By Troy Headrick
I grew up in a small town and was raised by a very conventional family. Some might even say my kinfolk were conservative, and certainly many of them were exactly that.
I share this bit of autobiographical information because I think my southern upbringing was pretty standard, with the exception that my parents had an unstable marriage, so I spent a lot of time living with my maternal grandparents who were country people. In fact, my grandfather was a rancher and my grandmother was the wife of a rancher.
When I was a child, I was surrounded by God-fearing people. We went to church regularly and l learned the usual religious lessons. I was taught there was a heaven and a hell. Good people went to the former when they died and bad ones spent all of eternity burning up without dying, which always puzzled me because I had noticed, at a very early age, that things usually entirely decompose and turn to ashes after fire has worked on them for a time. At any rate, it was commonly understood that the best way to go to heaven was to know what good is and to do it every single day. So I learned to walk the straight and narrow and to never deviate.
Looking back now with much hindsight at my disposal, I’d have to say that the basic lessons I learned, via all that pushing of don’t-question-things-and-simply-fall-in-line sort of thinking, was to play it safe, to follow the rules, not to question what I was taught, and to be as much like everyone else as often as I could. Being an “individual” was frowned upon. Joining the flock was the best and safest way to live. Being “Godly” was about following rules, not about straying away from them.
Does this sound familiar? I think most people are probably raised in similar situations by similar kinds of individuals who push non-thinking kinds of “thinking.”
Here’s the problem with such an upbringing: It tends to produce a certain type of adult, one who is reluctant to color outside the lines, take risks, or assert his or her individuality.
I bring all this up in the context of the article, written by Mara Gordon and entitled “What’s Your Purpose? Finding a Sense of Meaning in Life Is Linked to Health.” The gist of Gordon’s essay is that people who live lives of purpose are far more likely to be healthier and happier than those who don’t. In fact, research indicates that the need to find “meaning and purpose” is the “deepest driver of well-being there is.” And establishing this sort of well-being is the secret to longevity.
The sort of upbringing I had did not provide me with the mental tools needed to look inward, discover those things I was passionate about, and go my own way if that’s what I needed to do. As a matter of fact, I recall, when I was still a very young person, being filled with guilt when I began to question the teachings of the church and to become more secular in my thinking. It took me a long time to break away from those familial and cultural influences that were holding me back and down. To find purpose, it seemed, I needed to move away from the teachings of my youth.
Once I finally found the courage to be the person I wanted to be—when I found “purpose” as Gordon defines it—not everyone in my family was happy. Studying humanistic subjects, turning leftward in my politics, becoming highly critical of some aspects of American culture, and leaving the US to live in the “developing world” were actions many found baffling. They didn’t get what was happing to me, but that’s because they didn’t realize I was doing something I had to do. I was finding purpose.
Have any of you reading this had similar experiences? If so, I’d love to hear about them.
Troy Headrick’ personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy: Blog & Art.