Your life's work may not be what you think

What’s your life’s work?

Your life’s work may not be what you think

The other day I was holding an imaginary dialogue in my head. One of those where you respond to criticism people might direct towards you, and you justify your actions, even though nobody has condemned them yet. Call it preventive self-protection.

The dialogue went like this:

“How come you haven’t finished your memoir yet? You’ve been working on it for over three years!”

“I don’t care how long it takes. It’s my life’s work!” I answered swiftly to the imaginary critic.

As soon as that sentence unfolded in my brain, I paused, puzzled. My response had come out spontaneously, and with such a strong energy behind it, I knew it contained an important truth, but it also confused me.

I could have used more logical justifications — say, that I’m not able to work on my memoir exclusively, because I have a business. What the heck did I mean with “it’s my life’s work”?

What about having and raising my son? Wasn’t that more important? And my career in media? Didn’t that count? How about volunteering? What made my memoir so meaningful that it deserved the label “life’s work”?

After mulling it over, this is what I concluded: It’s not the book per se that’s my life’s work. It’s the journey of self-knowledge and self-acceptance it has spurred.

Memoir is a literary form that includes lots of musing: reflecting about things that happened in the past from the wisdom you have in the present. Writing about crucial moments in my life, I have confronted not only the incidents that traumatized me, but also the traumas I inflicted on myself, and others. I have examined not only what happened, but why it happened. It has reminded me of the light and darkness we all carry, and afforded me compassion for the mistakes I made.

It has also revealed the misbeliefs that shaped my journey (as Lisa Cron, the author of “Story Genius,” calls it): The misbelief that I wasn’t lovable unless I was a “good girl,” among others.

After thinking about all this, I understood my instinctive answer. My son may be my deepest expression of love, but he’s not my life’s work. Career or volunteering are roles I play and meaningful actions, but they are not the whole of me.

I think we are our life’s true work. Throughout our journey, we have the opportunity to grow, learn, and become a better person in everything we do and with everyone we know.

Going so deeply and so honestly into my past through the writing of this memoir, has taught me how important it is to fully accept myself so I can fully accept others.

I’ll leave you with a poem by Nobel Prize winner, Wislawa Szymborska. I hope you enjoy it.

Writing a Résumé

What needs to be done?
Fill out the application
and enclose the résumé.

Regardless of the length of life,
a résumé is best kept short.

Concise, well-chosen facts are de rigueur.
Landscapes are replaced by addresses,
shaky memories give way to unshakable dates.

Of all your love, mention only the marriage;
of all your children, only those who were born.

Who knows you matters more than whom you know.
Trips only if taken abroad.
Memberships in what but without why.
Honors, but not how they were earned.

Write as if you’d never talked to yourself
and always kept yourself at arm’s length.

Pass over in silence your dogs, cats, birds.
dusty keepsakes, friends, dreams.

Price, not worth,
and title, not what’s inside.
His shoe size, not where he’s off to,
that one you pass off as yourself.
In addition, a photograph with one ear showing.
What matters is its shape, not what it hears.
What is there to hear, anyway?
The clatter of paper shredders.

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