MONTREAL – I’ve sent an inordinate number of emails lately in which I’ve urged friends, colleagues, and relatives to be well, take care of themselves, and appreciate that special spark they carry out into the world.
Don’t worry. I haven’t suddenly mutated into a motivational speaker.
My tone has shifted over the last couple of weeks because Karen, Adrian, Rachel, my dad and I have spent the majority of our waking hours by my mother’s bedside, in the palliative care centre where she was admitted October 7.
We’ve helped the hospital staff keep her comfortable and mostly pain-free. We’ve had some wonderful, amazing moments with her. She’s realized for the first time in her life that she can eat dessert before her dinner, and we’ve seen her whole face break into a big, mischievous grin when we bring chocolate ice cream.
And when she sleeps—most of the time now, she sleeps—I pull out my laptop and try to refocus.
It’s too late to tell her this. But only now have I fully realized how much I’ve learned from my mother’s driving sense of purpose.
When she was well, and even after she got sick, she had an absolute need to do something useful, something worthwhile, something purposeful with every minute of her day.
That need stayed with her as her geographic horizons shrank, and even after she lost some of her ability to form the specific purposes that had brought such rich meaning to her days.
This was something that went deeper than deliberate decision, deeper than conscious thought—it just was. If she had tried to find words for it, I think she would have said she measured her life by the impact she could have on the family and friends who mattered to her.
All my life, I knew that my mother was always busy, always had an endless list of tasks and to-do’s. I suppose I started showing signs of the same internal wiring when I began volunteering at the age of 13, then working through the night as a student journalist in my late teens. I wish I had fully connected those dots while there was time to thank her. Because I now understand that there’s little more important than the sense of purpose that drove my mother to make every single minute count.
In our popular culture, and in our industry, this kind of thinking has morphed into an almost exclusive focus on taking care of ourselves and making sure that the party, the networking break, or the gala dinner shatters all expectations. The grain of truth in this conventional wisdom is that it is important to connect and look out for the people in our immediate circles.
But if that’s all we do, in the lives we lead or the conferences we organize and supply, we miss the point.
A sense of purpose is about taking on goals that are both large and worthy, knowing what we want to achieve, and setting out to achieve it. It means developing the kind of determination my mother brought to her life. Even if the challenge looks utterly impossible. And the more so if we know our time is limited—by a fixed deadline for getting the job done or, ultimately, by our own lifespans.
I think my advice these days for friends, colleagues and loved ones is: be well, but don’t get too comfortable. There’s an awful lot to do, and if we aren’t all taking on our share, I don’t know what else matters.