Wednesday, July 7, 2010

187 / Peter Douglas: The WHY To Live

Read this in the original at

Almost immediately after writing down a partial list of some possible "ends" to life, I received an engaging email from Peter Douglas, Executive Director of the California Coastal Commission.

Peter's "Screed #3" contained a section called "The WHY To Live," reprinted below. Peter hits on many of the items on my list. By my count, and at a minimum, he has positive things to say about #1, #3, #4, #15, and #19, and pretty much dismisses #2 and #10. In summary, Peter's thought is that the "why" of life may be a lot less important than the "how." Here's Peter's Philosophical Perambulations on The “WHY” to live:

Nietzsche famously said: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”

We have all, from time to time asked what our purpose in life is and about its meaning. This question snapped sharply into focus for me again when recently reminded of my mortality. I began asking it early in life but unlike several other grand ones I found unanswerable I learned to remind myself to periodically circle back to this one. Why? I imagine I am not much different from humans anywhere in asking because we all have an innate need to know there is meaning in our lives. Most people I am familiar with want to lead meaningful lives infused with a sense of purpose and hope for a satisfying legacy of accomplishments at the close of their run under the sun. Where the road forks frequently for each of us is when we evolve our thinking and refine our definition of a “meaningful life” and are forced to make choices. For many, a meaningful life is marked by the accumulation of material things and power. For a few, by a lifetime of service and living beyond strictures of egotism and self-centeredness – pursuing primarily a path marked by empathy, benevolence, good will and generosity toward others. Most people, I would suppose consider meaningful a life in which they simply survive, achieve a reasonable standard of comfort, security in their person and livelihood, and are able to provide for their family. How we define purpose and meaning in the context of our own lives involves private conversations and decisions unique to each of us. It involves a personal journey we all take seasoned by our unique hopes, dreams, and experience. The point is, we all ask and search for purpose and meaning in our lives in one way or another.

As a wide-eyed refugee youth from war-torn Germany in the late ‘40s, I once imagined my grandiose purpose being reunification of that devastated country. I shake my head looking back at that one, but hey, it was a dream. Most people entertain hopes, dreams, wants and desires, modest and grand. Whether fulfilled or not, we ought never stop dreaming – dreams imbue life with magic and mystery. I think more than anything, other than perhaps our wishful yearning for immortality, we want to believe we matter – that our lives matter. And it is through our desire to matter we strive for purpose and meaning. I wrestled mightily with this question in my teenage years, refining answers as experience and understanding the difference between delusion and reality affected my thinking. I was greatly influenced in my quest by the wisdom of elders, both those I was privileged to know personally and those I knew vicariously through writings and living example.

As Homer’s Odysseus discovered, and as alluded to in nearly every high school commencement address, it is the journey that matters most. Over time, I actualized in my own life that how I live my life is more important than any life-list of achievements I may compile. Don’t get me wrong, achievements are important in their own right and certainly easier to quantify. For me personally however, I found how I conduct my life is a more salient driver of happiness, inner peace, and personal satisfaction with my daily doing of the art of living. My remarkable grandmother, Alice Ehlers, was a giant personality in my life. She was a good guide for me in my teenage years, as were teachings of her dear friend Albert Schweitzer and Victor Frankl’s seminal work, Man’s Search for Meaning. Later, Buddha, Christ and Ghandi also shaped my thinking. In retrospect however, there is no greater teacher than personal experience. 

I was a junior in high school when alone one moonless night on the rocky shoreline of Del Monte Forest I looked to the stars and had an epiphany: I “saw” infinity in a Universe without beginning or end in time and space. My insight triggered powerful feelings of awe, humility, reverence, respect, and responsibility. I realized then, while not the sole steersman of my life, I have responsibility for much of its direction, especially for how I interact with people, how I react to external forces affecting my life, and what purpose and meaning I chose to bring to it. That’s about the time I read Man’s Search for Meaning – a profound little book summarizing Frankl’s remarkable life-counseling of prisoners in Nazi death camps through logo therapy (the therapy of purpose and meaning). As he explained at the time: “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning….” Despite horrific conditions, he helped many survive. I have read this work several times and now know how it fundamentally influenced my life. I learned to focus on the “Now” of every moment, every day and to find purpose and meaning in every interaction with other people, other life beings and my environment. I internalized the value of bringing integrity, good will, good cheer and humor to my interactions and treating everyone and all life with respect. I learned to listen well, for everyone has a unique story they want to tell and when you listen mindfully you’re less likely to miss pearls of wisdom hidden in the telling.

I approach every situation I encounter, whether imbued with pleasure or pain as a learning opportunity and make the best of it. Like most others I know, I had no clue until midlife what I wanted to do or be when “I grow up” (something I still strive to avoid). I did always sense however, that how I interact with my external world matters more than my resume. Life isn’t a straight line yellow-brick road arcing hazard-free across the horizon to the Emerald City. You never know what’s coming at you from shadows where the light has drained or around the next sharp curve. The best we can do is live mindfully, never take life for granted, nurture good will, maintain a strong moral compass, be prepared for the unexpected, be grateful for our blessings, don’t dwell on suffering, keep hope and humor alive, and never cease the quest for inner peace and spiritual enlightenment.

Looking back on my life I realize I made mostly good choices, though some poor ones as well (i.e., starting to smoke). I will always treasure the blessings of nearly thirty-five years shared with a loving partner, raising two wonderful offspring, finding and pursuing a challenging, meaningful labor of love defending Nature, joining a remarkable fellowship in arms of Earth warriors, discovering the power and wisdom of unconditional love, and, now through mysterious workings of the Universe blessed with the wonders of a life-love partner who fills my heart and soul with joy and happiness. In many ways, I also view my struggles with cancer as life-enriching experiences. I have learned important lessons, many of which I shared with you: The vulnerability yet remarkable resilience of the human spirit and body; the healing power of positive energy, love and hope; a sharper perspective of what truly matters in our lives; the softening of life’s hard edges; the value of compassion, understanding and empathy; that while serious illness evokes loneliness, in our time of need we are truly not alone; the essential importance of a spiritual foundation; the importance of active participation in one’s health care; and being mindful of consequences in life-style choices. Then too there’s the stark reminder not to take the blessings of life for granted.

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will truly be happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve,” Albert Schweitzer. When the Reaper knocks, foremost among many thoughts triggered in one’s head is whether you have lived a purposeful, meaningful life. Beyond my personal spiritual and philosophical quests, already in university days I settled on public service as a vocational path. From the start I sensed service would not be an easy road to follow and realized when we choose it we must look within for rewards not to others - another reason public service can be a lonely, often thankless path. However, I can think of no more ethical, noble and ennobling way of living a meaningful, purposeful life than answering the call of service for the benefit of life. While never easy, service is especially important in trying times. When inevitably despair and resignation gnaw at my will to continue, I think of the children and unborn life and know capitulation is not an option. That is when I reach within for unconditional love and reverence for life, and turn to Nature for renewal and strengthened resolve to keep on keeping on.

Having dedicated more than forty years to public service, I have, from time to time (but no longer) wondered if I made the right choice. I assume, given our largely European ancestry, that public service was once viewed in our culture as a noble calling and valued as such. Sadly, that is no longer the case. Contemporary society seems to value more those who make money and less so those seen as costing “the taxpayers” who are in turn denigrated and marginalized. Achievement of fame and fortune seem to be primary goals. This “public” perception was not always as starkly dark as it is today, and perhaps the very notion that the majority of people are down on public employees is itself largely a fabrication of right wing propaganda. I attribute this relatively recent regressive shift in collective thinking to the self-centered, self-righteous, opportunistic, harshly conservative ideology promoted by myopic politicians, self-appointed babbling apostles of anger and greed, and governance dynamics of the contemporary corporate kakistocracy that rules America. Whatever the reason, these political, societal dynamics combine to create a demoralizing atmosphere for those of us in public service. Another reason we must look within for meaning, satisfaction and rewards, and why we must step away from our labor from time to time to remind ourselves why we do what we do.

Then there is immortality – humankind’s perpetual feel-good, delusional search for never-ending life. Many look for it because they have failed to come to terms with the reality our own unique, personal lives – the egocentric “me,” “myself,” and “I” – will one day not far distant come to a final end and forever be no more. A hard concept to wrap one’s gut-brain around, yet one we all, in our unique, private way must make peace with. My empirical, experiential, “rational” side tells me immortality does not exist. My spiritual, philosophical thinking suggests uncertainty in light of my notions about a universal soul, a holistic energy force field to which an energy element born into all life returns upon death. In any event, all life is time-limited on Planet Earth. We are born, we die and in between these bookends of life we live our lives and leave our mark – some larger than others. Compelled to assess my own passage, I look to quality of life, the purpose and meaning I mindfully try to bring to the celebration, and the values I nurture by which I guide my living time during this turn of the wheel. While we all wish there were things we could do over in our lives, we don’t have that luxury. Better that we simply acknowledge what we did, right or wrong at the time or in retrospect, internalize the take-away lessons and strive to do better, to not repeat mistakes, to more finely tune our judgment, and to not dwell on what we cannot change.

So looking at the life I’ve lived and live, I find comfort knowing I have found many “Whys” to live for and am living my story as best I am able. Much of that story has yet to be told and I intend to live it well. Living ethically, always learning, nourishing love, pursuit of purpose and meaning, reverence for life, and dedication to service are always works in progress. It is never too late to embrace mindful, meaningful living. When we do, we inevitably displace darkness with grace, wisdom and light shining just the other side of hope

1 comment:

  1. I love his term kakistocracy. I had never heard it before. However, I disagree that it's what now governs our country. (I express no opinion about whether it might apply to some others.) I think we're more often governed by people who, while they may have significant intelligence, lack the vision and perception to consider the long-term consequences of actions. Whether it be a focus on quarterly profits in corporations or on the day-to-day operations of government. We have far too few who look ahead to the seventh generation, or even the next thirty years. That, and self-centeredness, encapsulate much of our world's current inability to deal effectively with problems.


Thanks for your comment!