Boating Adventures | "Finding Purpose" | Text and 2 Photos by Vicki Totten

Kayaking on Austin's Lady Bird Lake
As I silently pedaled my kayak near the edge of Austin's Lady Bird Lake, I found myself thinking about a recent talk I attended and a question the talk brought up for me. The talk was by author Isabelle Allende, in town to promote her most recent book "The Japanese Lover." The 73 year old author commented that to age well required three things: a sense of purpose, community, and love. Those three items resonated with me. It was easy to identify that I had community and love in my life. But identifying what my sense of purpose is at this point in life turns out to be a challenging question.

As I continued my way along the water's edge, I watched the turtles quickly jump into the water when they sensed my approach and the white egrets standing very still until the moment I moved just a little too close and then silently raise their majestic wings to fly off together. Being in nature always seems to provide the space needed to ponder big questions such as this.

Isabelle Allende

According to the dictionary, having a sense of purpose and meaningfulness are interconnected. So, to find a sense of purpose also means finding things that give life meaning. When I was still working, it was so much easier to identify what my sense of purpose was. My sense of purpose was measured by how much I did each day. When I was a psychotherapist it was measured by how much I helped people. When I was a teacher, it was measured by how well I taught my students that day. And when I was raising my children, it was measured by how well I had guided them toward becoming decent human beings - without harming myself or them in the process. I have always envied my artist husband because his sense of purpose seems to remain the same. Whether he is retired or not retired, his goal is to create art.

But now that I am retired and my kids are grown - I am left to wonder how to define my sense of purpose at this point in my life. And what does having a sense of purpose have to do with aging or with aging well?

One of the biggest internal shifts that accompanies no longer earning an income is learning to recognize and measure our value beyond whatever we were doing for a living - whether it was working as a teacher, a shop keeper, a welder, an executive, or a bus boy.

As I continued my kayak trip down Lady Bird Lake I found myself returning to this question of finding one's purpose. When I used to teach counseling classes, one of the books I used was "Man's Search for Meaning" by Victor Frankl. Dr. Frankl had survived years in a concentration camp during the German Holocaust. This tiny book, written in 1946, talked about how he managed to survive the horrendous experiences he was subjected to by maintaining his sense of purpose, or as he talks about in the book, how he discovered that his survival was not dependent on the external environment, but on his internal attitude about his situation. According to one reviewer, "For Frankl, the situation confirmed Friedrich Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

According to Frankl, our main drive in life is to find meaning. So how do I relate that to my life in retirement? I know that one of the things that will continue to give my life meaning and purpose in retirement is to keep learning. Since retirement, I have been trying to learn how to be a better sailor, which has provided me with a great deal of pleasure. But is that enough? There is so much pain in the world, surely it is not acceptable to gain your sense of purpose from simply finding pleasure? I'm pretty certain my goal is not to become a hedonist. But then, if I am unable to experience pleasure when my life is going well, how can I ever expect to tolerate adversity when confronted with it?

When we are engaged in pleasurable activities it releases dopamine. Our brain even releases dopamine when we are anticipating a pleasurable event. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter released by the brain. It is associated with the feeling system of the brain, since it is released during pleasurable situations. It's a good thing. So, it would make sense that seeking out activities as we age that bring us pleasure would also provide us with a greater sense of meaning - or purpose.

But since I don't plan to spend every day sailing, maybe what I need to learn even more than sailing is how to take pleasure from the small, every day things. Things like watching the wildlife on the shore and remembering to be grateful for that simple pleasure. Then my measurement for success can be tied to how often I experience gratitude during those moments of pleasure - whether it is learning something new, being in nature, being with friends or family, or just being alive. While I know I will continue to seek out new challenges, maybe even new ways to bring in an income, for now maybe it's enough to focus on those things that bring pleasure in the present.

And when combined with community and with love - that seems like a good start toward aging well.

Vicki and husband, ceramic artist Stan Irvin, are both retired professors who have discovered the joys of Rockport and living part-time on their 33' sailboat, while exploring new sailing destinations and adventures.

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