As my sojourn in The Philippines drew to its close, albeit extended by yet another calamity, this time not confined to Pilipiñas but worldwide – Covid-19 – I pause to consider what I have learned from this journey of discovery, of self-discovery.
I set down in the previous chapters some of the Lessons Learned of the Philippines. But what have I learned about myself? And have I been able to convey some of what I have learned to my readers? Indeed, what hubris for me to think they would want to know what I had learned.
What in fact were Steinbeck and Greene seeking to achieve in publishing their own ‘travels’ books?
Living in The Philippines, even going to there at all, was something I would never even have contemplated two years ago. As I began to emerge from my crisis of depression and nihilism a new sense of me began to emerge. I knew that living my life vigourously, if not with my hair on fire, was part of my purpose and identity. I no longer wanted safe, planned, controlled, I wanted adventure and risk. And it turned out to be even more adventurous than I expected: five months of calamities, the realities of life in The Philippines, a whole new family. ‘Emily’ had said I could never understand, but she was wrong about that too.
I learned about love. What it is and what it is not, and why it may be worthwhile anyway. I spoke of love in the Chapter, Returning to the Philippines, and the reader would be forgiven if he concluded I had become jaded about love. What I have concluded, from my experience but mostly from my reading of how the mind works, is that love is a trick our brains play on us to seek pleasure and to pass on our genes, or at least some of them. Our brains operate independently of what we think – our brains are there to navigate the environment it finds itself in to optimize our survival. It is a learning and predictive engine. Synaptic pathways begin to be laid down almost from birth, forming memories of successful responses to environmental cues, allowing for predictive automatic response to new similar events. Maybe that is why first love is so exciting; our brains have no experience of it and its tentative responses are full of risk, and learning. Romantic love is neurochemically charged, bundled with cultural memes. Most mature, especially wounded, people, cautious about fleeting erotic love, their synapses geared more to self-protection than pleasure, are surprised all over again when cupid’s arrow penetrates the scar tissue, even in our later years.
Much of what we might call lasting love, philia, is well, familiar. Our brains are wired to recognize and build patterns and then generate behavioural responses to those patterns; for the most part we are not even aware of this response except post factum. Family and friends are part of those patterns. Those patterns, especially the constructive ones, (some family patterns are not benign) will fold into memory and be perpetuated. So familiarity gradually builds strong bonds, even if not accompanied in the beginning with a bang of dopamine and oxytocin. I think attachment theory accurately describes the brain’s quest to have the security and succor of a close companion, one who can be counted on to be there, especially in times of threat. My love for Carmen has grown gradually, perhaps based more on duty than passion. (I hasten to add that eros is not completely absent from the bedroom in this relationship.) I am grateful for her devotion to me and for filling a large empty space in my life; I am committed to her in that deep lasting bonding sense.
In my journey I’ve learned that I can live without romantic love (despite what Peter and Gordonsay), though I miss it. However, I cannot live with loneliness, and I think that is true for most people except perhaps for the most committed hermits. And so when you find a familiar partner, love her, cherish her, hang on to her. I have found my cure for loneliness, hopefully this time till [my] death do us part.
I learned a lot about grief of course. And about death and other losses that bring grief. Much of this story has been about my journey with grief, and I have already posted what I have learned, so far. I have had enough of grief. And I think the rewiring in my brain has changed me, at least for now. In my struggles to protect myself from the pain of grief I think I have lost some of my ability to actually feel. In the year following Marlene’s death in 2017 I suffered through depression, confusion and delusion; and then it got worse. But in the last twelve months of my recovery I have had yet more losses, serious losses: My beautiful dog Hallelujah, relieved of her suffering by the vet’s injection; and then her daughter Bonnie, returned to Alison when I left for The Philippines; and then the death of four close octogenarian friends and my ancient aunt. These friends were all major influencers in my life, and many pleasant memories; their passing the harsh awareness that these days are never coming again. And yet I barely cried, hardly upset. It wasn’t that I forced myself to control my emotions, I had almost no emotions. Am I so inured to death and loss now? Is the neural scar tissue so dense that pain can’t penetrate? Am I better or worse off from this metamorphosis? I’ve also noticed that I cannot love in the euphoric eros way I used to crave. Carmen senses it and I am sorry this is missing. Has the pain of grief created a mental mechanism for emotional self-preservation? Am I the greater loser for this defense?
I learned about life purpose. I already had an idea about purpose, but I had lost it during those dark days, and now I had it back, perhaps sharper. And hopefully this sense of my purpose will sustain me for a few years yet. My purpose is not what others may often think purpose is – to altruistically serve others – even though I seek to do that as much as the next man. I think altruism is not sufficient. But does it really matter? I’ve learned to accept that any sense of purpose is worthwhile, so long as one has one.
I’ve learned what M. Scott Peck means, that life is suffering; I prefer his view over Gautama Buddha. The Buddha counsels forbearance and acceptance whereas Peck advises acting purposefully, but the view is the ultimately the same; Peck just encourages us to take the Road Less Travelled. I am reminded of Matthew Kelly, The Seven Levels of Intimacy and James Hollis, What Matters Most (will this action enlarge me or diminish me?). And Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness. All of these bring us back to purpose: to seek to be the ‘best version of ourselves we can be’, to live life vigourously, and to bring something of our best selves to others. If our purpose is enlightenment, and perhaps agency for others on their journey of discovery (at least for those willing to take the road less travelled), this seems highly worthwhile to me.
Purpose is not some vague abstract concept. We are all star dust, of course, but when people say this, as if it were some profundity, they have a dreamy gauzy sense of significance. I have no such fantasy. We are universal matter, but to seek understanding beyond that, it is an empty metaphor. Our purpose is not to be one with god, it is to strive for personal excellence.
To be real, purpose needs to be made manifest. To have purpose is to put purpose into play. Like virtue, it is not merely an intention, it must be action. You can’t be virtuous, you must do virtuous things. We are not merely human beings, we are also human doings. Purpose needs projects, something to accomplish, to convert from idea to reality, with inputs and outputs, goals and timelines, and some sense of reward when the project is done. And when the project is done the purpose is not done; you need another project.
When I was in the early stages, the grief stages, of my discovery of myself – and when I think of that, my discovery of myself has been a lifelong venture – I was not thinking projects then. I was thinking survival, or maybe merely ending. Those dark days were crucial to my learning about myself, my quest was to find a new identity as much as purpose. In the earlier stages of my life I already had a sense of purpose, what it had always been, but was not articulated: I needed to be the best at whatever I did. But I substituted projects for purpose – learning, career advancement, corporate problem solving, raising kids, tending to spouse. I was motivated by these projects but I sensed something was missing. What I thought I was missing was love, and maybe feeling valued, appreciated; so I strove more. I still need those things, but I know now they are not purpose. The hopes for appreciation were less important than the satisfaction derived from accomplishing something, the projects themselves, the journey itself. Nevertheless, while Projects are important for mental health, for they are the means for achieving purpose, projects are not purpose.
What is purpose? What is anyone’s ultimate purpose? To become the best version of oneself one can be, to pursue excellence and achieve the highest level of being that one can reasonably become, and maybe, help others become the best versions of themselves too. Your project may be in helping others, but your purpose is helping yourself be a better you. My projects, my new identity, is to write books; my purpose is to write the best books I can, to achieve the excellence I am capable of. And in the bargain, entertain, possibly educate, others. This is my purpose, and incidentally, achieve happiness, however transient that may be.
The Writer in Me When I was in the depths of my despair, shattered and crushed by loss and rejection, I had lost any sense of purpose, and projects were beyond relevance. I am very grateful for some innate drive to survive, some autonomic factor that kept me going when my conscious mind, and my will, had pretty much abandoned me. My doctors and my pharmacology were critical crutches to my recovery, or at least arresting the fall. But that was not the whole story. I didn’t realize it at the time, but one of my close friends, and close to me during this whole journey, said, when I had first lost Emily, ‘This is an amazing story Doug, I think there’s a book in this.’, and in my mania phase the book began to be written. And once written, worked and reworked, challenging me to bring it to the light of day. With that constant project carrying me along I began to emerge from my dark cloud, I began to recover, to turn my journey of despair to a journey of growth.
That journey became the book, Amitié, A Novel, and then continued with this one you are reading now, Travels with Myself. While those books have been written, those projects have been done, my story has not yet finished, and I have more projects in my mind which will serve to continue my pursuit of purpose.
I knew I wanted to write, that I had stories in me that needed to be written (not just told, written), and this was becoming my new identity. My identity was expressed as a series of projects – my books so far, and new books lurking in my mind and on my hard drive, and these blogs. But identity and projects were not purpose, they are merely means to purpose. There is a writer in me, but my purpose is to be the best writer I can be.
I have learned to value life-long friends. Many people in my life have helped shape my identity and that in turn is echoed, however faintly, in my writing.
Not just what I have learned from them, but to appreciate the values and valour they represented in living lives that mattered. I am reminded of a number of people who have influenced my life in this regard. Of course my parents, who gave me whatever talents I have and the will to pursue them – my father with humour, my mother with excellence – but these are given for me, almost innate elements of my life. The talents are honed by experience, and reinforcement from those self-same parents. We learn from our failures too and for that I have had many influencers, especially the women in my life, as much of this blog will attest. (To be fair, I have also received a lot of encouragement from some wonderful women.) But it is unwise and unfair to attribute our life’s joys and sufferings to others. We make our own choices, maybe, begging the question of free will, and we live with the consequences. Still, I am grateful to two very accomplished men who came into my life and touched me in ways they may not have realized, nor I at the time. As a young man I was too much their junior to put myself forward, and that probably had as much to do with my personality and self-confidence as anything (and for that I suppose I can also blame my mother!).
J C Paquin was an engineer, 14 years my senior, and we became colleagues in AECL, he as Vice President, Engineering and Marketing, and I as General Manager Human Resources and Administration at the tender age of 32. I was terrified of him, but I worked my profession and never backed down from an argument and gradually won his respect. He already had mine, not from fear but from his fierce defense of his principles. Years later when we had both left AECL we continued our friendship, and this included our spouses. I admired the devoted and true Yolande, and I think she could see how Marlene and I in our own ways were patient with each other. JC was very fond of the whimsical Marlene and she was able to see through the defenses this irascible man threw up. JC and I had talked of the purpose of life and how in the latter stages of his serious health issues there was very little purpose left in his life, save perhaps to respect the loyalty of close family and friends who wanted to have one more day with him. He was very loyal to those he respected and I am grateful to think he was loyal to me right to the end. JC died 2019 December 30.
JFW Weatherill was a towering icon in his field, labour arbitration, for many years, despite the fact he was a tiny and shy man. Fifteen years older than I, he was already the most respected Arbitrator in Canada, and widely recognized in America as well, when I joined AECL as a junior labour relations officer. One of my first jobs in AECL was to research precedents in the Labour Arbitration Case journals to determine whether the union grievance we were contesting was likely to be supported at arbitration. Weatherill’s awards littered the LACs. Years later I appeared before him as Director of Human Resources at AECL arguing some case. He had no memory of that of course but it was an august moment for me. Two decades later, he opened his new office down the hall from me in the Delta Hotel Office Building in Ottawa. I had the temerity to ask him if he would be interested in having me as a roommate, as he had more space than he needed. Surprisingly, he said that might work out quite well. I say surprisingly because I didn’t know then that he was as retiring and reclusive as he was. It was this distance demeanour, combined with his reputation, and prodigious intellect, that so intimidated others. He hardly knew it. We were roommates for more than twenty years, and lunch mates many times over. In quiet and subtle ways I think we valued each other greatly. And for that I feel honored. JFWW died on 2020 April 14.
These two gentlemen have been tremendous supporters of me the last few years in my journey through grief and transition. Both encouraged me to keep writing, and so I have. Mr. Weatherill even endorsed the two memoirs of my dogs, and his recommendation can be found on the back cover of The Hallelujah Chorus. We used to joke about him earning a portion of my royalties from the sales of my books. I guess I don’t have to pay him now. But beyond their support of me in transition they have offered another life lesson, one not unknown to me, nor to you, but not enough paid attention to: life is short, appreciate your friends in the moment, for those moments will not come again.
And now it is time to commit to the idea that the Travels With Myself blog could/should become a book. Many of my readers were looking forward to it. Already wondering about a cover design!
The problem with a book is, it has to end. The problem with a blog is, it never ends.
Of course that is not true either. The blog ends when the journey finally ends. But when my journey ends, who will write the ending? I suppose you could say I can write my own eulogy. Maybe this blog is it.
But until then, life continues. After all – ; my story is not yet finished.
Antonio Domasio, The Feeling of What Happens, 1999; Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, 2017
‘I don’t care what they say I won’t stay in a world without love’, A World Without Love, Paul McCartney.
At time of writing Carmen and I have been separated because of societies’ struggles with Covid-19. Will long term absence erode this bond of attachment? Read my blog, Travels with Myself II to monitor our progress.
I’m not sure what Domasio would say to that.
For more on projects and mental health you should take look at Brian Little, https://www.brianrlittle.com. His pioneering research on how everyday personal projects and ‘free traits’ influence the course of our lives has become an important way of explaining and enhancing human flourishing.