The Measure of a Life

In the cut and thrust of life we can easily be consumed – with our work, our preoccupations, our illnesses (real or imagined), with projects, friends and family. We keep incessantly searching for the next thing – something cool, someone beguiling, an opportunity that comes once in a lifetime … and yet, in our restless efforts to attain our desires it’s far too easy to overlook what we already hold, easily, within our grasp. For contentment can never be found somewhere other than where we already are.

As a younger man, however, I could not grasp this fact. I rushed from experience to experience as young men do – seeking an anchor always somewhere over the nearest horizon. Along the way I caused chaos – in my own life and in the lives of others. To this day, I still recall moments of loss – that I caused through a careless word or deed; and with hindsight I realise now that these moments could have been recovered, could have been changed even after the words had escaped my mouth. I chalked most of these up to “experience” and promised myself to never make such mistakes again.

What I DID learn from my own mistakes was that it’s hard owning yourself. It’s hard being responsible for your own actions, your own health and the impact you make on others. It’s hard to find a place where you belong and difficult to commit to relationships with others who are also struggling to do the same. In the process we often confuse power with love without realising they diametrically opposed. We hurt others or are hurt by them as we wheel from one experience to another – and slowly (if we are lucky) we accumulate a sobering wisdom, or are drawn in upon ourselves, falling into depression, or loneliness or an abundant narcissism.

For some time I have been pondering this great article by Clayton M Christensen – it asks a simple, but difficult question: How Will You Measure Your Life? This question seems to be at the core of the tangents I have been thinking about (and living for decades). He proposes that we look at this through three lenses:

First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail?

That last one is cautionary – but worth considering. After all, the pursuit of your goals can lead in unexpected directions, and the repetition of tiny indiscretions can lead to misdemeanours that if, unchecked, can compound at an alarming rate. Read the whole article – it is well worth it.

But at the core of all of these focuses is one thing: purpose. Now, the interesting thing about purpose is that it’s not something you need to find – it’s something you need to accept. Think for a moment about a personal catastrophe. What if you lost all that you had? What if all those external things – those things by which we measure our stature – were wiped from the face of the earth? How would you feel? I know I would be saddened, but so long as those I care for were safe, it would have little consequence. A purpose tends to attach not to things, but to people.

Over the last week this has come into sharp contrast for me. Last friday, my cousin’s 10 year old son lost his battle with cancer. His was a too short life – but it was lived with all the energy and courage that he could muster. I cannot fathom what it means to suffer such a personal loss. I cannot imagine what it takes to share your son’s passing with his siblings. And I cannot see how any words or deeds would help to ease the sense of loss.

But I know that the measure of that little boy’s life is not counted in bits and bobs. It’s in the richness of memories – a smile, a touch of the hand, the favourite bedtime story shared. And it’s in the raw challenge he leaves behind – to live bravely in the wake of tragedy. Peace, Rex.

12 thoughts on “The Measure of a Life

  1. “A purpose tends to attach not to things, but to people” So true. Thanks for sharing this Gavin. I still often feel I am “rushing from experience to experience” and you’ve got me thinking again about the challenges of responsibility. So much to think about here.
    My sympathies for your loss: as a parent of a 10-year-old I cannot fathom how I would deal with that.

  2. Nothing like the loss of a child to drive home life’s robust fragility.
    Ten years this year my son died at nineteen years of age, four months following on from the death of my husband.
    Now am I beginning to breath again, but only today I was thinking how careless we hold the things that matter most.
    Deeply saddened to hear of your family loss Gavin

  3. Gavin, I am deeply sorry to hear about your family’s loss. There are so many important life lessons in here for us to reflect upon. And it’s not often enough that someone takes the time to document them in such a beautifully constructive and poignant way. Thank you.

  4. Hi Gavin,
    I was saying to someone the other day that when we are young, our greatest fear is the death of a parent. As parents, our greatest fear is the loss of our child.
    Thank god I haven’t had to walk that path, but I came close.
    I’m not particulary a journo’s arse, but I do try to use my position for good! One of those stories has been that of young Canberra girl, Dainere Anthoney. But she is no longer a story, she is a beautiful, wise, smart young friend who enriches my life.
    And I will accompany her on the journey she is on. Because it is personal now. We regularly correspond by email and every time she writes to me, or she writes in her blog, I learn from her, I become more compassionate, more generous.
    She said to me recently that sometimes her Dad doesn’t like to talk about it (her illness). I suggested that’s because blokes are designed to protect the people they love and to fix stuff, and when they can’t do that they feel a bit useless.
    But loving, being loved in return, and offering comfort aren’t useless – even when they’re not obvious. But we’re not perfect, and when we transgress, or when our loved ones do, perhaps the blessing is in knowing that you will STILL love, and be loved in return. No matter what.
    Thanks for reminding me of what matters.
    It is easy to get swept along … and forget.

  5. Thanks for sharing Gavin (and other commenters). I’ve re-written this next part a million times but I’ll just leave it as I’m sorry, my thoughts are with you and thank you.

  6. woa, thank you. first time i come into your blog and y seem to sum up a lot of things that i do. we all need purpose in our lives and we tend to get lost inside the motions and such. have a good day rex

  7. So sorry for your family’s loss Gavin. I hope you can all find courage right now, as you say, to “live bravely in the wake of tragedy”.

  8. Just returning to work after maternity leave and wondering how to juggle everything and keep working at my pre-mum pace. Hmmmmmm, maybe not so important after all. Precious lives.

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