Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Focus on Purpose Rather than Pain or Pleasure

Helpful Hints from Harmony

“Life is Good When You Live in Harmony”

(A word of explanation: I live in a little place called Harmony, Florida, where life is a bit slower and nature is right outside our door. I’m also familiar with another Harmony, which isn’t a place at all but a way of being. This year I’d like to share 12 simple lessons I’ve learned from my time in Harmony.)
Helpful Hint #2: Focus on Purpose Rather than Pain or Pleasure
We have an interesting method in our church for raising funds to care for the poor and needy. On the first Sunday of the month, we observe “Fast Sunday,” during which we abstain from food for 24 hours and donate the value of those meals missed (or more) to the bishop as a “Fast Offering.”
Without the right attitude, fasting can be agonizing. As teenagers, my brothers and I felt that Fast Sunday was the longest, most excruciating day of the month. We’d glare at the clock, willing those hands to move more quickly, growing hungrier by the minute. But no matter how much we glared, the time would just drag on and on.
On one of those dreadful first Sunday afternoons, waiting for the clock to strike four so we could finally eat, a younger brother whined to our mother, “But Mom, it’s called the wrong thing. It’s not Fast Sunday, it’s Slow Sunday.”
Sensing a teaching moment, she pointed out that the time would pass more quickly and we would grow spiritually from the process if before we started our fast we would identify a desired blessing or a meaningful reason for our fasting and then focus on that. If we did not, she warned, it would always be an ordeal because “fasting without a spiritual purpose is just going hungry.”
It turns out that Mom’s wise instruction about Fast Sunday is one of the keys to an abundant and meaningful life. Doing just about anything without a deeper purpose will leave us empty, hungry for something more.
In his masterful poem “If,” Rudyard Kipling referred to “Triumph and Disaster” as “two imposters.” In a similar way, I believe pain and pleasure are also imposters: they may seem at times to be what life is all about. If we obsess about either one of them, we miss the real meaning and ultimate joy of life. Focusing on purpose pulls the mask off these charlatans.
Everyone experiences their share of pain. The Gospel of St. John promises that “in this life, ye shall have tribulation.” But it need not crush us. When it shows up, we can bear it and even thrive in it by discovering a deeper purpose within it. I have found that asking myself, “What am I to learn from this experience?” transforms trial into tutelage.
“Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.” “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” Viktor Frankl. We can endure any sorrow or suffering if we recognize that it carries us to a higher place.
As for the other imposter, I believe pleasure for pleasure’s sake and a single-minded emphasis on pleasure is a sure recipe for shallowness and eventually emptiness and loneliness.
Please understand that I have no quarrel with having a good time and partaking of the richness that life has to offer. Happy, vibrant experiences are the fortunate by-product of a purposeful life. But when they become an end unto themselves, the pursuit of them drains away the possibility of lasting joy.
I love what Helen Keller and John William Gardner said of the subject. “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” “Storybook happiness involves every form of pleasant thumb-twiddling; true happiness involves full use of one’s powers and talents.”
I have found that the key to a rich, abundant life is to find purpose in each moment — whether pleasant or painful — by seeing each within the context of the bigger picture. Without a larger, longer perspective, the particulars of life can overwhelm us. But when we focus on purpose, all the pieces fall into place and make wonderful sense.
George Bernard Shaw got it right when he said, “This is the true joy in life: being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.”

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