Starting Over

June 9, 2016

Nantucket, My Happy Place

June 9, 2016

How Do You Find Purpose in Life?

June 9, 2016
diet handbook
Mom's happy place
Girl Scout troop

When Lev died, I did not have a clue how to “do” widowhood. Books and advice from others were of little help. I looked at other widows in search of role models. Those who had built purposeful, fulfilling new lives encouraged me. If they could do it, so could I. Eventually, I found books that also inspired me—usually memoirs of grief, which told me that the craziness and haziness of those first months were normal. I was not losing my mind.

Later, I began to read psychology books as well—Mindset, The Marshmallow Test and Presence—along with books with more spirituality: Gratitude, The Road to Character, Tracks of a Fellow Stranger, Gift from the Sea and C.S. Lewis’ autobiographical works. I had read the last three years before. Now I returned to them to hear a new message for a new, different and scary time in my life.

GritGRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth, is my current read, and I am finding myriad ways to apply its principles to my life today, from trivial—like diet, which I blogged about last week—to significant.

How do I live life with purpose instead of settling for keeping on keeping on?

Duckworth quotes Stanford developmental psychologist Bill Damon:

“‘Everyone has a spark. And that’s the very beginning of purpose….’

“Next, you need to observe someone who is purposeful.… ‘someone demonstrates that it’s possible to accomplish something on behalf of others.’

“In fact, he can’t remember a single case in which the development of purpose unfolded without the earlier observation of a purposeful role model.”

Who were my purposeful role models?

I wondered as I read Duckworth’s book while flying from London to Dallas.

I have blogged frequently about my role models for widowhood. All were and are women with grit. But where did that grit come from, and where did I acquire the grit to think that I could reinvent myself as a widow? Who were my early role models?

Growing up in Texarkana in the 50s, I thought that the lives of my mother and most of the women I knew were far too circumscribed. Their lives revolved around what I called the Three C’s: church, children, cooking. That is how they spent their hours. That is what they talked about when they were together. I wanted more than that. Until now, I had forgotten the influence two women had on me:

Lola WilsonLola Wilson, my Girl Scout leader, and Kathleen Tews, the executive director of Girl Scouts in Texarkana, had at least three things in common: They were graduates of Baylor University, married and deeply committed to scouting. Their example told me that I could do it, too; and they inspired me to go to their alma mater, which was a life-changing experience for me.

While I served as a Scout leader as a student at the state school in Waco and later as leader of my daughter’s troop in Corpus Christi, scouting wasn’t the path that gave me purpose. Instead, it exposed me to the broader concept of voluntarism—the enormous meaning and satisfaction that comes from volunteer service, where I have found purpose.

Finally giving Mama credit

And I confess: I did not give Mama enough credit when I was growing up. I consciously wanted to be like her for the first time when I became a mother at age 26. My question—How do I do motherhood?—wasn’t really too different from my question seven years ago—How do I do widowhood? At all those life-changing moments I looked for role models. Mama’s interests—church, children, cooking—have turned out to be my primary values, more broadly and accurately described as faith, family, friends; and she remains my primary influence today, 28 years after her death.

She was not my role model for widowhood. Parkinson’s had weakened her too much by age 73, when Daddy died; and the last years of her life were sad—in no way what I want for myself. Please, God!

Mama and IBut oh! the grit that she displayed when she was younger! I look back on her life and marvel. Daddy, a railroad man, worked about 10 hours a day, seven days a week, when I was a young child. Mama fed him a hot breakfast before driving him to work at 7, and she cooked a hearty meal when he came home at 5. We did not go out to eat. I never had a babysitter. She didn’t have a washer, dryer, dishwasher, vacuum cleaner or mixer. She made regular trips to the washateria, hung the wet clothes on the line, ironed every day, made all our clothes, cleaned, cooked and gardened. She took care of the car, insurance and bills. And despite the lack of a mixer, we had homemade dessert every night.

But that was only the beginning. She taught young married women in Sunday School all the years I was home. My most vivid memory of her is with her worn Bible across her knees, preparing her lesson. She visited class members, was active in the missionary society, participated in PTA, did some substitute-teaching in the schools and served quietly for years as the one-person benevolence committee of the church, addressing the needs both of church members and of transients who showed up at the church door. She was my teacher and role model for the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

…I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.
Philippians 4:11b NASB

4 comments

  1. You really should include it…so many of us today think we are overwhelmed with keeping up with our kids and their activities and the daily chores and volunteering or work that we do. We really should know that things could be so so much harder.

    1. Sheryl Sandberg, in her recent speech to Berkeley graduates, said that when she was grieving so about her husband’s death, a friend told her to think of the worst thing that could have happened. In her case it was that her husband could have died while driving with the children in the car. That taught her to find gratitude. And Duckworth is right: we need to see people who have done it, whatever “it” is, before we can know that we can do it too. As you know, I have written about other role models in the family–probably something Freudian that I haven’t really written much about Mama before. And it wasn’t what I intended. I set out to write about Mrs. Wilson, role models and grit. But this is where my fingers took me.

  2. Whoa! Great stories/memories/images, Ella. That’s some strong, compelling writing. I hope you’ll consider including this blog (in some form) in your upcoming book. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Oh, my goodness! Thank you so much, Bob. I hadn’t really thought of this as book material, but I am finding so much good stuff in GRIT, by Angela Duckworth, which sends me remembering the past–how did I become the person I am?

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