The Core of Life Reimagined (Part IX)

The Ultimate Why
“Why?”  This simple question, which we utter many times a day, is loaded with assumptions of what philosophers call “teleology.”  Teleology is the study of design and purpose.  It comes from the Greek word “telos” – complete.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, wrote a book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  I believe he chose not to begin the title with the word “why” because there are few easy answers to the question.  We seek to discover the reason things happen as they do.  Why does the rain fall?  Why does the earth turn on its axis?  Why am I here?  When we raise the question of purpose, we are concerned with ends, aims, and goals.  All of these terms suggest intent.  They assume meaning rather than meaninglessness.

Why, for example, did my friend Bill Payne have cancer causing him to lose his voice?  Why did Bill and I have a prophetic conversation on “losing your voice” two years earlier while sitting under a baobob tree in Africa?

The ultimate why questions often come up in times of crises.  Bill and I continued our prophetic conversation upon my return from Africa earlier that year.  Immediately after returning, I learned that Bill and his wife Joan were in a major “learning experience” — climbing a steep learning curve.  They had just learned that Bill had adenocarcinoma, a malignant tumor at the base of his esophagus.  I called Bill and he got right to the point.  “I have cancer,” he said, “a particularly bad kind that will probably kill me.  I don’t know how long I have to live.  I’m going to a specialist this afternoon.”

The painful news brought to the foreground my long friendship with Bill.  When we next talked by phone, in spite of his barely audible, raspy whisper, I heard his real voice come through almost for the first time.  He filled me in on the progress of his prognosis, and, eventually, our conversation turned to Africa.  He wanted to know the details of my trip.

Instantly, I was transported back to the scene of the two of us sitting under the baobob tree while looking out over one of the last great wild places on earth.  On the edge of the Serengeti plains, we shared the edges of our lives.  While witnessing the great wildebeest migration in front of us, we caught up with each other on the migration of our own lives.  Bill wanted to talk and was not at a loss for deep feelings.  He loved speaking and leading seminars, but most of all he loved telling stories.  He laughed, wept, and spoke movingly of his past and future.  He asked:  “I’ve lost my voice.  How am I going to find it for the second half of my life?”  He wanted to create a life with a distinct voice he could call his own.

In more than three decades of coaching and public speaking around the world, I have heard that issue come up more than any other.  At some point, most of us confront the questions: “How do I find my authentic voice?”   “How do I find and fulfill the central purpose of my life?”  We search for significance.  We long to leave a legacy.  Our passion is to know that we are fulfilling the purpose for which we are here on earth.

Answering the Ultimate Question
Any age is a good age to reimagine one’s life, but 50 was ideal for Bill.  His natural desire to travel and to grow had inspired his wife Joan to secretly surprise him with a gift of my three-week Africa Inventure Expedition for his 50th birthday.  Africa opened Bill’s heart to old questions and new answers.  He was not carrying a heavy load full of regrets, but he did want to open his heart more in his relationships and to “speak his true voice with more courage at work, his creative expression, his unique contribution to the world.”

Over the years, as I have asked wise elders what, if any, regrets they had, one theme has remained central.  The elders interviewed said, “I wish I had taken more risks to be myself, to find my unique voice.”  Their greatest obstacle to finding their voice was their capacity to postpone life until, like Bill, a crisis awakened them.

Bill’s capacity for self-deception was exhausted.  Like many of us, he had remorse about neglecting certain parts of his life in favor of others.  Now, facing the end of his life, he felt a great need to find something larger than himself to believe in.  His work now needed to be an expression in the outer world of who he truly was in the inner world.  He wanted to speak on the outside what was true on the inside.  All other standards of success – wealth, power, position, knowledge – grow thin if we do not satisfy this deeper longing.

As we sat together under the tree in Africa, Bill was feeling energized about the upcoming year.  He would keep doing what he was doing but change how and how much he did of it.  He would travel for work less and focus on relationships more.  Work travel had given him little joy in the past year.  He would rekindle his spirit by taking Friday off each week.  With an intentional three-day weekend, he would change his relationship to relationships.

Why – The Ultimate Question
One of the requirements of discovering our voice is time — time to grow whole — to come face-to-face with the incomplete parts of ourselves.  And to do that we must make friends with death.

Death is a powerful teacher.  The wisdom of life can originate from brushing up against it.  Squarely facing our own mortality, or that of others, forces us to take a fresh look and see the big picture.  It shatters our self-deceptions and generates the “why” question.

Ernest Becker, in his book The Denial of Death, claims, “The fear of death is the basic fear that influences all others; a fear from which no one is immune no matter how disguised it may be.”  Rollo May adds, “The confronting of death gives the most positive reality to life itself.  It makes the individual existence real, absolute, and concrete.  Death is the one fact of my life which is not relative but absolute and my awareness of this gives my existence and what I do each hour an absolute quality.”

The next six months Bill was poked, prodded, sliced and scanned at length by medical specialists in Minneapolis and at the Mayo Clinic.  He experienced weeks of radical radiation and chemotherapy.  He worked with multiple, not so alternative, therapies including massage, visualization, acupressure, diet, herbs, and meditation.  He rejoined the Catholic faith, prayed, and attended healing ceremonies.  And he revisited his personal purpose daily, reminding himself to appreciate the purpose moments every day.  His purpose, “to bring forth harmony on the planet through the force of love,” became his healing mantra.

Bill and I often discussed why purpose is immortal.  Why it transcends our lives.  Why, to face death squarely, we need to face purpose squarely?  Why, mysteriously, the creative Spirit of the universe calls each of us at various times and in various ways to make our own difference in the work of the universe, to find our own special voice?

Recalling the year since his Africa trip, Bill said, “I needed desperately to reenergize.  I underestimated the stress of hotels, airplanes, and those always special presentations.  Traveling constantly shut down my opportunities for real friendships.”  He added, “Always on, I didn’t nourish myself when I was off.  I didn’t know what ‘off’ felt like.  Taking care of myself was an alien concept.  When I was home I needed to be alone or in mindless activities that did not require energy.  I had little left to give anyone else.  I was simply emotionally unavailable.”

Healing requires self-forgiveness of our inevitable crimes of unconsciousness. Bill said, “I was emotionally unconscious for 15 years!  I denied the emotional me for 15 years.  I’ve been growing numb for a long time, and I really started to die inside about a year and a half ago.  I started to see people as a group rather than as individuals.  I even forgot people’s names.  My cancer is a mirror of my own integrity.  In the mirror this morning I saw the enemy — me.”

Bill and I began meeting regularly to talk about purpose and meaning, all of which he filtered through his cancer healing journey.  His cancer forced both of us to be emotionally vulnerable.  It forced him to face the “why” question.  He often said, “My cancer is not an undiscussable, yet many people close to me are afraid to discuss it.  It’s curious how some people I felt close to now stay at a distance to avoid their fear or discomfort with my cancer.  And, people who I wouldn’t expect show up!”

It was often hard talking to Bill.  Sometimes I too felt uncomfortable with his struggle.  Then, one day while driving in to work to meet with Bill, my own grief broke loose.  I just sobbed all the way to work.

Most of us eventually feel a need to be part of something larger than ourselves — to have a voice in life.  Struggles, like cancer, call this to our attention.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who studied death and dying for many years, taught us that at the end of our lives we will ask, or be asked, three final questions: Did you give and receive love?  Did you discover your own voice?  And, did you make a difference?

“Living With Purpose” vs. “Having a Purpose”
In one of our meetings I gave Bill a book entitled A Year to Live by Stephen Levine.  In fact, I wanted to encourage Bill to adopt a new outlook for his life – that of “living with purpose” rather than “having a purpose.”  The book offers a year-long program to help us learn to fully live before we die.  Reading it myself, I was prompted to live as if I had only one year left.  The experience of living this way for just one day informed and impacted my own purpose profoundly.  Living with purpose means choosing how we spend our time.  It means choosing how we will use our most enjoyed “gifts” to create more joy and meaning for ourselves and others.

Bill’s healing journey offered him extraordinary insights into the places where he had been numb and into the still small voice within, which became more obvious.  But the deepest insight was an increase in courage.  When we live as if we have one year left, fear makes us too small.  So, we step up and live the life we ‘ve been postponing.

Bill’s purpose — “to bring forth harmony on the planet through the force of love” — became his reason for getting up in the morning.  He said, “My struggle is a courage struggle.  My cancer is about courage and voice — being in my heart and at the heart of things like relationships.  My cancer is a mirror about living a life of integrity.”

Living with integrity is an act of courage.  Ultimately, what gives our lives meaning is living with integrity — choosing to act in a way that is a bold expression of who we are at our core.  When we make that choice, we feel, as Joseph Campbell put it, “the rapture of being alive.”

The “ultimate why” occurs when we are radically awakened.  Bill’s cancer pushed him to face his life squarely and summon his voice.  If we are deficient in courage no voice can be heard.  His voice, however, was not the intellectual voice he knew from the past.  It was a new, soft, luminous voice tempered with love and compassion.

Bill died later that year at his Minneapolis home in the loving arms of his wife Joan.  Our friendship did not end when Bill died.  Some other aspect of it began.  I learned from Bill’s journey that compassion is the answer to the ultimate why question.  Everything else pales in comparison.  We do not need to accomplish grand things in order to show compassion.  It is the power of compassion that we put into purpose moments, day after day, that add up to the power of a purposeful life.

Find Your Why
We each have a special life purpose, something that we are called to do.  When we are aware of it, we feel a core sense of peace.  When we aren’t, we feel restless and feel something is missing.  If we don’t take steps to gain clarity about our life purpose, we increasingly feel stuck.  Sometimes this leads to depression and anxiety.  Despite these uncomfortable feelings, many people still won’t take action.


People tend to avoid their life purpose because they fear the changes they may need to make.  They fear rocking the boat and stepping out into the unknown.

The Sufi poet Rumi tells us to think of our lives as if we had been sent by a king to a distant country with a special task.  “You might do a hundred other things,” says Rumi, “but if you fail to do the one thing for which you were sent it will be as if you had done nothing.”

To be fully human is to ask the “ultimate why” question.  The why quest is at the heart of the world’s great religions and spiritual traditions.  We’re searching for the “one thing” that Rumi intimates and the rapture that comes with it.  I believe that Bill found the one thing for which he was sent.

Deep in our hearts, we all want to find and fulfill a purpose larger than ourselves.  Only such a larger purpose can inspire us to goals we know we could never reach on our own.

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