Purpose: Is It Assigned or Do We Create It?

dogs in cemetery

“Instead of worrying so much about staying young, perhaps we need to learn how to grow old. There is nothing more beautiful than an ancient tree with low branches that open like arms, embracing us. We need arms like that to hold us in these turbulent times.”  ~ Mary Reynolds

I first learned about Mary Reynolds when I watched a movie about her on Netflix called “Dare to be Wild.” The movie tells the story of how Mary, an Irish landscape designer, fought to bring her ideas for rewilding garden design to the Chelsea Flower Show in 2002. Her ideas so closely reflected my own that I followed up by searching for what she’s doing now and discovered two books that she’s written: “Reclaiming the Wild Soul” and “The Garden Awakening.” I immediately purchased them both. 

In “Reclaiming the Wild Soul,” Mary takes the reader through what you can learn from five Earthly landscapes: deserts, forests, oceans and rivers, mountains, and grasslands. Each landscape has chapters with an activity that you can carry out and journal about. In the final desert chapter, Reynolds instructs the reader to write a letter to herself that is written by her end-of-life personhood, regarding how fully she is embracing her life. My end of life self questions whether there is a purpose to the things that happen in our lives or whether we need to create our own purpose out of them. This is what she had to say to me:

Maery, in the past six months, you have been fighting so hard to make the best of what your body is capable of doing. Yet, you wake up everyday expecting things will be different, a miracle healing will have occurred over night. After all, you are being such a good girl. You are eating right. Exercising. You are TRYING SO HARD! 

Maybe things will change. Maybe they won’t. I’m not going to tell you and spoil the surprise. 

Human beings all want to find a purpose for their suffering. We tell ourselves that it must be teaching us something, that we can use suffering to come out the other side as changed — better, stronger, smarter. And this better, stronger, smarter self will go out and make the world a new and improved place. We will teach others what we’ve learned! We will share our special, unique gift! And we will finally know our purpose for being here.

But what if there isn’t one? What if shit just happens? What if we’re all clueless and ungifted and meaningless? Alas, there ye go — despair. And that’s where you are currently residing. 

Okay. So you need to see a purpose for your suffering. Something good coming out of it. But looking for it… that’s not working, maybe because you are looking for something BIG and GRAND and OBVIOUS.  Maybe your purpose is something quite small. Like picking up litter on your dog walks. Putting a baby bird back into its nest. Moving those suicidal snakes off of the bike trail and back into the grass. Maybe it’s just writing this blog post and having it amuse one person who happens to read it.

You can’t know what effect or outcome is triggered by one of your actions. You do know there have been some really bad outcomes for you, and you’re aware of some of the ways that you’ve hurt other people too. But you can’t know all of it. And you are especially blind to anything good that you’ve done. 

I know this sounds like a dangerous thought, but how about you not worry about outcomes? You really can’t control them anyway. Believe me. I’m speaking from our deathbed here.

Focus on things you see that are challenging or could use your help or skills and take some actions. Some of those things may appear insignificant or totally self serving. They are. But that’s the mystery of it. What you do to lift your depression, to see the better side of things, to plant a garden, to broaden your abilities and what you know of the world, it all turns into something that expands outward to other people and the Earth.  

You’re doing better than you think. You’re too hard on yourself. You always have been. For my sake, stop that now so I don’t have to beat myself up about how I’m dying all wrong. 

You don’t have to know and do everything at once. Slow and steady. You will see improvement. Things will get easier. Okay, they will get better for a time before they get shitty again and then they’ll get better for a time. It’s a cycle. Life is never an even, predictable progression. Have a sense of humor about it. Enjoy where you’re at with your skills right now. If you do, you’ll find more enjoyment with where you will be tomorrow. 

And for crying out loud, when you finally do something well, don’t go thinking “Oh crap! That was a fluke. I’ll never do anything that GOOD again. I better quit while I’m ahead.” 

You have a lot more good stuff inside you than you are allowing. There are enough people in this world willing to crush you. If you care anything about me and about how you will feel in your final days, don’t do the Maery-killing work for the bastards! 

I know that life, and especially retirement, are not turning out as you dreamed they would. Forget the dream! Seriously. Forget it! There is something better than THAT dream. 

Take the reality of life right now and run with it, you wild thing you! Do that every day because reality will change day-by-day. Sometimes better. Sometimes worse until, well, you know…

I realize that you feel vulnerable. You’ve lost trust and faith in your body, and that is a bitch. Take a moment to grieve. Okay. Moment over. 

The only way to regain that belief in yourself is to face your fears. You’ve done that before. Trust that you can do it now too. 

Jot down ten things that you are afraid of. Pick four of them and get going.

I won’t tell you the future but those four things you chose, you are able to do them.


Deathbed Maery

“It turns out the gift of our originality isn’t handed to us at the headwaters of our journey, but granted when we find the courage to confront all the impediments that stand in our way. And nothing in our experience is wasted.” ~ Mary Reynolds

For information from Mary Reynolds on what you can do to help the Earth in your own yard or local public space, go to wearetheark.org.

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  1. I’m printing this out and I’m going to read it ONCE a week. Like I mentioned on FB, you wrote this just for me and I thank you. 🙂 Also, I’m planning to watch the Netflix movie tonight. Thanks for taking me down the Mary Reynolds rabbit hole. ❤️

    1. Thanks Robin. It’s such a pleasure when something I write connects with someone else. From your comment on FB, it appears you did watch the movie and enjoy it. I loved the touch of magic in it.

  2. All so very well said and another good/great thing you’ve done in these past years is share your story/writing with some of us very lucky people … I’m proud to be one of them.

  3. I spent last night pondering how hard I am on myself and how unrealistic my expectations are. Reading your post today as a much-needed breath of fresh air and possibility. Thank you.

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