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Mission

November 22, 2011

The word “mission” is fraught with unintended meanings:  “man on a mission,” “mission statement,” “mission trip” – all evoke a sense of aggressive, focused purpose.  Prosthelytizing, politics, and moral imposition are up front and personal.

That meaning, where there is a Truth intended to enlighten others is not what the word has come to mean to me.

100 years ago, the life expectancy at birth was around 40.  The Survival Imperative caused by scourges of disease, famine, or conflicts threatening entire populations with extinction has, for now at least, drifted off out of most people’s consciousness in our part of the globe.

We obsess about our children having too much food, not not enough.  Modern medicine is widely available for most of us.  Human beings have doubled their time on Earth over the last century.

In place of the pre-emptive Mission of Survival, we all have more time to deal with what we want to do with our lives.  More time before we have children, more time after children leave, more time to get an education, more time to discover new career paths, and more opportunity to think about things beyond simple survival..

Consequently, we have developed things called “hobbies” and “pastimes” and other auto entertainments  that were previously only available to royalty and robber barons – endeavors that fill “spare time” – a new concept given the fact that subsistence farming and 12 or 16-hour workdays were often the norm prior to World War I. “Spare time” was once something called the Sabbath – (now called Youth Soccer or watching the NFL).

“Recreation” is something that 19th Century upper classes in America and Europe saw as the fruit of their entitled superiority to the masses. Gigantic estates, athletics, and the fine arts  were the playpens of people of means. Those who had the time to play football at Princeton, take a year to tour Europe to paint, or create gardens in their country homes, make today’s split between the 99% and the 1% seem like social homogeneity.

But even in a crushing recession, the vast majority of western civilization now has the opportunity to “recreate”. Popular culture is now “recreation” in extremis  – 500 TV channels, a billion internet sites, several billion YouTube videos, are all flooding the avenues to our minds and hearts filling the dead air caused by the absence of the central imperative of survival and procreation.

It seems to me that now we’ve had a solid 30 years from the advent of MTV until the death of Steve Jobs to discern how popular culture has failed to sustain the vast majority of people’s senses of purpose and worth.

As those distractions become ever less stimulating by their glut, the stimuli become more extreme:   pornography is available 24/7 on every video screen, “reality” shows pit harpies and cretins against each other in ways that border on criminal facilitation, all athletics trend towards  low-brow thuggery.  Brighter, Louder, Super Kinetic, Hypersexualized – maintaining distraction is hard work when the media is free and “on” without limit.

Any number of drugs – prescription and otherwise – sleeping pills, Valium, “male enhancement,” and, of course, erectile dysfunction therapies, have become so regularized that they cease to be thought of anything other than just another way to make a boring or disappointing life “better.”

It is in this cacophony that I have been thinking a great deal about the word “Mission.” Finding the central rhythm of how I live my life and how that reflects what I value becomes The Mission. It is a path of purpose led by the values my life has given me, using all the tools in my intellectual, creative and spiritual toolbox. – There, I said it…

But what the Hell does that mean? Often, it’s very easy to define something by what it isn’t.

“Mission” is never something that is driven by obvious transactional benefit. Its not a “do X and get Y” equation.  Conversely, “Mission” cannot be something which is purely altruistic.  Mother Teresa was as close to a saint as there is on Earth, but clearly in sacrificing her life for the good of others, she knew that she was nurturing herself and her relationship with God as well.

When I lost 1/3 of myself about five years ago, it was not because I wanted to “lose weight” – it was because I had the greater on-going imperative of trying to get back in touch with a part of me that had drifted off – my body, a focus that continues after the bulk had been shed.

“Mission”, to me, cannot be a prescription by what somebody else tells me I “should” do or think – that becomes co-mission, – a prefab, fully formed act to pantomime.

“Mission” is not a masterplan.  If you fix a plan, that plan never meets expectations.   If you create a mission, it is a direction and a force that leads you to act on values your life has given you – its not defining for a finish line or passing a test.

“Mission” cannot be distraction –  no matter how much quilting, golf, or fishing might sustain, clarify and even provide joy, they do not act on the lifetime of values that the quilter, golfer or fisherman have.

“Mission” cannot be about finding salvation or transformation – a mission that comes from a lack of purpose, e.g. (going to the Himalayas on a “mission trip” to “find yourself”) is a process that is based on a lack of understanding about a higher purpose – a great effort, but an act of discovery, not a path of purpose.

My ability to muse on “Mission” is born of a surplus of happy “givens” – I am in relatively good health, fully engaged in a lifetime commitment with my wife, having truly decent children, embedded with an Episcopalian legacy that by this time is literally genetic, earning enough money that although things get tight they are almost never desperate, are unexpected riches, not entitlements.

Given these definitions – that a mission is not about convincing others, that a mission can only happen when a person is essentially unthreatened and that no amount of distractions can fill all the hours of one’s life to the point of happiness – this definition of “Mission” clarifies how to invest experience, education and intellectual, emotional and physical capital in the out years.

So rather than purchase a pet and humanize it, rather than go to endless reunions of people who are “just like you,” rather than follow the instantaneous caprice of fashion, or even the never-ending churning of political controversies and alienating posturing that comes along with it, or exclusively focusing on the innumerable distractions that the arts, the internet and other wistfully entertaining enrichments nourish us with, I opt for “Mission.”

I listen for the unrelenting, unabating, quietly nudging voice that reflects that the more you know, the less you understand. I sense its time to call the question and understand what limits there are to knowing what is unknowable.  No one alive today will ever know “why” the universe was formed or in any way how it actually happened.

Almost no-one I have ever met, even the most spiritually in tune, has lost a fear of death.  So having no understanding of the essential origins of everything around us, or its ultimate direction, or having no real sense of when my health will erode and/or I’ll be run over by a truck and what that means, it is time, for me at least, to divine the sense of “Mission.”

Are you, dear reader, thinking about your “Mission”?  Or, in fact, are you at a place where the necessary and overwhelming need to survive physically, financially or emotionally prohibit s that dalliance or, do the aforementioned distractions provide you with enough intellectual, emotional and spiritual sustenance that the idea of a deeper, quieter clarifying focus simply seems self indulgent?

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