This is going to be uncomfortable

This is not a post about being happier. If anything, it marks an uncomfortable journey I’m on as I examine my part to play in the wider world, and particularly as an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement.

What I’ve done: I’ve read up on some of the lesser known parts of US history, such as the Kirk-Holden war (which is really WTF territory – thank you to Michael Harriot of The Root for the heads up). I’ve donated to several bail funds and charities supporting the movement. I donated to the GoFundMe for Breonna Taylor’s family on what would have been her 27th birthday. I watched footage of protester after protester getting their first amendment rights trampled on: a grandmother shot between the eyes with a bean bag pellet (she may lose an eye). A 20-year-old student shot in the head when police shot the wrong person (he faces a long recovery and brain damage). A 75-year-old man’s skull cracking, heard from across the street, when police push him and walk past. A community organiser shot in the groin with rubber bullets when he tried to de-escalate a protest (he and his wife don’t know if they’ll be able to have children now). And many others, from journalists, to medics, to children being tear-gassed. You’ve probably seen them, too.

And I read.

I read about George Stinney, Jr, who was executed in 1944 when he was just 14 years old, for murders he may well have had nothing to do with. Don’t google his name unless you are ready to see the photos of him tearfully pleading his innocence as they strap him into the electric chair. He was the only black person in the courtroom when he was convicted. Even him mother couldn’t sit behind him or hug him after the guilty verdict.

I read about Kalief Browder, held at a detention centre at Riker’s for nearly three years (2010-2013) awaiting trial for a burglary he again may well have had nothing to do with. He was assaulted by officers and other inmates (there is footage of these assaults; I cannot watch). He attempted suicide while being held there and finally succeeded two years after his release. He was 22 years old when he died. His mother visited him every week, bringing him fresh clothes as the prisoners had to wash their own clothes in buckets that left rust marks on them.

I watched a video of a young man lying prone in his own front yard while police officers held him at gunpoint (May 2020). He had allegedly run a stop sign. His grandmother came to stand beside him to to deescalate a situation where her grandson might be shot. Women’s voices can be heard screaming for the police to lower their guns as the young man is clearly terrified. The fear in his own voice, and his family’s voices, is chilling.

And I am filled with shame that as a mother, I haven’t done more to help the Black Lives Matter movement. Because I can relate to each of these women, and the anguish they’ve gone through, not because I’ve ever been treated so detestably for the colour of my skin, but as a mother who knows what it is to love your children.

Sure, I have tried to eradicate racism in my own life. I had vaguely, notionally supported Black Lives Matter. But I had hesitated too much, too long, when I heard of a black person’s life taken by the police. I assumed another side to the story. I believed, even partially, in the police statements.

Sadly, it took watching the police issue statements that were shown to be bald-faced lies by video footage from other protesters to make me realise how readily I had trusted the establishment to tell the truth. It took seeing these atrocities happen in just about every state, in many different cities, to truly show me the ‘few bad apples’ defense was not nearly good enough, and that people would be suffering intolerably as we shrugged and held up our hands, as if to say, “What could we do?”

I was listening to a podcast just now, an interview between Krista Tippett and therapist and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem as they discussed race (incidentally, in Minneapolis, just before lockdown). Among the many, many things he said that struck me, he said:

“…this idea of being able to land this race question in a way where white people are uncomfortable is a fallacy. It’s performance art.”

Resmaa Menakem
(in the On Being podcast here.)

So sharing my reflections, my reading from the past few days, and writing this raw post now, is part of moving into that zone that is distinctly uncomfortable. I need to ask why I haven’t done more. I need to reflect on that connection I feel to these mothers who have had to train their black sons to play the game so they don’t die in a stop-and-search. I need to go beyond book clubs and performative gestures that make me feel better about being a white woman in a white man’s world. I feel I owe it to those mothers, who could be me, and those boys, who could be my boys, but for the fact of our skin, and our histories.

Black Lives Matter.

A vector of peace

We hear the word vector now in the context of disease. A vector for the virus. Today, I found myself thinking of peace and progress, and questioning what I am choosing to spread.

The questions were sparked by a thought as I was out running. In the bright sunshine at my local park, I was trying hard to maintain adequate social distancing – a minimum of 2 metres, and aiming for more like 4 metres given I was running and breathing more heavily. Most people were very consciously distancing themselves, though a handful of people were walking in groups on the broad paths that usually can be shared whilst maintaining minimum distancing.

As I ran through thick un-mowed grass to avoid one of these groups, I mentally remarked that wearing a denim skirt and flip flops mean you probably weren’t really exercising.

But then I examined the thought. How judgemental it was. How it exposed the very sense of entitlement that has been frustrating me when noticed in others. What right did I have to decide what constitutes exercise? Or indeed, to swallow while the idea that physical exercise was legitimate and simply being in sunshine and nature somehow less so? I’m a huge proponent of mental health, and readily acknowledge my own physical exercise is primarily a mental health preserve as a physical one.

Of course, I had not acted yet upon this thought. I cast no dirty looks and posted no moans about “some people” on Facebook. But I had judged. And in doing so, I was at risk of becoming another vector, not of disease, but of judgement, ill will, and self-importance.

I say all of this not condemning myself. If you’ve had these feelings and thoughts, I do not condemn you, either, and would urge gentle acceptance and acknowledgement for both of us. We cannot control what thoughts occur in our brains, so the flicker of a thought is not in itself the issue. I feel frustrated and angry at a lot that is happening right now, from people endangering others by not following social distancing, to wider forces at play that are prioritising self-interested individualism over collective cooperation, and those are fair to feel. Judging myself harshly is yet another judgement.

No, instead I am now moving beyond that thought to ask myself, how can I be a vector of peace?

I feel outrage right now, which does not feel very peaceful. I do not feel peaceful when looking at white men armed to the teeth protesting against public health measures designed to protect the most vulnerable from a painful and lonely death. I do not feel peaceful watching world leaders gambling with people’s lives, purporting to protect notions like “economy” or “industry” with decisions that endanger people or take away their rights to protect themselves against the virus. I do not feel peaceful sniggering to myself as a see a meme about Karens. I do not feel peaceful as I mutter under my breath when the neighbours yet again have people not from their household visiting and laughing in the garden.

I also do not feel like a vector of peace when I see a black man killed in the street because, in the best case scenario, someone made a mistake and poor judgement and got carried away trying to be a vigilante. To be a vector of peace means to be promoting peace and goodness in the world, not shrugging at the injustices we see.

There is something radical in being a vector of peace. It is active, not passive. Forceful, but not coercive. Powerful but not overpowering. Peace, but not appeasement.

So I know what it isn’t, but what does being a vector of peace look like?

To help me work through this and bring more peace into my life, my actions, and the world, I’ve started using this acronym:

P Protect. Protect people who are in danger, who are vulnerable, at risk, dis-privileged, and/or otherwise unable to stand up for themselves.

E Empower. Work to provide a voice for the disenfranchised rather than speaking for them wherever possible. Take actions in the areas you can control.

A Act. Take simple, concrete steps to do something.  Sign a petition, write a letter to your MP, donate, volunteer, fundraise, vote.

C Calm / Care. Remain calm and take care of yourself. If you’re not calm, it’s easy to let anger or even hate influence action. Self care is important in peacemaking, so taking a moment to understand – without being driven by and without judging – emotions at play can help maintain peace as the goal.

Educate. Keep informed, check sources, look at the issues from all angles. Particularly understand the root causes behind the other side’s actions; understanding their unmet needs can help find sustainable solutions for the future. Note: understanding does not mean endorsing or accepting.

P E A C E

I’m learning to apply these principles in my own life with my family and friends, and on a wider scale in helping others and the world of politics. It is on a variety of scales that we can be vectors of peace.

What ways are you working for peace in this time of upheaval and stress?

Living on pause

Some advice from Bertrand Russell about overcoming the fear of death, that I struck me in the existential dilemma of facing a global pandemic:

“The best way to overcome [the fear of death] – so at least it seems to me – is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river—small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past boulders and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.”

Using Russell’s river analogy, many of us are in the rushing past boulders phase of life. And suddenly, our waters are still. Even momentarily, even if only for a few weeks or months, the rhythm of our lives has abruptly changed and we’ve had no real say in the matter.

Russell’s advice about how to grow old feels relevant because we are all facing our own mortality right now. We are facing our impotence to change the situation. And we are seeing the pace of our individual lives changed to something unrecognisable to that which we had chosen for ourselves. We are, in many ways, facing an accelerated glimpse into our own ageing and death. We are living out an existential experiment of sorts.

Wider interests that help the walls of the ego recede also help the physical walls we find enclosing us recede. I have found this in recent experiences of contemplation, reading poetry, and learning to play the guitar. The more time I spend beyond myself, the more time I enjoy free from the knowledge that I am not in control of what happens to me or anyone else.

This is easier said than done. I know I’ve experienced this isolation differently from one hour to the next, in a long string of countless hours.

Sometimes I am grounded in the practical requirements of work – send this email, work on this project, do this load of laundry…

Other times I am unable to focus on much more than listening to the birds singing and feeling sun on my face as I sit in the garden…

Still others I want nothing more than to scroll aimlessly through my phone, glimpsing through self-curated posts how other people are experiencing this… 

Sometimes I feel exceptionally connected to my family as we play a board game together, and other times I feel something akin to rage coursing through me as I try to get just five minutes to myself without someone asking something of me.

So I talk about this advice from Bertrand Russell with a massive caveat, which is there are times when we lack the bandwidth to take on anything beyond our immediate. But when we can, there is an easing of tensions. To be free from my own ego, and to connect to something larger than myself, I can glimpse the painless merging with the sea that awaits all of us some indeterminate time into the future.

What interests could help you escape the walls of your ego, and the four walls of your home right now?

Resignation

As I face another day juggling working from home with childcare, without a clear end line in sight, I am reflecting on how time itself behaves differently in times of crisis and upheaval.

In some ways, time has slowed down. Days stretch ahead of me without the familiar forced transition points of childcare drop-offs, commutes and plans outside the home. I’ve been working from home three weeks but it feels like three months.

And in other ways time continues to race past me. The days blur into one another. Trying to get things done at work seems to be taking longer. I keep thinking I’m nearly there with something, only to have it drag out into another day, and another.

Part of me responded to the crisis by being productive – maybe too productive. Churning out ideas for disaster-mitigation at work, cooking, cleaning, limited large grocery shopping trips, exercise at home, schoolwork, volunteering, checking in on neighbours. It all crashed yesterday.

I hit a big snag on something at work. A rather big setback. And I’m still not able to resolve it. This would be frustrating under normal circumstances, but it is yet another situation outside of my control – a microcosm of the global situation as we lose control to a virus.

What can we do when something is beyond our control?

Resign ourselves to it.

This does not mean giving up entirely, or letting the powerlessness overwhelm us. But fighting only works for so long. Fighting against something outside of my control will take its toll. I realise that if I look the demon in the face and resign myself to it, I can let go of a lot of the tension between myself and my reality.

Once we have resigned ourselves to the uncontrollable, we can move forward to the next step.

Identify the need / problem.

My need in my work situation is to find income. The uncontrollable factor was some misquoted figures that led me to make certain decisions and recommendations that now seem mistaken, as apparently the figures were inflated.

I have been going down a rabbit hole of trying to right the wrongs that have happened, which inevitably leads to blaming/shifting blame, dread, or circular conversations with myself where I try to logic a way out of the problem that started in the past – obviously far beyond my control in this moment.

But actually, it’s far easier once I’ve resigned myself to the uncontrollable (the initial figures appear to be wrong and inflated) to identify the problem or need (I need to find other ways to reach the target I’ve set).

Now that I’ve left the uncontrollable behind and refocused on the problem before me, I can move forward to step three.

Create a new plan that is in my control.

Now I’m clear on the problem, I can be creative again in finding ways to solve it. Instead of rehashing past data and past decisions, most of which I cannot not change, I am back in control and able to think laterally.

Resigning to isolation

I write this blog because I need to read this blog. I hit a real low yesterday, and whilst it was triggered by mundane work stuff, I genuinely believe it was the culmination of, well, everything that is beyond my control right now.

When will we be able to end this isolation? Will anyone I know and love get this thing and not survive it? Will my husband and I have jobs on the other side of this?

It’s easy to spiral. But all those questions are largely beyond my control. So instead, I’m learning to resign myself to this new reality. I thought I had done so weeks ago, but I’ve realised I have still been holding on tight to a false sense of control.

And I can now refocus – what is the need? Marshall Rosenberg, a leader of Non-Violent Communication, has said that needs are never in conflict. Strategies to meet those needs might be, but the needs themselves do not create or necessitate conflict.

I have been in conflict with reality. So now, I’m trying to re-centre on what my needs are, so I can think of coronavirus-compatible ways to meet those needs.

Journal prompts

I can’t do __________ because of __________.

If _____________ was not fixed, then I could try or learn _______.

I need ________.

Some strategies that might help meet this need are _______.

Not another COVID-19 blog…

So if you’re like me, you are simultaneously sick and tired of talking about COVID-19 and disinterested in anything else. Here in a suburb of London, my life is unrecognisable because of it. So I thought I’d share some of the tricks I’m learning to make this weird time in my life more manageable.

Find a new routine

We know young kids benefit from routines, but bearing in mind they are just smaller people, it makes sense to apply the same logic to ourselves. Going to bed at the same time each day, waking up, eating meals at set times – it gives shape to the day and provides a welcome feeling of normality in an otherwise anything-but-normal time in our lives.

During the week, I’ve tried this and it’s been really helpful. I wake up at the same time as usual, make breakfasts for myself and the kids, have my breakfast and coffee while watching one cycle of BBC Breakfast (making sure to turn it off when the stories start repeating). I log in at the same time for work, then break to do my PE with Joe “the Body Coach” Wickes on YouTube, work some more and get my son started on his school work at the table next to me. I am trying to eat lunch at the same time as usual and finish work on time. Then it’s dinner, baths, bedtime stories, kids asleep (at their usual time), and an hour or so of TV and conversation with my husband – much like our pre-Covid-19 lives.

Have a purpose (or several)

I’ve written previously about what psychologist Paul Donan has termed the “Pleasure Purpose Principal”, which basically says everyone needs pleasure and purpose for well-being. Different people have a different ideal mix – my husband responds well to more pleasure where I really thrive on purpose – but we all need a mix of both.

I would hypothesise that at this time, most of us could probably benefit from dialling up the purpose element, as we are in a very disempowering position, held hostage by an invisible virus. Anything we can do to counterbalance the disempowerment by feeling impactful and empowered is a great antidote. For me, I have become involved in my local mutual aid group, which partially means moderating the Facebook group and partially linking up requests with an amazing group of local people who have volunteered. I’m checking in with my elderly neighbour who is shielding. And I’m volunteering to do pro bono coaching for people struggling with this as part of a coaching collective that has formed during this crisis.

I’m also crafting my day job so I am doing specific, concrete things to help people. I work for an HIV charity, so I’ve been focused on providing reassuring information and support to our supporters, many of whom are living with HIV themselves and feeling frightened or unsettled, even if they aren’t amongst the list of people who are particularly vulnerable. But I’ve also found a sense of purpose supporting my colleagues – which is relevant for just about anyone, regardless of what sector we work in or what our companies do.

What would give your days a sense of purpose and impact right now? Maybe it’s spending more time with your kids. Maybe it’s your day job, working remotely. Maybe it’s volunteer work. Maybe it’s a creative project – to start writing that novel, paint your masterpiece, or work on that side hustle you had in mind. Don’t worry about other people and don’t judge them or yourself – focus on what will give you purpose.

Connect, connect, connect

I don’t know about you but this is reminding me that I actually really like people. I normally have to be careful about carving out time to be alone, and that’s still the case to an extent as I’m now constantly surrounded by my family. But I am also finding it helpful to be deliberate and intentional about connecting with people.

During the work week, I’m in pretty regular Zoom meetings, and have been making sure to have some chit chat in these calls. We have a workplace (i.e. Facebook for the office) that I’ve been interacting with everyday, to help replace the chats in the office kitchen.

Outside of work I’ve been busy with a WhatsApp group of two of my friends, checking in with another friend via WhatsApp, active on Facebook (which I usually eschew to a large extent), and connecting daily with the other Mutual Aid volunteers. I still skype my parents once a week. This all adds up and means I feel part of a community and connected with others.

A key part of the strategy for me has been little and often. WhatsApp and Facebook are not the same as a video call, and a video call is not the same as being together in person. So I’m trying to set up more zoom drinks and house party sessions with friends and family, which combined with the mutual aid group zoom meetings and my local Quaker Meeting via Zoom of a Sunday morning and all the WhatsApp and Facebook conversations means I have a rich and varied socially distanced social life.

How can you connect with others? Which people or communities are best to connect at more depth, like using zoom, and which are fine to WhatsApp with or interact on Facebook? Enjoy the variety – it’s horses for courses.

Interact with nature

I’m fortunate to have a garden, so during the work week I’ve made a point of taking a half hour lunch break sitting with my salad in the garden. But even without a garden or when the weather turns from the brilliant sunshine we enjoyed last week, there are ways to have nature in our lives.

You can crack the windows to allow fresh air into your home (even if it’s grey and raining). Light a natural candle or diffuse some essential oils to bring some natural smells into your space (more on this below). Enjoy plants in the home (more in this below as well). Even substitutes like natural white noises or a picture of natural settings have been shown to help people recover faster in hospitals.

On house plants: I’ve invested in more houseplants with some of the money I’m saving with our nonexistent childcare (our nursery has been brilliant and isn’t charging us during their closure, as well as the afterschool and breakfast club at my other child’s school). I’ve also replanted some of my spider plant’s babies so we have plants dotted all around the house. This helps clean the air and is subtly soothing. I also “splurged” a whopping £5 on flowers at Lidl when I did my grocery shop, so we have some beautiful cases of flowers. It doesn’t have to be much to feel quite different.

On essential oils: if you have an oil diffuser, great, but if not, you can put a few drops of oil in a mug and add boiling water (note boiling not boiled). This diffuses surprisingly well. If you have a hot plate or a drip coffee maker with a warming plate where the carafe sits, you can place the mug in that for even longer lasting diffusion.

Get into your body

Our brains are on survival mode and dealing with a lot of bizarre shit right now. Getting into our bodies and switching off our brains can help immensely.

One way to do this is exercise, which is of course healthy to do anyway. Yoga with Adrienne or PE with Joe Wickes are both free on YouTube and require no special equipment. In the UK we’re allowed one exercise outdoors a day, so now’s a great time to get into running if you’re not already, or to cement a “run every day” routine.

But another way to get out of our heads and into our bodies is breath work and mindful meditation. I have completely fallen out of this practice, but recently trying a breathing mediation I realised I had been shallow breathing for days. The stress and uncertainty of this whole situation had meant I hadn’t been breathing as deeply and calmly into my lungs. Even a short session of mindful breathing left me feeling exponentially calmer.

A quick way to breathe mindfully: breathe in and out normally and naturally. Don’t force your breathing. Pay attention to the feeling and sensation of the in breath, where it switches from in breath to out breath, and the sensations of the out breath. When you notice you’ve been distracted by thoughts (more “when” than “if”), return to the sensations of the breath. That’s it. Do that for as long as you can.

Be kind to yourself

Lastly, be kind to yourself. This is stressful. We’re in unprecedented times. We’re balancing home schooling, parenting in challenging circumstances, and working our day jobs with kids (sometimes literally) underfoot. It’s a global situation – there is nowhere to go that isn’t affected, or won’t be soon. That’s a challenging situation to be in.

We may need to nap during the day, or take it easy when we get the chance. Despite best laid plans to do loads of online courses to better myself during this time, or read more books, or watch better television as opposed to rewatching episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (or now, Tiger King – oh my lawd!), I am often spent at the end of the day. I just want to switch off and scroll mindlessly through Facebook. During my lunch breaks out in the garden, I’ve found myself unable to do more than look at the signs of spring and listen to the birds. I’m feeling tearful less frequently than week 1, but am still choked up about once a day.

This is okay. Do what feels good. Pay attention to what does not feel good. We’ll get through this.

Fullness, not busyness

Recently, I’ve been reflecting a lot on how I can do more: I want to help others and the planet. I want to be present for my kids. I want to work at and enjoy my marriage. I want to invest and find comfort in my friendships. I want my work to be meaningful and impactful. But how to do it all?

Some people choose a word or a motto as their theme for the year, a sound bite rallying cry instead of self-punishing resolution. Early in January, as I ran laps around my local park listening to a podcast on the subject, I tapped into this desire to do and live more, but found it tricky to find the right work to encapsulate it. “More” was a contender, except that it implied too much plate-spinning, cramming my days with even more. I also considered “nourishing,” but it suggested holing up in a spa, not getting out there and doing more.

I settled on the word “fuller” as a mantra. I wanted to live a fuller life. Fuller doesn’t necessarily mean more. Eating a healthy, appropriately sized meal can be more fulfilling than consuming a load of empty calories. “Fuller” brings with it the challenge of considering something before declining, pushing myself out of my comfort zone and being willing to dream bigger.

In practice, it has spurred me to sign up for a half marathon for the charity Terrence Higgins Trust, nearly eight years and two kids since I ran my first and only half marathon to date. It has led me to reading different books than I usually read, making more efforts to see my friends, and taking chances at work, throwing myself into the charity I work for with less caution around preserving work-life balance and more permission (from myself, to myself) to feel ambitious and passionate.

Which leads me to last week, sitting in silence at my local Quaker meeting as the question of how I can do more good in this world sat before me. And the phrase from Advices & Queries that came up again and again for me was, “Attend to what love requires of you – which may not be great busyness.”

I’ve loved this line since I first came across it. As a mother of young kids, I appreciated that it seemed to take into account the limited bandwidth at this season in my life, often interpreting that what love required of me was very often that I focus first on my kids’ needs and wants.

But more recently, as I reflected on it, I’ve thought again about the distinction between “busyness” and “fullness”. Busyness might be the empty calories of pointless meetings, scrolling through social media, and getting sucked into the tribalism and pageantry of politics. Fullness is making an impact at work, for the cause and those around me, whilst connecting with friends and family outside of work and getting involved in grassroots political actions and informing myself for upcoming vote.

In short, busyness is draining; fullness is empowering.

What would fullness look like for you?

How is fullness for you different from busyness?

The power of so-called weak ties

black_orange_men_cloud

I recently read an article about ways to be kinder to yourself in 2020, and one strategy was to “cultivate more casual, low stakes friendships”, which the sociologist Mark Granovetter calls “weak ties.”

I have experienced weak ties as a key contributor to my improving happiness and well-being over the past few years. It’s easy to underestimate the impact of these weak ties, but they are a relatively easy way to make a big impact on happiness.

Continue reading “The power of so-called weak ties”

When life feels insignificant

In the past couple of weeks I have left a job I loved – really loved – but felt I needed to leave for various reasons. I’m fortunate to have moved into a job I think I will love equally well, all early signs being promising, but nonetheless I felt rather emotional saying goodbye to a place I hadn’t expected to leave yet.

But as I gave the fairly standard leaving speech, which was completely genuine and heartfelt but could easily sound familiar, even cliche, and watched people nibble some cake and snacks before heading off, I could easily imagine the same time next week, no one even remembering what it was like when I was there.

And this was a big part of my life. So what is the point of any of it?

I then read a short essay by Bertrand Russell (“How to Grow Old”), in which he says:

If you have wide and keen interests and activities in which you can still be effective, you will have no reason to think about the merely statistical fact if the number of years already lived, still less of the probably shortness of your future…

The best way to overcome [the fear of death] – so at least it seems to me – is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.

Continue reading “When life feels insignificant”

On Purpose

Today I want us to talk about purpose.

Why purpose

There may not be a unified meaning of life, but I don’t think we can think about happiness without thinking about purpose.

As psychologist and author Paul Donan writes in Happiness by Design, happiness is experiences of pleasure and purpose over time. Everyone needs both pleasure and purpose, though the particular calibration of the two can vary person to person and over time. I’m naturally inclined to need a hefty dose of purpose, which is why I carve out “spare” time and use it to coach, or write, or volunteer. My husband, on the other hand, probably needs a bit more pleasure in the mix. But we both need both to be truly happy.

Happiness writer Gretchen Rubin had a similar observation in her book The Happiness Project, in which she said to be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

I think the emptiness of pleasure without purpose is depicted well in the movie Seeking a Friend for the End of the Worldin which a comet is coming to destroy Earth and nothing we can do can stop it. Faced with impending doom, a lot of people go into full-on party mode with orgies and drugs. A scene in which a massive party is happening and someone offers heroin to kids (because why not?) is particularly illustrative to me that pleasure for its own sake seems awfully unsatisfying and depressing.

A study showed that students literally walking up a fairly steep hill estimated the hill’s steepness and difficulty more accurately when they reflected on their purpose,  whereas those who didn’t tended to overestimate the challenge. The challenge was still there for both, and all participants acknowledged it, but having a purpose made it more bearable.

So we need to feel good / experience pleasure. We want to avoid feeling bad / experiencing pain. And we need to feel purpose / growth and avoid pointlessness and stagnation. And doing so makes the necessary challenges of life feel truer to size and worth overcoming.

An example of defining a purpose

But what do we mean by purpose? And how to we go about finding in a modern life?

Purpose needn’t be an all-consuming calling. It can be the work we do, which also brings us an income, or it can be raising our kids, or writing a book.

During a recent bout of illness, I binge-watched Call the Midwife and reflected a lot on what my calling is (spoiler: it’s not to be a midwife). I realised I craved the sense of community the characters shared as they fought against injustice and needless suffering, and I wanted to help people, but beyond that, I struggled to feel like I had much of a clear-cut purpose.

When I returned to my daily life, I saw many opportunities to nurture this vague concept of a calling – caring for my kids, listening to their smallest cares (as the things that seem small to me now are actually quite big in their worlds).

Even at work, I felt purposeful when I was doing work that was helping make a colleague’s life easier or helping a supporter.

I even noticed a feeling of purpose whenever I connected with a wider community, in small ways such as a brief conversation with someone on the train, or making eye contact and really listening to a colleague at work talk about something bothering them.

I also felt when the opposite was true – meetings at work that meant nothing and led to no change or decision… the hubbub on the class parents’ WhatsApp group… the time wasted on work that never would see the light of day.

How, not what

My purpose, I realised, would never be an all-consuming singular passion. The closest thing I’ve ever had to a calling is the deep-seated desire to be a mother, which I don’t take for granted having known the possibility of it never happening. Yet even as powerful as that calling has been, it has never been so all-consuming that I saw it as my only calling.

Sometimes, purpose can be as much the how we live as the what we do. My purpose is to help people, to bring more compassion and kindness and love into the world. And I am happiest when I can do this, even in small ways, every single day. I don’t feel a prescriptive need to help people by doing a specific job or being just one thing, but wherever life takes me, I know I must infuse my life with love, compassion, and helping others.

Questions to reflect on

What is your purpose? Is it a ‘what you do’ kind of purpose or more of a ‘how you live’ kind of purpose?

How can you build more of this into your life?

Know your motivation

When faced with a decision between one course of action and another, the motivation can make as much difference as the actual choice you make.

Leaving a job, confronting a loved one, telling someone how their actions have affected you – these are not always easy, and can sometimes lead to pain.

But each of these can be done out of spite or out of love.

Leaving a job can mean thumbing your nose at your employer and saying good riddance to the aspects of the job that led to finding another role elsewhere.

Or it can mean acknowledging your needs, how these aren’t being met in your current role, and being grateful for everything your current role has taught you, as well as leaving the place better than you found it.

Staying in a job where you’re unhappy could create discontent, building tension and dissatisfaction for you and your colleagues, or a nasty competitive environment where you spend most of your energy proving why others are wrong, rather than .

Or it could mean appreciating what is good about where you are, seeking to bridge differences and make the workplace better for colleagues and customers alike.

The decision – should I stay or should I go? should I try to talk to them about it or pull away? – isn’t always the most important factor. The motivation behind a decision is both the ‘why’ you do something, and dictates the ‘how’.

And that makes all the difference.