An Adventurous Life
Yesterday an old friend blew into town. An unequaled raconteur, Pablo spent most of the evening describing his (wild) adventures all over the world, how he got his degree in physics, what it was like hobnobbing with fencing masters, and how his grandfather, a Neapolitan immigrant, started a successful candy business and saved a lot of people’s fortunes during the Great Depression. I listened to his theory of the origin of the universe and his explanation that the true purpose of meditation is not to empty the mind but to focus it. He is an enormous soul in a small package.
Someone suggested he ought to make a name for himself by getting his Ph.D. but Pablo decided it was “too much work.” Too much work? A few years later he scaled the Grand Canyon and nearly dehydrated to death during a windstorm. Later he trekked 150 miles across an island with a friend and nearly died of hypothermia. “Don’t let me go to sleep,” he told her. “But if I die, be sure to throw me under a bush so no one can find me.” The guy has nine lives like a cat. At 75, he is still doing this stuff and seems no worse for it.
Here was proof that the mind, contrary to popular belief, is a wonderful thing to waste, for he has enjoyed wasting more of it than some people will ever acquire. After his long stint in the army and then in the reserves, Pablo’s life seems utterly unplanned; he has always flowed into everything he’s done. With a bachelor’s degree and a few master’s level classes under his belt, he filled in one time as a college physics instructor in San Marcos, Texas, and said he enjoyed it even though he never particularly wanted to be a teacher. However, he remained a teacher of sorts, an instructor in fencing, to be exact. It was one of his great loves. He worked in convenience stores and university libraries to acquire fencing equipment and even knocked out some walls in his house for the sport. When I met him we both worked at a university, and I noticed he never showed up late even though he had no car.
Our chat trailed far into the night until he had to catch the 2:45 A.M. Amtrak for Portland. His last words as he boarded his taxi were, “Never take anything seriously.” And, just like that, he slipped away into the night and my heart went with him.
The Purpose of Pablo
What would he have said had I asked him point-blank about his purpose in life? Wish I’d thought to ask now.
Many books, seminars, programs, and self-help groups have been designed around finding purpose. I believe that deep down we already know our purpose, even if we have no words for it. Most of us do not fall so effortlessly into it as my friend did. In fact, those of us who struggle with the whole notion, I believe, are really looking for permission to own what we already are. But two things derail us: 1) confusion of “purpose” with a specific job, and 2) the lack of fidelity to our purpose because we are afraid to call it out or cannot find a suitable job title for it that makes sense to others.
My friend could have been a physics professor, but he chose an open-ended route. If all he had wanted was a narrow band of life to swim in, it would have been the logical trade-off for economic and social advantage. And yet, bypassing that had given him other opportunities he never would have had as a rank-and-file career man.
Pablo and I share the gift of wonder, which is why we have remained friends all these years. Like him, I am a fish out of water wherever I go, but unlike him, I have struggled with that greatly. As he said goodbye, I suddenly understood the answer to a question that has puzzled me for years: “Who would you be if you didn’t have to be somebody?” You see, I think a lot of us forget who we are because we are trying to be something we think we are supposed to be. We bend our true purpose this way and that trying to make it fit into some imagined scheme of life. We become miserable because we aren’t authentic any more. Pablo is authentic and his life was a light to me: “There is a way through the jungle of toxic success, and I must take it by becoming myself.” I think that is Pablo’s investment in others and quite possibly his purpose in life.