Searching for meaning in Plan B Nation

Searching the Ox  -  I

Earlier this week, I wrote about how much happier I’ve been since moving back to my beloved Northampton roughly a year ago. While I feared this would be just a temporary boost, I’m pleased to report that it’s proven far more satisfying and delightfully sustaining.

At the same time, the past year has (not surprisingly) brought new challenges. Apartment hunting, negotiating a lease, finding movers, packing—these practical tasks amounted to a full-time job that left me little time for worrying about larger and more amorphous questions such as What am I doing with my life? Once I’d landed on the other side, however, they soon reclaimed center stage.

Regardless of where you go for guidance—psychologists, religious leaders, sociologists, friends—pretty much everyone will tell you that purpose is a key ingredient for a satisfying life.

In his celebrated 1946 Holocaust memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl went so far as to say that this search is our primary motivation in life. But while the principle may be a simple one, putting it into practice can be far more complicated—and in circumstances far less dire than Frankl’s Nazi death camp. Frankl himself recognized this in a preface to the book’s 1984 edition, where he glumly concluded: “I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book so much an achievement and accomplishment on my part as an expression of the misery of our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails.”

If anything our hunger for meaning has only grown more desperate since Frankl penned those words. There may be periods of our lives—sometimes long periods—when we don’t give it much thought. The big questions are (temporarily) settled. The big decisions are made. What remains is execution, the living out of their implications through the days and years.

At other times, however, the big questions are right in our face—and, more and more that’s the case for those of us living in Plan B Nation.  More and more, we’re drop-kicked into unfamiliar situations, left to make major decisions without meaningful guidance.  Our parents’ rules for decision-making no longer seem to apply. Friends give conflicting advice. Depending on our spiritual outlook, we may pray or look inward for guidance, but often we still find ourselves completely at a loss—at a loss and anxious.

Perhaps my favorite description of this muddled state comes from a short story by the peerless Lorrie Moore. Describing a baffled protagonist, she writes, “She hadn’t been given the proper tools to make a real life with, she decided, that was it. She’d been given a can of gravy and a hairbrush and told, ‘There you go.’”

A can of gravy and a hairbrush.

I can so relate.

In the first decade of the new millennium, an evangelical pastor named Rick Warren tapped into this motherlode of anguished confusion with The Purpose Driven Life, now billed as “the bestselling nonfiction hardback book in history.” (The Bible, presumably, is entirely factual so not in the running here.)

While I was raised as a Congregationalist I’ve spent little time in churches in my adulthood—except for a brief foray into Episcopalianism. (“We’re Unitarians who like liturgy,” our priest once said, describing those drawn to this small and decidedly creative church.) Still, I couldn’t help but be curious, so I ordered myself a copy.

The (trademark registered) Purpose Driven Life is described as a “40-day spiritual journey” that “will transform your life.”  Warren urges us to read no more than one of the 40 chapters each day, but I decided that a single afternoon would have to suffice.  After all, I didn’t plan to do the program, I just wanted to get a sense of what it’s about—and indeed, it took just a few chapters to grasp its appeal.

Warren claims The Purpose Driven Life is not a self-help book, but while his understanding of the genre may differ from mine, it strikes me as exactly that. In fairness, I found much with which to agree. In his anti-materialism, his belief in the paramount importance of relationships over things, Warren’s is a counter-cultural voice, exhorting us to care for the planet as well as for each other. To that extent, I’m with him.

This only takes me a short way, though, and I’m soon baffled by Warren’s blithe presumption that all we need to do is listen.

Warren’s God speaks with unmistakable clarity. The problem isn’t that we can’t hear God but that we refuse to obey him.

“If God asked you to build a giant boat, don’t you think you might have a few questions, objections, or reservations?” Warren asks his readers, contrasting our imagined obstinacy with Noah’s eagerness to get right on that ark.

And that’s where he loses me.

Because the thing is, if God were speaking to me—and I knew for sure that this was God—I’m pretty sure I’d be fine with building whatever boat he (or she) wanted. And I’m pretty sure the same would be true for most anyone reading the book. (Or at least almost anyone: My friend Jennifer—a law professor—insists she would indeed take issue with this heavenly directive, explaining she’s not trained in ark-building, though she’d gladly write a paper.)

But this doesn’t seem to be how God usually speaks, even to those of us desperate for guidance.

Not that we don’t wish he did.

I’m reminded of a scene in The Moviegoer, Walker Percy’s National Book Award-winning 1960 novel. “Don’t you see?” the despairing Kate Cutrer asks her cousin Binx. “What I want is to believe in someone completely and then do what he wants me to do. If God were to tell me: Kate, here is what I want you to do; you get off this train right now and go over there to that corner by the Southern Life and Accident Insurance Company and stand there for the rest of your life and speak kindly to people—you think I would not do it? You think I would not be the happiest girl in Jackson, Mississippi? I would.”

For most of us, like Kate, clear direction often proves elusive, however much we long for it. That was certainly the case for renowned writer Dan Wakefield, a novelist, journalist and screenwriter who, after decades of atheism and hard living, rediscovered the religious faith of his youth. Some years later, he reconnected with a childhood friend, a woman from his hometown of Indianapolis (which also happens to be my hometown, but I digress).  After years of tumultuous relationships, Wakefield believed he was finally on the right path, on the road to which God had led him. The couple married.

And then, almost immediately, things fell apart.

In his soul-baring spiritual memoir How Do We Known When It’s God?, Wakefield reflects back on this painful time, writing: “The hubris of imagining we’ve ‘got it together,’ followed by a jolt of reality that plunges us back to earth, is probably one of the most familiar and often-traveled arcs of human experience. And yet we think each time, ‘This is different, this time I’ve really got it right.’”

Wakefield’s experience got me to thinking about how we go about pursuing our goals—how we decide what to do next. It’s all well and good to say, as the evangelical Warren does, that we should just do what God tells us—or some secular equivalent of this—but what does this really mean?  At the most basic, practical level, how do we go about this? And, most immediately, how should I go about it?

The notion that there exists some absolute truth to which we should look for guidance pervades American culture.  For Evangelical Christians like Warren, it’s God. For those of a more ecumenical bent, it may be Your True Self, Your Inner Voice, or some general force for good.

But not everyone buys such theories. Alongside the widespread view that there exists some pre-existing and essential truth is a less well-traveled but parallel track known as constructivism. As constructivists see it, the self is something that we create, not something that we find. Until we’ve constructed our self, there isn’t a self to consult. Until then, to paraphrase Harvard professor Robert Kegan, we’re no more than the collection of beliefs taken on from “important others”—parents, teachers, peers, celebrities, employers, to name just a view. And because these perspectives so often diverge, we often find ourselves in trouble—caught between conflicting demands with no way to choose between them.

Make a lot of money, but don’t overvalue material things.

Put yourself first, but also put your family first.

It’s important to look your best, but don’t think too much about how you look.

Be assertive but modest.

As the old saying goes, you can’t please everyone—and yet, without quite noticing, many of us in Plan B Nation can’t seem to stop ourselves from trying.

But while the constructivists’ theories make a lot of sense to me, they still leave the biggest question unanswered.  If we’re charged with “constructing” our selves, how do we best proceed?

I’ve spent much of the past year thinking—and reading—about this question, and more and more, I’m convinced that life in Plan B Nation isn’t something that can be planned or neatly charted out.

Rather, we need to “live into” our new lives—to discover our purpose through trying things out, regrouping, then trying again. The process isn’t linear. It’s often messy. But it’s also necessary.

And in fact, the process may not be all that different from how we’ve always lived.  After extensive research into successful mid-life career transitions, organizational behavior expert Herminia Ibarra concluded that the traditional “plan and implement” model is at odds with reality. Facing a major crossroads, would-be career changers often spend countless hours and dollars on counseling and batteries of standardized tests, all in the interests of determining what it is they really want.  In other words, first figure out what you want. Then go after it.

This all sounds pretty logical, except that, according to Ibarra, our lives don’t work that way. “We learn who we are—in practice, not in theory—by testing reality, not by looking inside,” she writes in Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career.  “We discover the true possibilities by doing—trying out new activities, reaching out to new groups, finding new role models, and reworking our story as we tell it to those around us.”  

Over the past months, I’ve taken this advice to heart (in part because it appeals to me and in part because I don’t really see a whole lot of other options). I still feel pulled in multiple directions—at the time of this writing, I’m taking an introductory social work class, planning to teach a writing workshop, actively seeking full-time and freelance jobs, and contemplating taking the Massachusetts bar exam.  (In the dry words of one friend, “Amy, maybe you should consider monetizing your Harvard Law degree.”)

If this post seems longer than previous offerings, that’s because it is: Much of it was pulled from a book proposal that I may (or may not) be reworking.  As with so many other things: Time. Will. Tell. For now, one of the ways I’m finding meaning is through writing this blog.  And while I can’t say where it’s taking me, I’m sure enjoying the ride.