Single Aunt Seeks Sense of Purpose

WantAdsMy sister-in-law took the kids out of town to visit their grandparents for a few days, leaving my brother at home to fend for himself. Conversations with my brother these days are usually peppered with distracting side notes such as, “Stop blowing bubbles in your milk and eat your carrots,” “No, you may not be excused while everyone is still eating,” and “Where are your pants?” So we took the opportunity to hang out together and have an adult conversation. He very kindly offered to take me out to do things he knows I like to do but I said, “I get to do whatever I want every day. Pick something you want to do.” I quietly teased “and I’ll pretend it’s not lame” but that is not pertinent to this story. I was envisioning myself building a chicken coop or a rabbit warren or one of his other I-can-be-a-financial-broker-and-a-farmer-in-Los-Angeles projects. But he is also an artist so we had a lovely evening at an art gallery in Laguna Beach.

Ever since then, I have been chewing on the idea that I get to do whatever I want, every day.  I am single, childless and financially stable. I sold my house and moved into an apartment so that I would not be tied to yard work on the weekends. If I get a text that my friends are going out, I can blow off any chores I was planning to do. I don’t have to explain that Nordstrom bag to anyone. If I want to go to the post office in my pajamas, there’s no one around to suggest a more appropriate course of action. Besides getting up every day, grooming myself, and going to work, there is very little in my life that I absolutely have to do. I’m not sure you can get any closer to complete freedom without moving into the woods, throwing away your smart phone and refusing to pay taxes. I’m in a strange stage in my life when I am free to follow my heart and do just about anything. That should make me happy, right? Isn’t that living the dream? My married friends who spend their days picking up toys and wiping noses with their t-shirts certainly seem to think so.

It turns out that total personal freedom doesn’t equate to happiness. Everyone needs a sense of purpose. It changes as you go through life but we all still need purpose to feel secure and fulfilled. Young people generally do not have a problem finding their purpose. Their lives are full with getting an education, finding a career, and learning how to hold a fork on a date. However, as you get older you can find that what you thought was your purpose in life may have taken a detour. The dream career you went to school for was fun for a while but not realistic. You are so deep into the responsible career you ended up with that you are set on this path for life. The husband you lovingly cared for passed away. The house you spent years remodeling into your own castle was too much for you on your own. You spent years working late into the night after work to earn your master’s degree and never intend to think that hard again. These may be my personal detours but I’m sure you can relate. Life changes all the time and it often takes away those things that you think give your life meaning. Coping with that change can be hard.

What really matters is the people you have in your life and how you contribute to their happiness and wellbeing. That’s hardly a revelation but it is easy to forget sometimes. I don’t know about you, but it takes effort for me not to focus on what I don’t have and instead pour my energy into what I do have. Right now my life is pretty uncomplicated, but one day it will all change again and I will have a whole new set of goals and responsibilities to focus on. Maybe I’ll fall in love again. Maybe I’ll move to a third world country and build schools. Maybe I’ll adopt an extremely needy cat. The possibilities are endless and that gives me hope for the future. But what gives me my sense of purpose right now are my nieces and nephews. Being a good aunt is my job, my responsibility. I am fortunate that I have a brother and cousins with kids nearby and I take great satisfaction in giving them new experiences and being a good example. OK, maybe just the new experiences thing, but you know what I mean. Without a family of my own, I have found a way to feel needed and useful.

The good thing is that you don’t have to have a flesh and blood family or lots of nieces and nephews to get the same sense of purpose in your life. You can find a community to connect to and people to care for, but you can’t wait for it to come to you. You have to go and find it. I didn’t always live near my family and I had to put myself out there. I mentored a child through my town’s family services department. I volunteered at a pet shelter. I had an elderly lady on my street that I checked in on every few days. For my most recent purpose-finding adventure, I joined a charity organization that makes me get up at the crack of dawn every Sunday to train for a half marathon that I am going to run . . . on purpose.  If you feel like no one needs you and your presence on this planet is not important, you haven’t been proactive about it. Your sense of purpose and fulfillment is out there if you are willing to try new things to find it.

Last weekend I was sleeping in my niece’s room in her little twin bed, surrounded by ponies and dolls. I heard the door open and a little person sneak across the room. I opened one eye just enough to see the clock. 5 a.m. Ugh. It’s funny how you can tell which child is nearby from the time of day and the speed of the sneak-up. My three-year-old nephew Stanley climbed into bed with me, snuggled in and went right back to sleep. For the next two hours I stared at his little face while perched uncomfortably in the three inches of bed that were allotted to me. I briefly considered getting down on the floor, and then marveled that I even had that thought. I was putting myself out and suffering for this little boy that had a perfectly good bed of his own. It was more important to have him near me and let him sleep in than to sleep myself.

Now, that is what I call a sense of purpose.

  1. Wow. Just wow. Really quite lovely.

    It is in us to care about each other, and especially about children. I always tell people that I’m sure this is why we don’t put them out of our misery and eat them! We’re social, we truly DO need each other, and we need children more than anyone else, if we are to persist. Evolution has made us this way, ’cause it just works. “Resistance is futile”, and plain stupid, if you ask me.

    “If you feel like no one needs you and your presence on this planet is not important, you haven’t been proactive about it. Your sense of purpose and fulfillment is out there if you are willing to try new things to find it.”

    This is just so right.

    This is an additional perspective to add to this: Some people have never had much, or any, of an “attachment experience” – that’s where, as a child, you just KNOW that you are so valued that you come to believe that you are being watched by a caring and protective parent even when you can’t see them. This engenders a sense of profound safety, and makes a normal healthy development possible.

    It is in this sort of relationship that you learn to care deeply about others, and that this is possible and incredibly rewarding for you. NOT having this experience means you can get truly lost in life. Working to compensate for this developmental injury is not a trivial job. It begins by recognizing the truth of my second paragraph above.

    You have transitioned to your new life quite wonderfully. And yes, there is more ahead. How interesting it is that you can’t really predict it. But it will come to you, as The Present. I think you’ll know what to do with it!

  2. Gillian Orchard said:

    I loved the piece – and Tom Cloyd’s insightful comments above about the life long impact of each person’s “attachment experience”. So, soo true.

  3. Alexandria said:

    Not sure why I reread it, but am glad that I did. This is a beautiful and encouraging piece on so many levels. Thank you for sharing yourself and insight into your daily life. Your impact reaches far deeper than I’m sure you can imagine. Also appreciate Tom Cloyd’s comments too. Also quite insightful as Gillian noted.

    • auntpsych said:

      Thank you. I really appreciate the encouragement. It’s not easy to put your thoughts and feelings out there but it helps me somehow. It means a lot to me when other people can relate to what I am going through. I’ve been struggling to write lately and I’m not sure why. Thank you for inspiring me to get back to it.

      • Ah, struggling to write, eh? Well, that just doesn’t happen to many other people, does it… 🙂

        As a therapist, I have a solution: Always write about what’s relevant for YOU. Right now, it sounds like that would be “the struggle”. I would expect that a little self-examination would review that you are in possession of at least two points of view – a Writer, and a Something Else Not Yet Defined. What is that other thing? What is the conflict about? Does this sort of struggle happen in other areas of your life? (I’ll bet it does, as this is pretty much the universal form of all human hang-ups…)

        My hunch is that what you’re experiencing has a universality about it that would justify both some self-examination and then some written expression, which we already know you can do well. Once you have some words “out”, you have a place from which to continue, until it all feels said, at which point you get to edit to make sure it really says what you want it to say.

        I anticipate payoff – first for you, and then for us, your loyal fans (!). (How intimidating is THAT?!)

        I hope that at this point you feel encouraged. To pull form out of chaos, this is the Great Struggle, is it not? It certainly is for me. In this, I suspect I am far from alone.

        Best of luck!

  4. auntpsych said:

    Thank you Tom. You are right. I do have a struggle and I think I know what I want to say about it. It is just having the courage to put it on paper that takes some effort. Sometimes I think that if I really was a writer that it would pour out and I wouldn’t have these periods where I don’t make myself face reality and write. But then I find people like you who encourage and lift me up and get me going again. Thank you for taking the time to reach out.

    • Possibly the greatest writing lesson I ever received happened one afternoon when I was at my work-study job and Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, OR. I was a research assistant for a young Asst. Prof. in the Medical Psychology department. He was fierce in his devotion to research, and especially to writing about it. He was also having a very good start to his career. He would take on a subject about which he know little, like, say, pregnancy and smoking, and study it hard and long, and then write about it and get published in good journals. THAT is hard work, let me tell you!

      So this particular afternoon, I come in at about 1PM, and he’s sitting his desk, with a single sheet of paper in front him, and a yellow legal pad. The desktop is bare, otherwise. He gives me my instructions for the day, and I ask him what he’s doing. He tells me “This is the introduction to my new article I’m about to submit. I’m trying to get it right”. That single sheet of paper contained what looked like 3 paragraphs.

      I go off to the computer center (I have distinct statistical analysis skills and have had them for a long time). At 4 PM, three hours later, I return to his office. He’s still there, sitting, staring at what is now a a legal pad with notes on it. “Having problems with the writing?” I asked helpfully. “Oh no,” he says. “What most people don’t realize is that writing isn’t easy. I have graduate students ask me ‘how do you do it – what’s the trick?'” (He wrote like an angel – it was clear and effortless to read. Simply gorgeous – and that’s not easy to achieve in a psychological research report!)

      “There is no trick,” he explained. “It’s just hard, so you work at it.” I left him there, sitting at the desk. I’m sure his piece got published. It seemed they always did, and he did about 3 a year.

      I’ve written a great deal since then, including a 300+ page Master’s thesis. It’s all proven him right, although if you keep at it, you do acquire a certain grace relative to simply starting, and to more or less getting things decent in the first draft. Beyond that…hard work.

      So, there you are. “Blood, sweat, toil, and tears.” It could be worse. Silence is worse.

      One final thought: I have observed over the years that serious writers all seem to share a common trait: We write out of necessity. We cannot not do it. It’s how we pull form out of our own chaotic minds, not to mention the collective chaos of those around us. It just has to happen. Resistance is futile. I do not object.

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