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Are you on purpose?


“The little creature, who seemed stunned at being found out, leaped back out of sight and began to whimper softly. ‘I’m the demon of insincerity,’ he sobbed. ‘I don’t mean what I say, I don’t mean what I do, and I don’t mean what I am.’”

Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I often challenge my students with this question: Are you who you are, ON PURPOSE?

Sometimes the context is set with a discussion of their reading habits. Do they read on screens or on paper – or at all? Sometimes the context is a discussion of their relationship with media and noise. Do they ever sit in silence? Are they aware of thinking their own thoughts? When they consume media – even a news broadcast – do they pause to reflect? To have an appropriate human emotional response to the news of some tragedy they’ve just heard before they forget it because the station has gone on to discuss sports or the weather? We can’t change the pace at which life comes at us, I tell them. But we can choose our response. We can press pause, but only if we do it on purpose.

Life will simply happen to us if we let it. If we want to control what we become, how we are shaped by our environment, we have to do it on purpose.

So, I challenge them, and I challenge myself out loud in front of them: Do you mean to do everything you do? Do you mean to say the things you say (or post online)? Do you mean to watch what you watch? Do you mean to be who you are?

Let me illustrate with something more concrete, like food.

My eating habits used to be whimsical, random, and opportunistic. What did I feel like eating? What would taste good at that moment? What was in the fridge? Then, about six years ago, I started taking my training seriously at the gym, lifting weights, working with a coach. Food took on a new significance for me. It became fuel. I needed certain macronutrients in certain amounts to support my training goals. I began to eat on purpose.

My reading habits also were sporadic. What did I feel like reading, or what reading was required for a class I was taking or teaching? Now my reading is deliberate. There are things I want to understand, authors I want to experience, stuff I want to know. I read on purpose.

I do other things on purpose, too. My house is clean, but not terribly neat. This is partly because I’m busy (and lazy). But it is also a deliberate choice to have the kind of home people feel comfortable in, where they don’t think they have to take off their shoes to come inside. For Christmas, my daughter Lydia painted me a beautiful sign, which says, “Home is a place for free expression, not for making a good impression.” It’s a philosophy I hold. A choice I make. On purpose.

I challenge my students in every class to devise a personal philosophy statement about not just something, but everything. What do you believe? I ask them. Then, what do you value? Then, in light of what you believe and value, what will you do?

Having a philosophy helps you make decisions on how to spend the limited number of minutes and hours you have in a day. And it helps you to be sincere. To be on purpose.

Insincere people are liquids, always taking the shape of their container, adapting to fit the environment they are in. They do not have distinct boundaries and edges. They are not themselves on purpose.

I have micro-philosophies that dictate the various segments of my life, such as how I eat and how I teach. But I also have macro-philosophies that dictate how I am. For example, that simple bumper-sticker cliché, “Be the person you needed.” That, perhaps, sums up the macro-philosophy of how I try to live in the context of other people.

What did I need?

  • Someone strong, stable, unflappable, who could “take” what I was and be present for me.

  • Someone to hear me, and see me, and “get” me.

  • Someone empathetic, who could see my point of view and respect my opinion.

  • Someone to “feel” me. (I actually love that slang phrase that gets tossed around these days: “I feel you.” That conveys a lot… And I think we need people who do not just understand us, but “feel” us.)

  • Someone wise who could step up and help me solve my problems, tell me what to do next when I was stuck.

  • Someone who cared, who really and truly gave a damn.

This is who I try to be to my kids, my friends, my students. I try to be this on purpose.

I still do things I don’t mean to do. I don’t mean to watch four hours of Netflix in an evening or eat a whole tub of hummus, using my finger when the baby carrots are gone. I certainly do not mean to do those things. But they happen.

But the way to stop doing the things I don’t mean to do is not to exercise self-restraint, boxing myself in with rules and strict schedules. It is not discipline I need. It is love. If I love something more than Netflix and hummus, value different things more than these diversions, then I will pick up a book instead of the remote, or my pen instead of my phone.

So, it begins with asking myself: What do I really believe? What is truly valuable to me? Therefore, what will I choose to do with this moment of time? Without answers to those questions firmly in place, we drift with the current of inertia. Life takes us where it wants to take us, and we become something we never meant to be.

That’s not how I want to live.

I want to be sincere.

I want to be on purpose.