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This blog began with the following post.
What is success?
What would a well-lived life look like?
What would it feel like?
What would I want said at my eulogy?
These are some of the questions I return to when feeling conflicted about how I’m living my life. I keep searching for the answer in a profession that will define me and my place in the world; that will anchor a sense of meaning and purpose whilst removing my all too frequent angst. I hope these posts will clarify my thoughts, be a form of enquiry and perhaps even a way of writing myself whole.
In my life I’ve earned a wage in an assortment of jobs and industries including, fruit picking, child care, horses, sales, nursing, tv/film, cleaning, house renovation, teaching, body therapies and fine arts. There have been periods of study, self-employment, unemployment and voluntary service. I’ve explored other job prospects like, writing, illustrating, music, hospice, landscaping and photography. And still I don’t know what to be when I grow up!
None of these jobs have intrinsically felt like a good fit. At times the arts have seemed the most aligned but they’ve also seeded the greatest doubts and self-criticisms, telling me I’m not good enough, I’m worthless, talentless, without purpose or prospects etc – at which juncture I abandon all hope and attempt to invent the next vocation or variant.
So I wonder, is it just that I haven’t discovered my ‘true’ calling? Have I been living roles that I mistook for my calling, or that I believed others expected of me? Was I swayed by an idea of cultural capitol that privileged one career over another? Do I even believe in the concept of a ‘calling’? It would be a relief to have a straightforward answer to the question “what do you do”; an answer that felt authentic and valid. On those days when I am squirming with uncertainty as to my raison d’etre, I firmly believe I must have been culled from the prenatal gifting line due to some inherent flaw.
As enticing as it is, I am unconvinced by the assumption that we each have a unique gift to be shared with the world (a gift that will somehow translate into a modern day profession). But the idea is undeniably seductive. It suggests if we could only discover our unique thing, then success, ‘flow’, meaning and happiness would ensue. We certainly are all different and therefore unique so maybe it is true. But, if that’s not the case, I propose a substitute theory. This is for those of us who don’t know our ‘calling’, our ‘gifts’, our passion, our mission, what melts your butter, makes your heart sing; whose interests don’t fit into a 9-5; whose concerns don’t appear altruistic, passionate, or manifestly talented; whose best never feels quite good enough; for those of us who are waiting to be discovered for the frauds and interlopers we feel we are; whose activities can’t be measured in capital gain, product output or value added… For all of us, I propose this: accept that the feeling of inadequacy isn’t going away. There is possibly no job or salary that will ameliorate this feeling of inadequacy. Maybe that’s the human condition – the dissonance between our ego that wears the role-playing costumes and our intrinsic self that transcends all definitions. So if you can, do what makes you happy, even when that looks nothing like a job – give yourself permission. There will always be people who can roll ice-creams faster than you, so relax, roll them at your pace and in your own way.
But what if we really are born with a calling? The Oprah et al wisdom for finding your true calling is to remember what we loved doing as a child. I loved being Tarzan, I believed in magic and I longed to be a castaway on a deserted island. I would ride my pony around the farm and pretend to be marooned. I’d make camp fires under the trees and fry eggs lifted from the hen house. Then gallop bareback along an imagined coastline that was our winter-flooded paddock. I felt alive and connected with nature.
Setting aside all logic of how being a castaway could translate to a ‘calling’, I’m wondering, could this be my thing? It is after all what brings me happiness, it gives a framework for some of my existing activities and I live above a beach already! As a castaway I will be required to spend a great deal of time alone. I will have to forage for my own food, live simply, grow an abundant garden, watch the sun set and rise; walk the beaches, be quiet, listen, be awestruck; sit on the hilltop for long periods gazing out to the horizon.
The dictionary gives a gloomy depiction for a castaway: ‘abandoned, discarded, dumped, shunned, adrift, thrown away, outcast.’ But to me it is about being stripped back to your essence. It is you and nature and god; preferably lots of sunshine, coconuts and warm shark-free waters. Aside from the obvious delights of constructing a home from the island forest, swinging on vines through the trees and learning to hold my breath underwater for days on end, the greatest joy of being a castaway is in the moments when the ‘I’ ceases to be – when the ‘I’ is the beach, the sky, the air, the body and all these things at once. It is when my ‘me-ness’ dissolves and presence and aliveness merges with space.
I am fortunate that my partner already understands my need for a lot of ‘island time’. I love and value my friends and family and being part of a community but, to be present and giving the most to these relationships I seem to need a lot of time away in solitude. In this new world of wired connectivity it is easy to get overloaded with other people’s conversations and information. These and the daily chores of living all end up clamouring for attention and drowning out the much quieter voice inside. So I am protective about trying to corral enough space and alone time to replenish me. Now, as a castaway, it is inescapable – sigh.
Making a priority of solitude is at odds with the norms of social behaviour. Generally woman are expected to nurture, care, listen, cook, clean, be helpful, put others first and if there’s spare time make something: a bed, a scarf, a painting, a cake… because ‘the devil is in idle hands’. So it seems almost sinful to want, unproductive time alone. Certainly it is selfish which is a ‘no-no’ word none of us want to be accused of. But looking at the origins of that word, it was first associated with ‘self-seeking’, ‘self-interested’ and ‘self-ful’ – that doesn’t seem so bad. Where it got a bad rep is when the caring for one-self happened without regard for others, subsequently, any self-care can often be viewed as narcissistic indulgence.
And when that ‘self-care’ is about seeking time alone it is both indulgent and suspicious. Humans are programmed for community; our earliest tribal ancestors depended upon the shared skills and resources of everyone to survive. To be outcast and alone usually meant death. So I think there is an intrinsic distrust and often pity for a person who seeks time alone. On the other hand, there have also been traditions throughout history of mandated retreat; monastic, contemplative and religious practices; indigenous rites of passage and Shamanism; even modern day wilderness programs. In this sense, alone time or retreat is not an escape from society but rather preparation for a return to contact with more to offer.
These reflections clearly aren’t a recipe for discovering a career. But maybe there is real value in incorporating childhood dreams into our adult lives; honouring them like personalised prophets who will unite us with our spirit. Who will whisper in our ear during a long night-shift or a difficult days work, in a business meeting, carpooling, or waiting in the unemployment line; “you’re a castaway or a cowboy, a pop star or a poet”. If we welcome our dreams they may find ways to live through us and re-member what makes us feel alive. They will remind us that we are worthy, regardless of what we ‘do’. That we are enough as we are now. They will be our heroes as us.
So what is success? For me it is embodying the feelings that the trope of a cast-away inspires; resourcefulness, stillness, aliveness, discovery and open-hearted connection. What is a ‘well-lived life’? ….Hmmm, that remains a work in progress, but some of the qualities probably include kindness, love, service, humour, gratitude and play. To the question ‘what do you do’, I still have no satisfactory answer. I don’t think I’ll be claiming, ‘I’m a castaway’, though inside I will be galloping along a beach with the sun on my face. Maybe today my reply will be, “as little as possible”. And for my eulogy? I hope it might say, “she could hold her breath for a really long time.”