Purpose, Pursuit of Happiness, and Other Existential Questions

It has been difficult the past few weeks for me to remain focused on my work—perhaps if you are a regular reader, you’ve noticed lately I’ve failed to meet my Tuesday deadline, and I’m lucky if I post by late Saturday night. I’ve mentioned before, my oldest daughter (of Fast Girls and Rock Stars acclaim) will be graduating high school this year. With the end of school quickly approaching, the house has been in an uproar, with proms, trips to the lake to take pictures for graduation announcements, choir concerts, spring musicals, awards assemblies, and a heavy talk or two about purpose, pursuit of happiness and other existential questions one letting go of childhood (and realizing that means she must actually embrace adulthood) inevitably finds herself facing, as the graduation date looms ever nearer.

At sixteen we tend to think we know everything, we feel like we have all the answers, and if we don’t know something, these days all we have to do is say, “Okay, Google now.” But Google can’t show you the paths that belong to you or hold your hand while you explore them. The truth is we’re all on our own, and so many lessons about life get crammed in, hard and fast, as high school (or college) ends and you embark on that journey to become something (“Anything!” you’ll find your heart crying out at times). It’s amazing and overwhelming… and as a parent, it’s frightening and exciting all at once, especially when you realize you have no control over what happens next.

We spend the glory days of our youth building up massive egos, forged in the highly structured fires of our fine educational institutions, where we are forced to achieve certain standards, to pass test after test, only to be torn down by the reality that in the end, there are no more standards or tests to use as a measure, and all of us, the athletic champions, academic juggernauts, stars of the stage, the virtuosos, the drug-addled wasters, and the loners alike, are actually nothing more than semi-educated people, suffering to figure out who we are and what we are supposed to do once the caps and gowns lay discarded in the pile of half-clean-half-dirty laundry and old school papers strewn across our bedroom floors.

It might be that what is wrong with our society is that there is little structure beyond high school and none beyond college.

Those of you just venturing out into the world should know that, for the most part, no matter what path we choose, we spend our twenties and usually part of our thirties trying to rebuild our egos after being sent out into the real world, to wander aimlessly with no structure at all, after having spent much of the first twenty years of our lives being told exactly what to do, when, how- meanwhile, struggling just to make ends meet. If we’re lucky, by the time we have children of our own, we have realized that the ego our parents, teachers, coaches and professors at university stroked in us during our formative years, with their cheering, lecturing and pushing us to excel, means startlingly little, if anything at all, in the grand scheme of things, and we’ve managed to shift our focus to more important things. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you, or anyone else, what those important things are, because your important things are unique to you.  Some never figure it out and stay on that treadmill seeking excellence and accomplishment until the day they die, either bitter or full of regret at failing to see the point of all that time wasted on possession and status. Sadly, others completely give up somewhere along the way, neither seeking the recognition nor realizing the purpose. This is life.

The only real advice I can offer anyone is to keep learning.

This may come as a surprise to those who know her, but for the record, at the moment, my fast girl does not know what she wants to be when she grows up, even though she’s yearning to grow up as quickly as possible, and I’m okay with that.

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All she can really say about her life plans is that she wants not just to see the world, but to bear witness to it, probably through photography, but she doesn’t necessarily want to be shoved into the photojournalism box and shipped off to college– not yet. She knows she wants to be present for the making of history, not to be a part of making it herself, necessarily, but to experience it, as it happens, and to tell the truth about it.

Yesterday, she told me that in five years, at Christmas time, she plans to be in Germany with her dog and her bodyguard/aid-worker/man-friend, who also happens to play piano, so I should remember not to make any plans for her being home that year. I imagined her taking a much-needed vacation from whatever atrocity she’d been documenting, while helping to rescue those affected, and Germany seemed an appropriate place to make the yuletide gay. In my mind, she had just come in from a German Christmas market and was sitting in an oversized chair, sipping a hot mug of glühwein in front of a large fire, cuddling with her boarhound (appropriately named Fang), while her intimidating, yet incredibly cultured and handsome, man-friend played “The Christmas Song” on the baby grand (I guess they don’t know how poor they are, yet), singing with the voice of Harry Connick Jr., which I realized immediately was bit out of character for her, considering “he’s old”, but it was my imagination, and guys like Ashton Irwin don’t really exist in my head, because “I’m old too.”

I don’t have any idea where Lilia will be in five years, but I know life will still be handing her lessons, because that is the nature of our existence. As a mother, I can only hope they aren’t all hard ones and that she learns them quickly and the first time. If I’m lucky, she will still be teaching me lessons, too—like the difference between post-punk and crab core and just why I’m not allowed to say certain things:  “The gap between your generation and mine is bigger than any gap between generations in the history of the world, Mom.” (I think that is a lesson all parents are taught by their kids along the way, but I didn’t tell her so.) And that it’s all right not to know what you are supposed to do, so long as you keep taking the lessons as they come.

This week, my daughter and I learned some valuable lessons together. I won’t tell the story, because the details aren’t important, but the lessons apply to everyone, so I thought I would share them here as my little commencement gift to the Class of 2015 everywhere:

  1. Even good decisions that don’t harm anyone can have negative consequences.
  2. Sometimes everyone is in the right. (In fact, probably usually, when taken in perspective.)
  3. All the trophies in the world will not make you a better person—that is entirely up to you.
  4. When everyone is in the right, an act of grace becomes the right thing to do, by default.
  5. A long, silent pause can mean so much more than the words said once the silence is broken.

Next Friday is graduation, and Grandma is flying out to spend the week with us, so I don’t know that I will be able to post, and honestly I worry that I will be too distracted to write anything worth reading, so I’m not going to torture myself with trying too hard. We’ll see what happens. Either way, I will return on the 26th to my regular Tuesday schedule with more of Noel and Isabella and The Tale of Two Mountains. As always, thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “Purpose, Pursuit of Happiness, and Other Existential Questions”

  1. Thak you for this post. Sometimes just a little more insight of this existential problems — and how they are there for each one to face — is enough to easen us; at least a little bit.

    A propos, you have the coolest name ever, a pretty daughter, and write very well. I plan to buy you book soon.

    Machen Sie’s gut! 🙂


    1. Thank you! It means a lot to me that what I’ve written might help someone else out there. It can be so easy, at times, to look around us and forget that everyone else is just guessing too.

      My pretty daughter says thanks as well!


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