How to Live a Balanced Life: Part 5June 11, 2019
Living A Life With Purpose
I believe in saving the best ‘til last. Over the past several months I have written about what I believe to be the secrets to living a balanced life, which include – among other things - living a life with passion and the importance of family and friends. But for me, the importance of living a life with purpose trumps everything else.
Many of us go through life pondering our existence. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? I think this is especially true as we get older and the brevity of our time on earth becomes clear.
Unless you are a nihilist (in which case you should skip this article and go to one of my pieces on pasta recipes or mountain climbing), you have likely spent time wondering what purpose your life is or should serve. Everyone will have a different perspective on what that purpose should be, whether it’s self-serving, altruistic, or somewhere in between. Many people believe in living in accordance with a set of religious rules as a means to achieving an afterlife. I am not one to judge. The truth is, no one has the answers.
For my part, I have found that life is a journey in search of peace. That is, knowing in your heart that you are doing everything to the best of your abilities and treating those around you with respect and empathy. It’s not an easy journey, by any means. Life throws many unexpected obstacles in your way, your ego occasionally tugs you in the wrong direction and some of us are just plain luckier than others. I know I have been exceedingly lucky. I hardly deserve all the good fortune that has come my way. Yes, I have worked hard. But so have countless others around the world who were never given the opportunity to succeed, regardless how long or hard they toiled. And it was appreciating my lifetime of good fortune that has helped shape my philosophy about giving.
I am certain most of you have seen the Christmas movie “It’s a a Wonderful Life”, the classic feel-good movie that’s been playing since the 1940’s. It’s a simple concept, and the moral of the tale shaped the way I envision my own life’s purpose. Adapted from the short story, “The Greatest gift”, it chronicles the life of George Bailey, a man living in a small town whose dreams of moving away to see the world are continuously derided by events that force him to make a decision to stay. In each case, he chooses to put doing the right thing ahead of his own self interest. Eventually, he reaches a point when life becomes seemingly unbearable and he tries to take his own life, but is saved by an angel named Clarence. After a brief conversation with the angel he blurts out, “I wish I had never been born.” This gives the angel an idea: To show George just what the world might be like if he had never been born. We are then led through a series of melodramatic scenes, including one where he is unable to find his youngest daughter Zuzu’s flower petals in his pocket. Earlier in the film, Zuzu shows a flower that she brought home from school and became upset when the petals started to fall off. George had pretended to reattach them but actually just slipped the lost petals into his pocket.
In each scene, we discover that the town he lived in had been turned upside down. It had become a shallow, dark place lacking all the goodness that had once existed. At each turn, Clarence points out to George the reason why things turned out so badly: George had not been there to make it right. His kindness had touched so many people, it literally changed the world around him for the better. George realizes what he has lost and begs Clarence, ”Get me back, please! I want to live again.”
One of the most poignant scenes is when George discovers Zuzu’s flower petals are once again in his pocket. He knows he has his life back and will be reunited with his family, and that was far more important than any of the troubles that awaited him.
The story’s message is a simple one. The idea that one person can make a difference in other people’s lives through acts of kindness – whether small or more significant. And it made me realize what I wanted my life’s purpose to be. What greater gift than to know that other lives were made better than they might otherwise have been, partially because I existed.
I chose to make philanthropy my main purpose in life and I derive great joy knowing that our various initiatives and projects improve tens of thousands of lives around the world. I love the idea of helping as many people as possible as I journey through life, and not just through my foundation’s work. I like helping people around me. Being of service to others has turned out to be my life’s ultimate mission. It’s not always easy. There are days when I find it overwhelming to manage all of the requests coming my way and there are times when I literally want to run away and hide. It’s during these times though, that I am glad I have chartered a balanced life and can distract myself by taking time to have hobbies, adventures and other projects to turn to. Giving away money is harder than one might imagine. It sounds counterintuitive, but I have found that the more you give, the more roadblocks seem to arise. It’s like the universe has a dark force trying to limit good intentions. Despite these challenges, I am determined not to let anything get in the way.
And you don’t need to be a philanthropist or wealthy to touch others in a positive way, thereby giving your own life purpose.
My mother lived her entire life with a singular focus: To care for her children and later on, her grandchildren. From morning ‘til night, she would cook, bathe, clothe, and play with her family. My mother had a hard life, filled with physical and emotional pain. But it never got in the way of fulfilling her purpose. We tried (to no avail), to convince her to find other work or a hobby, just to get her out of the house. Her favourite line was, “your wealth is in your children; they are your treasure”. Later in life, when she no longer had the physical strength to take care of our families, I could literally see that her glow had dimmed. It took me a long time to understand how important that life’s purpose had been for her and how much we all had benefited from it. I know that the giving, kind side of me comes from her and I am certain my siblings have similar gratitude for her unconditional love, her guidance and strength of character. We were all touched in a positive way because my mother existed.
I know others who live with a singular purpose to help others and I can see the peace and joy that it brings them. My dear friends, Jimmy Crescenzo and Walter Mustapitch have spent their entire lives mentoring at-risk teenage boys. It’s not an easy job and they have endured some heartbreaking failures along the way. Because the truth is, you will never reach everyone. But these occasional failures are far outweighed by the hundreds of kids who benefited greatly and went on to become fine young men. It didn’t require a lot of money to put these kids on a better path. Just time, wisdom and love.
We may never know the meaning of life or the answer to why we are here. But here we are and we should make the best of it. And it’s a much better experience when we take the time to touch other people’s lives and witness their lives being better for it. I often think about the end of life and I hope I can look back and be at peace that mine had a purpose. That even during the difficult times, I could find comfort in remembering that I carried some version of Zuzu’s petals in my pocket. A simple reminder that loving and caring for others is truly the greatest gift.