by-step growth process.
Once I figured out what I took pride in doing, what made me feel alive and happy, I recognized that these strengths were my core. I’m curious, hard-working, creative, diligent, persistent, reliable, cheerful, friendly, optimistic and encouraging. Putting all these into my purpose in life proved a challenge, yet I was determined to do so.
5. Writing: The end — and the beginning — of the journey.
I must say that I’ve been writing stories since those days long ago that my dad read me stories at bedtime. The first ones were simple tales, eventually becoming more elaborate and lengthy. I’d write after reading, often trying to emulate the style of the author whose work I’d just read. My first collegiate essays were much too wordy, returned to me by the professor with a lot of red ink. I took journalism classes to learn to write more succinctly, getting to the point, following the rules of journalism. This helped my prose writing as well.
After graduate degrees, I still wanted to learn more about writing, taking up screenwriting classes and getting a master of fine arts degree in screenwriting. To me, writing sums up my purpose. It’s what I do, what I live for, what makes me feel alive. If I can provide comfort, relate an experience that makes others laugh, stop and think, challenge themselves, learn something new or make a connection, it is more satisfying than anything else except being with my loved ones.
I truly believe that life is better when you live in the present, not spending time worrying about the past or being anxious about the future. Play to your strengths, for they’re the real you that you can capitalize on, the get more out of experiences, make wonderful memories, and ensure that you have the personal capital to enjoy a satisfying, purposeful life.