Living on Purpose: Life as a Choose Your Own Adventure Story

As a child, some of my favorite books to read were from the Give Yourself Goosebumps choose your own adventure series written by R.L. Stein. Throughout each book, there were several opportunities for the reader to exert some agency. If you wanted your character to walk through a door, you’d turn to page 78. And if you wanted the character to turn and run, you’d turn to page 52. Depending on the series of choices you made, the story could be slightly or drastically different every time you read it. I loved those books and others like them because it drew me into the process, begged me to be an active participant rather than just a consumer. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the choose your own adventure concept would be a perfect metaphor for navigating life. We can either be passive consumers of our experiences or we can actively shape the story.

Every day we make hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tiny and massive decisions that shape our own story. Turn here, eat this, accept that job offer. Each one has the potential to lead us down a slightly different path. Here’s the catch….in life, we already know the end of our story. We all meet the same ending so the question becomes, what do we want to do along the journey? We cannot always control the outcome of our decisions, and much like the choose your own adventure books, sometimes life throws us an unexpected twist, but we can live with intention, with an idea of what we’d like to experience on the way, and we can control how we react to those unexpected twists.

Living with intention simply means doing big and small things on purpose, with purpose. Here are a few things I do to make sure my own adventure is lived with intention:

  • Every morning I try to meditate on a single word that I hope to carry into my day. Grace. Humility. Boldness. It’s amazing how thinking about that one simple concept for even just a few moments can shift how I interact with the world.

  • I am intensely curious about myself and carve out plenty of time for self reflection. If you don’t know what your hopes, fears, desires, motivations, pitfalls, hangups, etc are…how can you live with intention? You will spend your life in a reactionary state, motivated by things within you that you do not understand.

  • I have a vision for the legacy I want to leave. I periodically reflect on the statement “Because of me, my son will know __________________”. What am I teaching him about the world? What is most important for him to understand? What will he say about me when I am gone? Knowing how I want to fill in that blank gives me guidance on how I navigate relationships, how I spend my time/money/energy. It is a filter through which I can run every decision. How does this help build the legacy I hope to leave?

  • I know some areas where I want to have an impact, some social problems I want to draw attention to. I cannot do all of the things, so where can I be most effective? These questions have led me to my most exciting opportunities and have kept me from spending too much time and energy on perfectly fine things that would keep me from having the strongest impact possible in a few select areas. Your life is going to have an impact, but you get to decide whether that’s an intentional impact or a haphazard one.

  • Meditation. I can’t tell you how much meditation has changed my life and how much better my whole experience is when my meditation practice is healthy. Sitting still is hard. Quieting your mind is hard. There are so many lessons to be learned in that stillness that we carry into the chaos.

Are you living with intention, actively and purposefully shaping your own story?

Or are you just a consumer of it, turning the page to find out what comes next?

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A Case for Always Assuming Good Intentions

Humans are meaning makers, we love to "make sense" of our experiences and the way our brains do that is by constructing stories about the things happening around us and to us. The problem is, we can only create these stories based on the information available to us and often we have incomplete information. It's impossible to know what other people are thinking or to have all of the details sorted out, so we fill in the gaps the best we can and end up making up stories that fit the narrative that makes the most sense to us. Unfortunately, in our own minds, we are usually the hero of the story. We are the good guy and that leaves everyone else to play support roles or villain roles, but it's always way more complicated than that. Slowing down and trying to see the nuance and truly understand other people's perspectives benefits everyone in the long run. It is the epitome of grace and it can change how you see the world and relate to others. 

This meaning making process plays out in a thousand small and big ways in our lives every day. A person cuts you off on the way to work. You can tell yourself that they are a jerk- careless, insensitive, and selfish. Or, you can assume that maybe they genuinely didn't see you or that maybe they are trying to get to a loved one who is having a crisis. You ask your spouse to do something and they forget. You can tell yourself that they don't care about your wants and needs, that they are self absorbed, insensitive, or a bad listener. Or you can assume that maybe they literally forgot, maybe something more important distracted them, or maybe they have too much on their plate right now. A person disagrees with you about a belief you hold deeply. You can assume they are an idiot or you can recognize that there is a reason they hold that belief and seek to understand the information and experiences that led them to feel that way. It happens all day every day- we make stories up about what's going on in the world around us. How you approach those stories matters. 

Here's what I would challenge you to do- 1. Assume good intentions always, 2. If you have the opportunity for dialogue, seek to understand, and 3. Repeat that cycle forever. Assuming good intentions doesn't hurt you at all. It just relieves you of the pressure to be angry or hurt or to feel shame. It prevents you from making assumptions about who a person is or how they feel about you. It keeps you from making up stories that are untrue. Seeking to understand will help you learn. It will build your relationship with the other person. It extends grace in its most basic form. It helps them to feel seen and heard and it gives you information you need to confidently make sense of the experience. You know the easiest way to figure out what somebody meant with their actions or how they feel about you? Ask them. It's really that simple. There will be people in your life who are toxic, who do not have good intentions, who will lie and manipulate and deceive, but in my experience those people are few and far between. Most people are good and are doing the best they can to navigate the world. I would also argue that one or two bad experiences with a person shouldn't forever color your understanding of who they are. People are nuanced. People mess things up. People do things driven by emotions that they would never do "in their right mind". Keep assuming that they had good intentions and give them an opportunity to explain themselves and do better. Keep coming back to the mat and doing the work, it's so worth it.  

The next time you feel anger or hurt or resentment rising up in you, try to slow down long enough to sort out if there is evidence to support your understanding of what happened or if you're making up a story that serves you, filling in the gaps with information that may or may not be true. Then, always seek the truth. 

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On Death & Dying: Preparing for the End When You're Just Getting Started

There's a large cemetary my son and I drive by regularly. It's tucked in between a highway and shopping mall. It makes me sad to think that someone can end up buried for all eternity next to an Olive Garden, but I guess there are worse places to end up. One of the first times we drove by, my son commented about all of the pretty flowers. I explained that it was a cemetary and that each one of those bouquets represented somebody who had died. He responded with a simple "oh". The next time we drove by, he asked me why people die. I explained that eventually our bodies just break down and that it happens to everyone, but hopefully not until we're very old and have lived a full and happy life. Most recently when we passed by, he told me that he didn't want to die. I told him that I didn't want him to die either and that hopefully it wouldn't be something he had to worry about for a long long time. We've never shyed away from the topic of death. It's an inevitable part of life and I'd rather lay a solid foundation than have my son's first encounter with the idea be at the time he loses somebody he loves dearly. We don't talk about death enough in our culture, especially when we are young and so alive, but I think that cheats us and our loved ones of a lot. Not only does it leave everyone emotionally and mentally unprepared, it also puts people in a terrible situation should they have to make decisions about the end of our life without knowing our wishes. 

My own first up close encounter with death happened when I was twelve years old. My grandfather who was dying of cancer moved into our home under hospice care and spent his final weeks of life in my childhood bed room. There aren't words that can adequately describe what death looks like up close. It is messy, it is hard, it is difficult to watch and hear and smell. But it can also be still and quiet and mundane- full of routine...shift changes, med administration, and the business of dying. Since that initial experience, the cycle of loss has repeated itself a few times in my life.

And then there's the bizarre nature of grief. It catches you off gaurd in moments that you thought were safe. It hits in the lyrics of a song or in the midst of a memory or in the small quiet moment when your mind is still enough to soak in the loss, the absence of what was. It has no respect for boundaries or context. It floods in all around you and swallows you whole before you even know what's happening. In my early twenties when my grandmother died, I remember going through her calendar and calling to cancel her upcoming appointments. When I got the receptionist at the podiatrist's office, I told her that I was calling to cancel an upcoming appointment because unfortunately, my grandmother had died. She burst into tears, sobbing on the other end of the line. I found myself, the grandaughter, comforting this stranger on the other end of the line. "I'm so sorry for your loss", I said quietly before hanging up the phone. I've laughed about that encounter many times over the past several years. How strange grief is. 

Most recently, death has come knocking at my door as my husband and I prepare our will. It feels strange to talk about our end of life wishes while we are young and vibrant and pretending like we have decades before we need to worry about such things. But the truth is, death waits for no man and has no respect for our own personal agendas and plans. It comes when it wants, sometimes swiftly and often unfairly. The process of discussing our end of life wishes was eye opening. We each learned a lot about ourselves and each other. We vulnerably had to ask people to take on the immense responsibility of raising our son should something happen to us. We had to reflect on our hopes for his future, a future that might not include us. Despite the number of tears I've shed thinking about leaving too soon or losing Dustin before I'm ready, I am also confident now that I know his wishes and that he knows mine. I know that I will not burden my family for weeks on end, draining them of our assets as they try to cling to me, because they will know that I don't want that. I know that my ashes will be spred in some of my favorite places, becoming a part of something new. I know that our son will be well cared for and that we are setting our extended family up to successfully and comfortably raise him for a future that is bright. 

It might seem silly to have an attorney draw up a will at this stage of your life, while your family is young and just getting started, but I'd argue that this is the most important time to do it. Your loved ones should have no doubt about what you want to happen, to you or to your children. You should give them as many tools and resources as you can to carry on in your absence. The transition for your children should be as smooth and seamless as you can make it. You should give your loved ones the freedom of knowing what you want and give yourself the peace of mind to know that it will all be okay. Don't be afraid to confront the end of your life, it makes the living part that much more beautiful.  

 

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