Friday, January 14, 2011

A Purposeful Life

I am a big fan of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay titled Self-Reliance. If you’ve not yet read it, I strongly encourage you to. Especially in this day and age, when our Nation is undergoing a social and economic revolution.

In this essay, the venerable Mr. Emerson talks about eschewing the trappings of society and finding one’s own path. Only by doing so can one avoid the pitfalls of total societal compliance and the complications brought forth by such a passive acquiescence to what passes for the norm. He urges the reader to find rectitude and lead a moral life. He professes that, only by being self reliant, as opposed to relying on the government and being dictated to by society, can one begin leading a decent and purposeful life. He avers that such a life is the only life worth living. I agree with him.

This essay was written during a time of social upheaval, and it is rather odd that Mr. Emerson authored it, as he was a part of the upper crust of society at the time. It just so happened that he looked around him, at the indolence and the wantonness of the people in his circle, he wondered how in the world he came to belong there. Indeed his penning and publishing this essay did cause his excommunication from high society and also caused him a lot of legal trouble. The legal trouble came as a result of the fact that he was speaking out against the government.

This blog is not political in nature. However, I do like to reference such texts from time to time as an example both of the fact that history does repeat itself and that this world is not so big that what applies to one society does not in any way touch another society.

But on a much smaller scale, Mr. Emerson’s essay affects me very deeply. Not as an urging to become self reliant – I’m nothing if not that! In his text he expounds on the idea that one must give their life a purpose. And that is the true topic of this entry.

These last four months have been so easy: teach for a grand total of 6 hours a week, and the rest of my time is mine. Since I’ve been here I have been tasked with nothing more challenging than learning my students’ names and figuring out what to do with them for the brief time each week that I stand in front of them. I do not consider the challenges of learning to live here, the adversity of which I have written extensively about, part of a purposeful life. I consider those issues existential in nature.

One of the problems with my life in America was that I felt it had no purpose. While, true enough I went to work every day and even did what I could to make my colleagues’ work lives easier, I simply could not digest the fact that that was my sole purpose. Truth be told, I was the sole beneficiary of my employment: the paycheck, the benefits, the incentives and the rewards were mine alone, just like they are for every employee there. Not much of a purpose in being self-serving, is there?

While I was a student, I felt I was leading a purposeful life. Learning new things, broadening my horizons, expanding my life experiences all gave my life a zip and drive that I had not felt since being in survival mode when my kids were small. After graduating college I felt oddly deflated… but by then, China was on my horizon.

(I should note here, for those of you that do not know me so well, that I only attended college after my children were successfully launched into their adult life. I graduated in 2008, at the age of 45.)

After my first trip to China, I did not immediately see living here as my next goal. The trip changed me in a profound way, but the idea of chucking everything I had built in the States and coming here was not even a consideration at that time. What forced the issue was the fact that I could find no purpose, no sense of fulfillment after graduation.

I tried volunteering at women’s shelters. I could teach them simple household repairs, how to fix their car… I could even have helped with their emotional distress because, in my life there had been a hefty dose of that. I’d been where these battered, downtrodden women had been and I had overcome; surely there was knowledge to impart and aid/succor to be rendered. I was told repeatedly that I did not have the educational credentials to help these women on that level.

Well, OK then. I can help with kids. I had been severely abused as a child and had gone through counseling and overcome a lot; I generally have good rapport with children, even though at first they tend to be intimidated by my size. Again I do not have the proper background and education credentials to work with kids.

Well, what about when Katrina hit and all of those victims flooded into the city I called home? Being as I’ve been homeless and have suffered tragedy, maybe I could help there? ‘No, but if you’d like to make a cash donation…’

I am not even allowed to donate blood or marrow in America! Much of my childhood and early adult life was spent overseas. The fear that I might have mad cow disease from eating meat while overseas overrode the fact that blood is desperately needed and I am a universal donor (O-), have never had a venereal disease, have never done drugs and am healthy as a horse.

Its not like I wanted an all or nothing proposition. Its not like: “I want to do this, and if you don’t let me do this I’m going to go away and sulk.” I did not mind volunteering at shelters and reading to kids… but again: where is the purpose? Why, when there is such a need for help, and I stand here with a lifetime of real experience under my belt and ready to help, won’t you let me help?

That is when I started focusing on China. Chinese society is just now burgeoning out into what America recognizes as modern. Chinese industry is just now recognizing the perils of polluting their land and waterways. The Chinese lifestyle is just now becoming what America was in the 1950’s. Maybe there is room for one foreigner to make a difference in helping build that bridge to what China wants to become: a so-called first world country.

These past four months have not felt very purposeful. These next few will become so. That is one of my goals for this new year.

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