Purpose vs. Pleasure?

Over breakfast the other day, I took the liberty of informing my father that I was going to make it my mission to get him a hobby. I can do this because he can’t get rid of me and I love him enough that I don’t mind annoying him into happiness.

A little context: he turned 81 earlier this month, and has been retired for the past six years. Unfortunately, retirement hasn’t been all, er, fun and games for him. Not that any of us expected it would be. Pop decided he was going to be a doctor when he was seven years old, and he pursued that career with single-minded purpose until the day he retired at 75, when his four grown children and wife finally managed to pry his fingers from the blood pressure cuff. If it hadn’t been for the prospect of volunteering in the healthcare industry, I think he’d still be pottering around his office today, the usual cohort of impossible and charming older Jewish women trailing dotingly in his wake.

But as it turned out, he didn’t enjoy volunteer work. I think I understand why – he’d served in a certain healing capacity for so long, it rubbed him the rob way to be in the same environment with the same wealth of knowledge and a reduced ability to act on it. Still, there are other retirees who find or rediscover passions after their formal careers have ended. My dad, unfortunately, hasn’t been one of them.

I tried to peer deeper into his reluctance while he enjoyed his egg white and dry toast and I enjoyed my blueberry pancakes with bacon. I’ve been trying to get him to write for ages – he has a natural gift for storytelling, and a lifetime of incredible experiences to draw upon (he wasn’t just a doctor; he also immigrated to this country from Palestine in 1941 by boat, to mention just one other highlight of his long and full life). But he won’t write, or not for long.

“What’s the point?” he asked me. “I enjoy writing while I’m writing, but then what?”

“Why does there have to be a point?” I asked him.

He frowned into his coffee. “It’s like this,” he explained, “my whole life, I had a purpose. And now, even though I’m no different, what I do doesn’t matter anymore.”

I get it. My father comes from a family of High Achievers. And wrapped up in that high achiever mentality is the sense that the more you do, the more worthwhile you are. It’s impossible to escape this thinking in a society that is obsessed with titles and objects and labels. But what happens when you operate under that mentality and you retire or, say, realize that you have no business in academia and want to write stories, is that you come into this really barren and lonely place where you realize you’ve measured your self-worth against what you can offer, instead of what makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. In other words, you hesitate to pursue what makes you happy because, somehow, that’s just not enough.

But how did we get here? Why isn’t our own fulfillment worthwhile? Are we really all so afraid that we’ll become narcissistic Trumpian pigs if we stop checking in with everyone else to see if they’re ok with what we’re doing? If we give into our passions, will we devolve into a society of self-absorbed, selfish individuals who just grab at whatever they want no matter what the cost or value?

It’s hard not to give into those middle of the night worries that tell us all these things might prove to be true. But in the clear light of day, I know there’s a big difference between the kind of thoughtless, immediate gratification we think of when we speak of giving into our passions, and the kind of life-affirming, deeply satisfying work we embrace and inspire when we focus on what’s meaningful to us. And I’m beginning to think that, as usual, when we go too far in the opposite direction, we begin to see the very results we jumped into extreme behavior to avoid. By marginalizing our own experiences of how we spend the lion’s share of our intellects and talents and energies, I fear those intellects and talents and energies quiet down and get very small.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to get my dad to write, or pick up his camera again, or value where his mind goes when it wanders. But I hope he does. If only because there’s nothing better than seeing the people you love follow whatever lights them up, even if it’s only for the moment.

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