Finding Purpose, Fighting MEH

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As humans, we are drawn to meaning and purpose. This makes us pretty unique among the animal kingdom. I’ve never met a dog who was concerned about making a difference in the world. Our inclination to find, make, and seek meaning also tends to make us a little miserable. The basics of survival never feel like enough, and we find ourselves struggling to climb higher on the pyramid of Maslow’s hierarchy.

I’ve been chronically dissatisfied for as long as I can remember. Even as a toddler I was always complaining about boredom and calling bullshit on all the things the culture told me I was supposed to like and do. Of course, I was drawn to consumerism like any child of the 1970s with access to a TV set. I wanted all the shiny toys, but as soon as I got them I realized they didn’t really fill the gap I was trying to fill. They were empty promises that soon turned into piles of clutter.

I can’t seem to escape this feeling of MEH. The wheels of capitalism can crush anyone’s spirit, and mine was already pretty flat from the start. Follow your passion! Live your dream! Find your purpose! At the age of fifty, I still haven’t figured out how to do any of those things. And it’s not like I haven’t tried.

The Artist

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The first time I remember being excited about what adult life might hold for me was when my mom took me to some of her art classes at the North Idaho College. I loved making art, and I wondered if one day I could make a living by teaching or making art. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up (a rude and nonsensical question to pose to a child), I said: high school art teacher. On career day, someone drove me to the high school to spend the day with the art teacher there. It occurred to me that this job required interacting with a lot of teenagers, and I decided I didn’t want to pursue that career path after all.

I did end up in art school right out of high school. My mother and grandmother had both had aspirations to become commercial artists, and I thought I might be the first one to actually make it work. I was interested in graphic design and later editorial illustration. I finished the two year program at the Art Institute and then lost momentum and confidence.

There were two things that kept me from becoming a commercial illustrator or graphic designer. For one, I wasn’t very good at it. I lacked precision, and whatever talent I had was just average. I would have to spend more time practicing and perfecting my craft before I felt “good enough.” Back in 1992, everything was still manual, and I could not draw a straight line or get proportions right. My work was stylized by necessity. I lacked the time, energy, and motivation to keep working on it.

The second problem was the commercial aspect of commercial art. I already had a deep loathing for corporate capitalism, and it felt like the only way to make money was to become a cog in that machine. Every potential job felt like throwing my values out the window. It was better to do that with an innocuous office job than to let my creative spirit be crushed.

The fine art world didn’t feel any better. It was just another mechanism of capitalism, full of elitism and hipsters. I enjoyed going to galleries and exhibitions, but the idea of becoming part of that world made me feel ill. Maybe that was my sense of being “not good enough,” but something about art-for-money just turned me off.

The Rebel

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When you can’t reconcile yourself with the culture or economic system you’re born into, what do you do? You rebel. Some people do this by going full on into activism or starting a punk band. Others become drug dealers or other black market operators. Most of us simply refuse to buy into the success metrics of the status quo and end up evading corporate jobs.

My first job was in the video department at Tower Records–where most rebels started their careers, and many stayed for decades. It was a culture built around the love of music, and all of us came to work looking like punks, goths, rockers, rave kids, grunge kids or metal heads. At the time, I did not realize how special the culture was. Of course, it was a capitalist retail chain, but it wasn’t until the money became more important than the music that the whole thing fell apart.

Being a rebel has allowed me to be a bit bitter about every job I have ever had. My labor was being exploited for someone else’s profit. My creativity was subsumed by sexist admin roles and tedious office work. I went to work to get a paycheck like millions of others, and I took the edge off of my dissatisfaction by drinking alcohol, on the weekends and then just every day. No more edges.

Substance abuse is a pretty common form of rebellion. When you feel like life doesn’t have much to offer you, why not be drunk or high all the time? It keeps you numb, but it can also keep you passive. It’s hard to find your passion with a hangover.

The Seeker

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Despite my chronic MEH, I have always been looking for something bigger and brighter. One feature of my chronic dissatisfaction was an impulse to always scan for something better. I knew there would be a purposeful, meaningful life for me, if I just kept looking and learning.

The first time I was laid off in 2001, I decided to go back to school to get a Bachelor’s degree. With a two-year art degree, I wasn’t qualified for the more sophisticated office work that seemed to be the next logical step to move me from bookkeeping to something more creative in the “new economy,” which was at that point lying in a heap on the floor.

I also started my own business. I could use my existing experience to offer services to small businesses—from setting up accounting software to designing print ads. I got to work with creatives and healers, all while slogging through precalculus and English 101 classes. I was like a passion bystander, helping others to live theirs, while convincing myself that the best I could hope for was a slightly better paid office job. A web producer or copywriter…or something.

While I wasn’t feeling inspired by my career options, I was finding other ways to evolve. My first husband and I launched an ultra-indie record label and released three singles while our marriage disintegrated. I got interested in fitness, started running, and tried to get into a regular yoga practice—though I found the crumbling marriage, unpredictable work schedule, and night classes a bit hard to work around for new habits.

It wasn’t until 2020–when a global pandemic and breast cancer diagnosis conspired to give me the perfect nudge–that I started taking self optimization and healthy habits seriously.

I did my research, and read up on how food influences cancer. I joined Fearless Living Academy and became part of a small accountability group. I slowly nudged my bedtime earlier so that I could get up at 5:30 for a morning ritual, exercise, and creative work before my day job. I started going for walks and doing yoga every day. I got on the Peloton bike three times a week. I started playing with Bullet Journaling and renewed my interest in productivity systems.

Because I continue to learn and seek out new ways to be more myself in the world, my habits evolve over time. Being able to take care of my own physical and mental health has become the cornerstone to change, and now that some of those foundations are feeling more solid, I want more.

Self-improvement tends to be, well, very self-focused. In order to find a sense of purpose and shake off the MEH, I think I really need to understand how I can be more a part of a community. I want to make a change that feels meaningful and uses some of that rebel energy as fuel. But I’m still seeking. I’m trying to let my intuition guide me, instead of my overthinking brain. What does the world need from me right now?

I’ll let you know when I receive an answer.

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