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.