Because I have worked for years in a helping profession I love, I thought I was well insulated against the angst of an emptying nest. I assumed the vacuum experienced by many mothers whose children grow up would be amply filled by work and projects when my own children left home. I was wrong.
As my children left and my roles shifted, I had plenty to do all right. But I still felt like a sailor with no wind, no map and no destination. I tried to tackle these doldrums of meaninglessness the way I’ve tackled them in the past: by paddling harder. I pursued goals, experimented with new identities and initiated projects consistent with my deepest values. I volunteered with nonprofits, kept a gratitude journal, delighted in grandchildren, invested in friendships and read books on spirituality in the second half of life. Ironically, I even co-authored a national best-seller on finding meaning at work.
As helpful and constructive as all these activities have been in getting me moving again, I have still felt like I was missing something — an identity, a role, a purpose — some essential perspective to light up the stars overhead for my journey.
It is rumored that someone once asked the famous psychologist Carl Jung how many of his patients had solved their problems. The great man considered the question for a few moments and then replied, “None.” To the confused inquirer he then added, “However, some people have managed to transcend them.” Another way of saying this is that our task is not always to find an answer but to find a better question.
I began to wonder what it might entail to transcend my current quest for meaning. Maybe the solution was not entirely to be found in goals or roles or taking the bull by the horns — techniques that had been successful for me in the past. Maybe the solution was not even to find a solution. Maybe I needed a whole new question — one I could not yet imagine.
During this crisis decade, my mother developed Alzheimer’s disease. In the past 10 years she has lost her ability to set goals, plan or even follow simple directions. The roles that organized her life in the past and the aspirations that might take her into the future no longer register. Plaque and tangles in her brain steal her memories, jumble her sentences, compromise her self-control and short-circuit her moods. It has been extremely difficult for me — so dependent for my sense of meaning on my ability to think, create and control my destiny — to understand the point of living like this.
My mother is no longer capable of learning, but she is still teaching me. I’m starting to wonder if what she has left when everything that organizes my understanding of life is gone might be the missing piece in my search for meaning. Is the better question I need found in getting closer to where she is rather than wishing I could bring her back to me?
This is what I see my mother still do: Marvel at the beauty of the stars. Resist the expectations of others. Express her desires and feelings shamelessly. Thank people. Compliment freely. Assume every nice person who approaches is someone she once knew and loved. Go along for the ride, even when she has no idea where she’s going or why. Smile and laugh. Chop tomatoes and do the dishes as if they were important and interesting tasks. Play catch. Delight in children. Walk in circles. Relish ice cream. Live in the moment because the moment is all there is.
I don’t mean to romanticize Alzheimer’s in any way. It is a horrible and frightening disease that is difficult beyond words for both caregivers and patients, many of whom are incapable of even these minimal interactions with their world. But when I have to slow down to the speed of my mother’s almost motionless life, I too start to notice the beauty of the stars.
My search for meaning has been only partially satisfied by my attempts to divine just the right goal or role to order my days or channel my striving. The questions I need instead might just be about how to be more flexible instead of more directed. More willing to walk in circles. More tolerant of uncertainty. More forthcoming with my “unacceptable” feelings. More willing to go along for the ride even when the destination is murky. More present with tomatoes and dishes.
In order to find purpose and meaning at this stage of my life, I may need, quite simply, less insistence on purpose and meaning. I may need instead to be more present in the present — alive to what is, in awe of the stars, attuned to and grateful for the slightest breeze nudging me onward.
Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D., MBA, psychologist, author and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth (sixteenstones.net), most recently co-authored the New York Times bestseller "The Why of Work."
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