The Point of Life Isn’t to Be More Happy (It’s to Be More You)

“Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!”

–Dr. Seuss

identity

Photo Credit: forayinto35mm via Compfight cc

Seven years ago, my wife was the recipient of her college’s Junior Faculty Achievement Award, a symbol of a promising academic career in bloom. It was awarded for excellence in research, teaching, and every other skill of the academy. She hung the placard on her office wall. She went on to run international research projects, head her program, write a textbook, and mentor twenty-four students through their dissertations, amongst countless other achievements, both large and small.

Now, seven years later, shortly after reaching the summit of the academic life—tenure—my wife is resigning from her professorship. Now, she will be working in a small, rural health center, providing services to families who need help, but usually can’t get it. Her decision, on the surface of it, is perplexing at best and crazy at worst. I’ve tried to explain it many times in the last six months, but this is the closest I can get:

She’s a little closer to knowing who she is.

Life is a Sieve

Our whole family is starting an entirely new chapter in our lives.

The kids are moving to a new town. It’s a small town and a good town—the kind of good only a small town can be. They’ll be slowing down to the pace of the town, and I wonder who they’ll become when they have the space to wonder and to wander. I’ll be commuting back to my therapy practice for half the week and then officially declaring myself a writer for the other half. To explain such dramatic changes, it would be easy to say, “Hey, we finally figured out who we are. That old thing wasn’t us, but this new thing is.”

Life doesn’t have an easy setting, though.

Remembering who you are isn’t an all-or-nothing endeavor. It’s not a black-and-white thing. It’s not a pass-fail assignment. The truth is much closer to this: life is like a sieve and everything we do runs through it. If we watch closely, we’ll notice passing through the sieve all those things that aren’t really us. And we’ll notice, captured in the sieve of life, the parts of us that are who we’ve always been.

Why is our family making such a radical move? I think my wife and I just shook our sieve long enough to want more of what kept staying in it. We watched our life long enough to desire more of who we already are.

After all, the point of life isn’t to be more happy; it’s to be more you.

Framing Who We Are

During her last week of classes as an academic, my wife’s students presented her with a painting of a tree, and it was captioned by a quote from one of her most important spiritual mentors, Henri Nouwen:

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.

When my wife shook her sieve, the trademarks of a professor—advice, solutions, and cures—passed through, and what remained was her warm and tender hand, with which she wants to touch the wounds of the wounded and share the pain of the world.

Next month, my wife will be setting up her new office. Her academic office was in one of the most important buildings on the campus of a prestigious college in one of the most affluent towns in the world. Her new office will be in a rescued building reclaimed by an unproven health center in a small, out-of-the-way town in rural Illinois.

On the wall of her new office will hang the symbol of who she is—a drawing of a tree and words about wounds and tenderness. And packed away in a closet at home will remain the symbol of who she was—a junior faculty achievement award that passed through the sieve.

Trust Your Heart

The point of life is to be more you.

If your heart has always been drawn to the white-capped Rockies but you spend every day designing computer chips in Silicon Valley, then you are ignoring the parts of you caught in the sieve. You are postponing the joy of being you.

On the other hand, if you’ve been tinkering with computers since the crib and have always dreamed of working in the tech industry, but you are stuck leading hikers into the mountains every day, then you too are ignoring what’s in the sieve. You too are postponing the joy of being you.

Follow your heart.

Start by listening to it.

You can trust it.

It wants to lead you back to you.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Next Post: Why I Decided to Be a Quitter

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Nancy

    This article touched me deeply as I struggle with how to live my most authentic life. Your wife sounds like an incredibly grounded and loving person. I wish you all well on your new journey!

    • drkellyflanagan

      I think she’s pretty cool. : ) I’m glad this article touched you, Nancy, and thanks for your kind wishes!

  • Mike

    Lovely, Kelly!!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Mike!

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    What a lovely tribute to your wife and her part in the path you are taking together. Isn’t it peculiar how our joy can sneak up on us when we are working so effectively with other gifts that don’t delight us?

    • drkellyflanagan

      It’s so true, Shel. Having a skill at something is not the only reason to do that thing. It’s good to hold out for delight, too. : )

  • Guest

    just lovely… No word.. THANK YOU

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome!

  • Kathi

    “Oh, the places you’ll go…” to quote your same friend. Your post is, as usual, transparent and deeply touching. Many blessings on the transition and thank you for the example and encouragement to close chapters with grace.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Kathi, thank you. I hope I don’t wear out my welcome trying to close this chapter with grace over the next few weeks! Ironically, that is the last word in the last post before we make our move. : )

  • Miranda Meadows

    If I had to name one of the most influential people in my life in encouraging and embracing my imperfect, sometimes painful, mostly beautiful, authenticity, it would be your wife. By being authentically herself, she invited me to do the same, and I haven’t been the same since! I am so proud and happy that the sieve is leading her (and you!) towards an even more authentic life. Yet, it’s hard to put words to how grateful I am that she shared my pain and touched my wounds during my graduate school journey… and I’m selfishly grateful that I am finishing grad school with her… It’s hard to imagine what my journey would be like without her in it!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Miranda, I know she holds you in equally high regard, and is equally thrilled to be able to see things all the way through with you. Thank you for being a part of our family’s life!

  • Linda Pressley

    We wish you well as you start your new journey. I’m confident that success will follow you. You are special to our family.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I hope success follows us, but even more importantly, I hope the Pressleys follow us! Still planning on next Thanksgiving. : )

  • I absolutely love this image. We are in a place of shaking the sieve to find out what sticks. My husband has a master’s degree from seminary yet he’s not serving as a pastor. We once thought that was the goal but it’s not anymore. We don’t know what is and we too have trouble explaining it to people. We know some of the ways we want to serve people but don’t have a clear picture yet.

    Have I recommended to you (or do you know about) The Wingfeather saga by Andrew Peterson? The books have a strong theme of “remember who you are.” They are in the same genre as Narnia or Lord of the Rings. This post made me think of them.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Lisa, I’m enjoying reading about your family’s sieving on your blog. The patience you are showing is sure to bear fruit. And thank you for the Wingfeather recommendation. A week at the beach is coming and that sounds perfect!

  • Carrie

    Good luck on slowing down. Living in a small town was the busiest time of our lives. In order to be a part of the community we had to attend many things. In order to stay true to myself, I missed many events and therefore felt that I was on the outskirts of the community. It was a very lonely time for me. Don’t expect the town to help your children to slow down and wonder. I’m going to reflect back what you said and remember to stay true to yourself in your family values. If that is what you are looking for, you have to make it happen, but realize there are trade offs. I hope and pray all the best for your Family as you navigate this new situation. You may have some disappointed expectations. Those may or may not fall through the sieve.
    Blessings!
    Carrie

    • drkellyflanagan

      Carrie, it’s a good reminder that “wherever you go, there you are.” We can’t expect the change of setting to change everything about us; we’ll have to take some responsibility for slowing down, too. Here’s to watching my motor continue to race until it finally settles down a bit. : )

  • Linda

    You used the words “my wife” six times. Cute.

  • Laura

    Just shared this on Facebook, so that any of my searching friends will have the opportunity to read your wise words. Thank you, again, for sharing your heart.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Laura.

  • Catharine Phillips

    Lovely. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Catharine, and you’re welcome. Thanks again for all of your beautiful reflections, as well.

  • Diane Guillet

    Beautiful. Touching. True.
    Thank you so very much.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Diane, and thank you.

  • What a lovely, thought provoking story. Love that sieve analogy. My family and I are in a similar place. We have been through several sieves over the years and as you so beautifully point out, each one allows us to be closer to more of who we are.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Ali, I love the idea of sequential sieves. It promotes the idea of a work in progress, which we all are. Thank you!

  • Jan

    I think it is great that you and your family are able to make these changes, but I was surprised to read: “The point of life is to be more you.” I would say that is a part of life, but that loving/obeying/enjoying God, thinking of others before ourselves, serving the greater good – that these are all also a part of the point of life. I guess you could argue that these can be thought of as consumed under the”you” you are created to be, but the language feels like an emphasis on self and less regard for the world outside of you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jan, I would absolutely argue that those are consumed under the ‘you’ you are created to be. : )

  • Kat

    Thought provoking, as usual. I would have had a different take on your wife’s departure from her tenured position. I would have shrugged and assumed that she did what she was meant to do there. Now, to continue to grow, she needed to make a change. She realized that and and moved on. The way you worded things came across to me like a big life change (occupationally, specifically) is about becoming more authentic. Could it be possible that the authentic person of ten years ago is different from the authentic person of today? I’ve had a lot of experiences along the way, some positive, some painful, yet all helped to shape my life. Twenty years ago, I would have said that it’s nice to have a tomato plant or two in the summer, but I don’t really like to garden. Now, I have an intense desire to really learn how to garden and grow all of our food (as much as possible) and grow some for a few others. I still have room to grow on loving to garden (it represents physical pain), yet I love seeing all those jars of various things I’ve put up, and I do think it would be fun to do a small CSA for a few others in the community. My suspicion is that authenticity looks a bit different from one decade to the next, if a person is growing. I say congratulations to both of you. I think you are embarking on an amazing new journey and will discover new delights, new challenges that will take you to the next level. I look forward to your writing!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Kat, thanks for this reflection and your encouraging words! I like the idea that the true self evolves like anything else, while balancing that with an awareness that at different stages we have differing levels of clarity about who we are. It gives itself to a very dynamic and fluid experience, which to me sounds a lot like life!

  • Beverley Croft

    Kelly, I think it is absolutely wonderful what you and your wife are doing. Yes, I can feel that you are following your hearts in this move. It feels to me that you are connecting more and more to yourselves. When we connect to our innermost (within the heart) we are connecting to God and the All. That is where we really know what we need to be doing.

    I love that your wife wants to be using her talents to be really helping people, where she is needed. I love that she wants to be using her hands, yes, we hold so much love and tenderness in our hands, if we stay connected. That will be so rewarding for her and your whole family. I have a feeling that you will all be much busier even than before, but there will be no rushing, being caught up in the stress of the city. There will be really still time to be yourselves.

    I wish you all the very best in this new venture and look forward to hearing more.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for this, Beverley. I really like your reflection that the further inward we go, the more outwardly connected we experience ourselves to be. It’s a paradox that I’ve experienced as totally true.

  • You have really hit it! The sieve analogy is excellent too. I’ve had to try a lot of things in life to find out what I don’t want to be/do. Once upon a time, I had a career living and working in various cities in the USA. Loved it at the time, but then it seemed there was ‘more’. Thirty-two years ago I left and moved to the Outback of Australia to follow my heart’s desire. It worked. Change is not without effort nor was the journey always smooth, but it is worthwhile.

    • I can relate to what you are saying about creating change and the benefits outweighing the challenges. We moved from England to Ireland for 7 years and then from Ireland to Vancouver, Canada. None of it easy. But all of it worthwhile to live by our values and our own definition of success.

      • I’m sure not everyone feels they need to go to this extreme, but it really worked for me/us. My husband, from the same little town in the USA, had moved here 12 years before we were married!! Destiny! Glad you have found it worthwhile as well. 🙂

        • drkellyflanagan

          Ardys, I like the word “worthwhile.” It does leave space for hardship and struggle in the midst of very good things. Thanks for that. And Ali, I have a feeling you have more adventure in your little finger than I have in my whole being!

  • Patricia

    This post was a wonderful tribute to your wife. Well written as always, Kelly. I’m currently trying to find myself in retirement. It is a curious journey with lots of time to ponder. As a member of the sandwich generation I ponder if there will still be time for the true me as the daily grind of multiple family needs call. Your post gave me a respite today and I will ponder its message as I move through my week. Blessings to you and your wife. You reached out and touched a wounded heart today and gave it hope. Thanks!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Patricia, thank you. I do hope this post is an encouragement to remain anchored in you in your retirement, and then to serve people from that solid center.

      • Patricia

        Thanks for the encouragement. As I look for the new authentic me in this exciting time I will keep this post handy as a reminder. Great post!

  • Joyce Sloan

    Most beautiful explanation of where we are and where we are going. I believe God should be at the center of it all as well but God has made us to come to our whole selves & if we are aware, we will see His hand directing us every step of the way. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Joyce, this is a beautiful phrase: “God has made us to come to our whole selves.” Thank you for that.

      • Joyce Sloan

        Thank you, Kelly. This is the first time I have seen any of your postings but I feel as if this is a ministry you have been given to soften the hard places in life for many people. Please continue.

  • A great post. There are times, however, when you really cannot be what you want to be. And those are times when we wish Life is not so hard and How we wouldn’t mind doing x or y or z to be happy, even if it is for an hour.

  • Doug Scott

    Kelly…thanks for putting such great words and imagery to much of what my family and I have been going through the past several years. As you and I have discussed, it’s been quite the journey…a very different journey from the one we were on prior to taking the jump…no doubt more exciting and life-giving. I look forward to hearing more about your journey my friend. – Doug

  • Another great article, Kelly. Your description of a sieve reminded me of a time when I also went through great changes 22 years ago when I left the convent and realized (later) that some of the things that had been “life-giving” before didn’t go through to the other side either. It has been a while since I’ve thought of things going through sieves, but I can see that the sifting has continued even today. I am continuing to see and notice the many choices and changes that keep calling me to become more of who I am being called to be by God. I continue to try to look to see what is in my sieve so that I can be more faithful to them.

    I loved that you mentioned (someplace — in your comments?) how life is dynamic and that is an image that I’ve been reflecting on more lately with regards to God and how God is not static, but dynamic, alive, fluid, active and that is why we are also called to be that way too. It doesn’t mean that we cannot slow down and take time to ponder and reflect, “wonder and wander” as you put it, but always to keep the energies dynamic and alive. I wish you many blessings to you and your family as you embark on a new adventure. I’m sure it will be wonderful, difficult, challenging, but worthwhile too!

  • Chandra Adams

    Beautifully said. I have sifted many times. When I begin to see what’s left from eyes that have seen and know much more I look not to a tree and quote but to the many miracles and lives influenced by the choice to sift. He has bought my life twice. Once on the cross and once on the black top, in a light rain off Hwy 6.

  • t1oracle

    You didn’t get close to the right answer until the end. The meaning of life is simple, it’s the most important commandment. Love God, and love your neighbor. Love is the answer to all of these problems. “Being yourself” is no substitute, it’s an incomplete step.