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Life’s Big Questions

Just as a sailboat needs a rudder to serve passengers, so a person needs a sense of Self in order to serve a relationship. My friend, fellow bass, hoops fan, and retired psychiatrist Mark Ardis suggests three questions that are an apt start for defining who we are. Our answers will likely change over time—as the result of crises, education, epiphanies, tragedies, and simply growing up. He suggests that we might return to these questions like a periodic mantra. The answers to these three queries provide a strong basis for defining our Self, somewhat similar to a title of an article, an executive summary of its contents, and then the contents itself:

  • Who am I? This first question is oriented backwards in time—who have you been in the past, up througuiderocksgh today? The answer to this question might be conceived as something of an epitaph, or, more positively, a title of the biography of your life up to this point. I suggest you think in terms of the major roles you have played—the hats you have worn. My answer:
    • Learner, Family Man, and Educator Who Loves Life
  • What is my purpose? The second question focuses on the present—to what ends are you playing the roles identified in question one? Why am I learning, educating, and nurturing my family relationships? What goal, purpose, or objective is served? My answer:
    • Several decades ago I came across Francis Bacon’s quote that “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” I was struck by that passage, and interpreted it to mean that reading and conversation come easy—cheap, as it were, but that writing entailed organizing your thoughts meaningfully and sharing them with others. Perhaps Bacon tapped into my sense of guilt—self-indulgence for taking so much time in reading and conversation. I decided that writing is my way of giving back to all who have made it possible for me to live a life of reading, study, and dialog—my patient and loving family, my supportive and inspirational colleagues, and the thousands of clients who have been my laboratory. In a word, my purpose is to give back.
  • How do I fit in? The third question is more forward looking and focuses on how we use our strengths to accomplish our purpose. It does not necessarily mean how we compromise, adapt, and change our ways to suit others, although that is often what “fitting in” conjures. By fitting in, I mean what is our niche—how do our strengths determine the best way to serve our purpose? How do I use my personality traits, mental abilities, physical characteristics, values, and experiences in service of my purpose—to give back. My answer:
    • My learning has been in many areas—organizational psychology, neuroscience, music, cooking, genealogical research. In each of these areas, I have different ways of giving back.
    • In music, I could be selfish and play or sing chamber music at home without sharing with the public. But in the spirit of resisting this self-indulgent approach, I give back by playing chamber music and singing with others in public venues.
    • In family, I give back through writing, maintaining, and sharing in print and the Internet my family history. I also share my cooking and crafts interests with friends, family, and grandchildren.
    • In psychology, I write books, teach seminars, design courses, write blogposts, design new products and applications, and serve with professional associations as a way to give back for all the opportunity I have had to read, conduct research, and delve into my imagination.

In the Jewish tradition of High Holy Days—the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, one is asked to openbook of life the book of life on day one and reassess the state of one’s Self before the book slams shut on day ten. Other world religions have similar periods and provisions for sober self-assessment—the Hajj, the Ashram, Ramadan, Buddhist meditation retreats, Shinto purification, and Easter Week. None strikes me with the clarity of the opening and closing of the book of life. It just so happens that the High Holy Days begin this year next Monday, September 13, and conclude September 23.

Perhaps Mark’s three questions from the beginning of this blog will guide dialog between you and those close to you. It obviously doesn’t have to happen now—maybe the hoopla of football season doesn’t suit you for self-study! But, I think this is a good time for me to revisit these three questions. My answers above are a record of my past, present, and immediate future. In my ongoing quest to optimize myself, how might I like to keep or shape those answers? I wonder if my significant others have any requests? New roles? Resurrect old roles? New ways of learning? New ways of giving back? Hmmm… Can’t wait to start.

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