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The Lifelong Search for Meaning

A soon-to-be sexagenarian reflects on how she is making sense of her existence on this earth and what gives her purpose—so far.

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What am I looking for? What does this prepositional phrase mean? To look might be to seek or to examine or to hunt or to explore or to pursue or, perhaps, even to quest. The question implies a mission of sorts; not merely looking for your car keys or that little scrap of paper where you wrote that essential bit of information that now is eluding your grasp. No, this question is existential, karmic, soulful, infinite, eternal, celestial at best. It can also be frightening, damning, incriminating, provocative and infernal at the dire end of the spectrum. Really, what am I doing here? What is the purpose of my existence? Is there is no purpose? That conclusion is unbearable. To go on, we must believe that there is indeed a mission.

What is my mission then? I feel I must answer this before I can consider, in all aspects, the question of what I am looking for. As I approach having completed nearly 60 journeys around the sun, I am surprised, maybe a bit saddened, but also gladdened that there is no clear or simple or obvious answer to this question.

On the one hand, I would have expected, by age 58, to have found for what I am searching; that the mission would have been clearly defined by now, and perhaps all or mostly completed, leaving me to spiritually rest on the lifetime of laurels I have been amassing.

On the other hand, I would hope to always be renewing my mission, and therefore, my quests. Perhaps, the life well-lived is a series of missions—some fulfilled and some forever (or just temporarily) unfinished as in the case of some of my incomplete novels. They may lie in pixilated abeyance eternally or until the perfect mélange of time, psychic energy, inspiration and encouragement from just the right muse in just the right place comes divinely and seamlessly together.


Related: The Pitfalls of Pursuing Your Purpose


On the third hand—for one always needs an extra or helping hand—maybe the very nature of the quest, and therefore life, is always to be seeking, at least on a spiritual plane. The Second Noble Truth of Buddhism suggests that desire is the source of all human suffering, which suggests to simply be rather than seek. To “Be Here Now” would be a release of suffering. To focus all of your thoughts on the exact place and time of the “Now,” notice only what is before you, hear only what is within earshot, converse only with someone in the present would replace remembering, planning, and worrying.

But, I am not a Buddhist (well, not yet), though certainly a seeker of guidance. I’m a choosey seeker, taking some, leaving some. Sometimes I do seek the road not taken, my own personal Xanadu, but mostly these are roads I might have chosen decades earlier, and, now surely, if he were here, Robert Frost would advise me that I shall never be back.

For this moment, though, this “Very Here”, this “Very Now”, what I seek is to find that balance between the first hand and the second hand. To be able to survey and appraise my garden of accumulated laurels (the majestic, the bountiful, the plain, the wilted). To find both gratification and sorrow in remembrance of these things past and, yet, to continue to find that sense of purpose, that raison d’être; that is what I seek. To feel that I am not just another consumer of resources and taker-upper of space and place, but that my path through life leaves a trace—or many traces, scattered in many places. To have, just here and there, touched someone, inspired or encouraged or loved them, so that they could find whatever they are seeking on their paths.

Yes, I want to be an enabler of that kind; a co-dependent of finding one’s own path. That is my path, I think, in my chosen work of the past quarter-century, as teacher. What I seek is to leave my very gentle and faint imprint on the hearts and souls of others; lovers, family and friends, colleagues and students, the passing acquaintance, the occasional brief acquaintance. What I seek is to leave each soul I meet, including those animals with whom I have the pleasure of sharing my abode, with something uplifting or meaningful; that I can, at the very least, do no harm, that I can, at minimum, provide hope, that I can, offer sustenance to the soul.

I am looking for the right word, the right gesture, the right stirring gaze, the right tender touch, and, for each and every one, it is specialized; personalized; a potent concoction created with just the right amount of everything to give to each what she or he needs, desires, and from which the most benefit for the greatest good would be passed on.

I am looking for ways and means to perfect this offering; to more and more seamlessly and intuitively offer that emotional balm, almost invisibly, almost without always even necessarily being fully aware that I have conveyed something essential but intangible, that perhaps neither I nor the receiver will fully even know this, but will nonetheless have this impact, whether subtle or dynamic.

I am looking for this, in “This Very Now” because as I approach 60, I find that the hedonistic, materialistic, and earthly pursuits of my youth and middle age have not much fed my soul, and now as I glide towards the inevitable status of being an “Elder,” I do not so much seek things, except the basics, such as food and shelter, and, perhaps an unending stream of art supplies. I seek purpose in life. I look for connection. I look to share knowledge and a meal (your place or mine?). I look for a profound love that may be romantic in nature but would or could also be the exuberant realization that some other being, probably human, but maybe a feline, a canine, a feathered friend, or maybe even a tree, gives me that over the moon sensation and I know that it is also returned.

As I look for these ways to connect, I realize that in the second, or perhaps third bend in the road of life that I am mostly, and ultimately, looking for myself, and the best way to uncover whatever spiritual secrets still lie within is to be that empath, be that compassionate essence, be that life salve.

Because, ultimately, all deeds, all words, all actions, and all paths, however crooked or straight, smooth or filled with fissures, following a predetermined plan or with endless unexpected detours, lead me back to my own soul, and when I gaze into that profound spiritual mirror, I hope to find peace in what I discover. All paths lead to me.

Debora Gordon is a First Prize Winner in Sonima’s recent essay contest in which we asked readers to tell us, “What are you looking for?”

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