In the Disney Pixar movie, “Soul”, the main characters, Joe and Soul 22 are engaged in dialogue in the fantastical place called The Great Before. Soul 22 turns to Joe and says, “You can’t crush a soul here. That’s what earth is for!” This statement, that sounds at the same time funny and yet not, reflects what some of us feel in moments when the journey of life is bone-crushing and soul-sapping.
If our journey in life is analogous to a river with the contours and the different terrain reflecting reality, then at times it is serene, and we can enjoy the sun on our faces and the breeze on our backs. However, we inevitably run into rapids at some points. Whirlpools and eddies churn the water and leave us feeling a loss of control as the whitewater tosses our raft, our life as it were. What do we do at times like these? How do we navigate the turbulence when the raft/life, is in danger of careening out of control and flipping over, submerging us?
Some years ago, my raft/life capsized and I found myself submerged beneath the water, struggling to survive, to keep my head above the water; to keep from drowning. Everything that was my identity, everything I owned (literally), was lost beneath the turbulence, in one defining moment. It was as if my life had hit a particularly strong whirlpool (in this case self-created), and I was sucked beneath the churning, dark waters. I looked in the mirror the next day and didn’t recognise the image staring back at me.
Defining Essence and Finding Centredness
George Orwell wrote a short story, “Shooting an Elephant”. Though the story’s intent was meant as political satire on colonialism in Burma, one line stood out to me that seemed to define the essence of my particular situation. It was a gift to me of understanding, and from that understanding, the ability to address my ontological and existential realities.
In the story, a colonial policeman was asked by his colonial masters to kill an elephant without hesitation or remorse. He struggled with the decision as he knew the meaning of the elephant to the people of Burma. He killed the elephant, as was his duty, and it was said of this policeman – “He wore a mask, and his face grew to fit it.” I realised then that my face had grown to fit the mask I was wearing, and now, having had the mask ripped off, I was left without one, not merely a mask, but a face. The last few years have been the journey to find myself again, the person beneath the mask, the person that got lost along the way.
The English word, “persona” derives from the mask used in Greek tragedies. It has come to mean the mask or façade meant to satisfy the demands of the situation, and not that which necessarily represents the true character or personhood of that individual. The political scientist, Hannah Arendt speaks of public life as persona and performance – to be what others need and expect us to be and to perform as needed. Neither of this is wrong. The problem, Arendt postulates, is not that personas are bad per se, but they become life-taking when our personas become us.
All of us have personas that enable us to fulfill the many obligations and responsibilities of this life. The problem is not that we have multiple personas. The problem is that too often, either because of performance and/or people’s expectations, over a period of time, we lose ourselves, and in the Orwellian typology, our faces grow to fit the mask. The vital connection with our essential character, our true personhood is severed, and we feel adrift, and perhaps sucked under by the churning, dark waters of our very existence. In the words of Soul 22, life on earth crushes our souls.
Harking back to the analogy of the flow of life as a river and our particular life as a raft on that river, being centred is about positioning ourselves strategically in the raft. Achieving equanimity, exercising courage, and even holding on to hope that calmer waters lie ahead, is what will ensure a measure of stability that will enable us to ride the whitewater till we enter into placid waters again. What does this centredness look like? How do we achieve it so it serves us, not just in moments of serenity, but especially, in moments of turmoil?
One place to start is to be aware that mask-wearing is inevitable, not in a fatalistic sense, but a self-aware sense. With that self-awareness, we then have to cultivate the ability to stay true to ourselves, to remain firmly centered. To not to allow our masks, no matter how functional they are or how vital to our identity they may be, to define us. To in effect not allow our faces to grow to fit the masks.
This article is entitled “actio sequitur esse”, a Latin maxim that translates to “action follow essence or being”. This is one of the starting points of how to remain centered. The careers that we pursue, the work that we do, the roles that we play, best emanate from the essence of our being, of who we truly are. That centredness is best rediscovered when we build margins in our life – the space we intentionally create to allow for rest, re-creation, restoration. Music is created from the spaces, the white spaces between the notes. If a music score was all filled with notes, it would be noise, not music. The symphony that is your life, is beautiful, when there are moments of busyness and moments of quiet, crescendo and decrescendo.
The symphony that is your life, is beautiful, when there are moments of busyness and moments of quiet, crescendo and decrescendo.
LIVING IT OUT: One practical way to centre ourselves, to discover/rediscover essence, is through some form of intentional silence and solitude. Depending on your spiritual inclination or otherwise, mindfulness, meditation, prayer, is the white space we create in between the music notes, so that we make music and not be inundated with noise. The defining of essence, of being, is not only about who we are apart from what we do. It might well be the rediscovery and redefining of why we are doing what we are doing, which reinfuses it with meaning, which might likely have been lost somewhere along the journey.
Fulfillment is about living true to your values. When choices are made that are not aligned with one’s values, there is some form of dissonance. Actio sequitur esse is about bridging that dissonance, that disconnect. It is about realignment. Values are not morals, and in that is meant that there are no morally right or wrong behaviour or choices that we are evaluating. Values are expressed in the qualities of a life lived fully from the essence, the inside out.
We wear masks, necessarily so, but can we put them down when we need to and be who we know we truly are? If our faces grow to fit the masks we wear, then the opposite movement happens – our life is lived and shaped by action, by doing, by our external circumstances or other’s expectations of us. In other words, we live life from the outside in. It is no wonder that in those times, we feel like we don’t know who we are, we feel like we’re drowning, we feel like we’ve lost our way.
LIVING IT OUT: A helpful exercise to clarify our values is to ask ourselves these questions – “Am I living my values with fidelity, dignity, and integrity? Where am I in this regard on a scale of one to 10 (one is not at all, 10 is fully)? If I’m on the lower end of the scale (closer to one), what courage and discipline will I need to exercise, what steps will I need to take to move it to the upper end of the scale?”
Discovering Meaning and Purpose
The words “meaning” and “purpose” are often used interchangeably, and understandably so. These two words are meant to be connected. However, though intricately connected, they are not synonymous. As with the Latin maxim, actio sequitur esse, I submit that purpose must flow from meaning and not the other way around. One helpful way to view the difference is to draw the parallel with substance and form, being and doing. Meaning is the substance; purpose is the form. Meaning is the being; purpose is the doing. To have the former without the latter is vacuous. To have the latter without the former is tenuous. Living out purpose forged in meaning is another way of living out our values fully and faithfully, and with dignity and integrity.
The other problem that allowing the meaning of our lives to be defined by purpose is to run headlong into the dilemma of what happens when purpose ends whether by retirement, retrenchment, duplicity (as in my case), disillusionment, or deterioration (mental or physical)? As I intimated earlier, because my identity was forged in what I did, my purpose, I was bereft of meaning when it all came crashing down. The French novelist, Marcel Proust is quoted as saying, “The real journey of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” My journey of discovery in these years following the almost total decimation of my life, has not been so much in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes to see my life and rediscover meaning.
Another way (hopefully to further clarify and not confuse), is to see meaning and purpose both in terms of its similarity and in its differences. One way is to view meaning and purpose through the lens of ontological purpose (another way of defining meaning), and existential purpose (purpose). The ontological is a question of what exists, if you will, of who we are. The existential is a question of how to exist, if you will, of what we do. After we have established what exists, we can then proceed to seeking out how to live according to this understanding or belief. If we get the flow correct, one expression of how this looks like in actuality is how someone defined the difference between success and significance.
Success is being the best in the world; significance is being the best for the world. In the former is a striving to prove oneself, to gain the upper hand, to win. Sometimes, perhaps oftentimes, it is at our own expense, to our own detriment, if not in the short term, in the longer term. If we live meaningful lives, characterized by significance, we might paradoxically live fuller lives, healthier lives, even more productive lives, but not necessarily in the way some would define productivity. We build something that will outlive us, we build a legacy for those who come after us, people we care about and love, and who care for and love us.
LIVING IT OUT: If I were to envision a meaningful life, a life of significance, that flowed out in purposeful ways, what might that look like? When I die, what does leaving behind a living legacy rather than a dead resume (curriculum vitae) look like? Try this exercise – pen your eulogy? How would you like to be remembered after you die? How might this change the way you live your life? Then view your existing landscapes with new eyes, engage in pursuits, and live out your values and essence in order to build your Eulogy and not just pad your Resume!
View your existing landscapes with new eyes, engage in pursuits, and live out your values and essence in order to build your Eulogy and not just pad your Resume!
Having defined your essence, found your centredness, clarified your values, and discovered meaning and purpose, you can now go forth and ride the rapids, navigate the whirlpools and eddies, enjoy the placidity, and rest in the serenity. Give to each moment of your life on the river of life, its due in equanimity because you have discovered you!