Is that all there is?

Most Christmas messages are light hearted homilies full of good cheer, hope for humanity, celebration and high spirits. We all need a break from the pressures of everyday life and Christmas is one of those times many of us use to relax. Personally I love Christmas. I love the atmosphere. I love getting together with my family. The big Christmas dinner. Using the opportunity to bring joy into many hearts. All that and much more.

However, as I sit down to write my final newsletter for the year, my thoughts are a little more reflective than usual. Still full of hope as is who I am. But the path to hope is more complex than I usually allow myself at this time of year.

I had a deep conversation with the manager of my regular cafe last week. We talked
about life and experience and the varied paths we all take in our days on this
planet. Discussing the absolute dedication many people in the corporate world
give to their careers my colleague remarked “I wonder if they’ve ever stopped
to think ‘What’s next?'” By this she meant if they have ever wondered what
the end game of their career progression be. If you get to the top (whatever ‘the
top’ may be) what’s next? If you don’t get to the top at the end of your career,
what’s next? I see so many people who work 80 hours a week and wonder when
they ever get time to enjoy the benefits of their work. Before I continue on this thought, I want to relate a seperate experience.

My second daughter (Judy
and I have four daughters) completed high school seven years ago. Sometime
during high school she decided she wanted to be a doctor and she applied for
admission to many medical schools. Unfortunately, although she achieved excellent
results she didn’t get into any of them and instead started a Science degree.
She still wanted to be a doctor and investigated the various pathways open
to her. At the end of first year Sarah applied again for entrance to a number
of med schools and was offered a place interstate at the University
of New South Wales
. She had only a few days decide whether to turn all
her plans for the following year on their head. To leave her group of friends
and family and move to another state where she didn’t know anyone. Sarah did
take up the opportunity, which meant a lot of hardship for her. On top of the
huge workload of a medical degree, she had to work to meet the higher costs
of living away from home in another state.

Last week, seven years after leaving high school, Sarah graduated as a doctor (with honours). Judy and I and her three sisters all travelled up for the graduation which was a great occasion which we enjoyed immensely.

The Occasional Address was delivered by Professor
Michelle Haber
– and this is where I return to my theme. Professor Haber graduated a couple of years after me in the late 70s. After taking some initial changes in direction, she took up what was to be a lifelong calling – research into the causes and treatment of childhood cancer. She is currently director of the Childhood
Cancer Institute Australia
, a position she has held since 2000. Quoting from her bio “… she is known nationally and internationally for her research on delineating mechanisms of resistance to antic-cancer drugs in the treatment of nueroblastoma. Professor Haber has also been a key contributor in developing new approaches to improving the outcomes of children diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.”

As she was being introduced, we were told she was the key driver in the building works next to the auditorium in which we were sitting. As it turned out, the building we saw emerging from the ground was to be the home of the Lowy
Cancer Research Centre
.

It struck me as I was listening to Professor Haber being introduced how much a contribution to the community one person can make. It made consider how puny many of our aspirations are – especially our aspirations in business. How does a career in business compare with a career such as that of Michelle Haber? When we are in business, we think we are doing terribly important things. But are we really? Certainly we may be in a position where a lot of people depend on us. We may be in a position in which decisions we make affect the livelihood of a lot of people. Most people I speak with in business are aware of their responsibilities to those who depend on them but a lot of the time the focus appears to be solely on making money. How does any of this compare with the work of someone like Michelle Haber?

All this reminded me of the late 60s Peggy
Lee
song “Is
that all there is?”
. The song (written by Jerry
Leiber and Mike Stoller
) has a rich history. If you remember the song, you
will remember the verse, in German
cabaret style
, is spoken rather than sung. This places its connection firmly
with the German
Existentialists
. It seems the song was based
on the story ‘Disillusionment’ by Thomas
Mann
. Here is a summary of the story taken from Colin Wilson’s book The
Craft of the Novel

:

The narrator is sitting in St Mark’s Square in Venice when he falls into
a conversation with a fellow countryman. The man asks, “Do you know what
disillusionment is? Not a miscarriage in small unimportant matters, but the great
and general disappointment which everything, all of life, has in store?” He tells
how, as a small boy, the house caught fire; yet as they watched it burn down
he was thinking, “So
this is a house on fire? Is that all?” And ever since then, life has
been a series of disappointments; all the great experiences have left him with
the feeling: “Is that all?” Only when he saw the sea for the first
time, he says, did he feel a sudden tremendous craving for freedom, for a sea
without a horizon… And one day, death will come, and he expects it to be
the last great disappointment. “Is
this all?

(My thanks to Lee
Lady
for this background.)

My point in all this is to ask “What is it for?” “What’s the
purpose?” When
we’ve climbed the corporate ladder and got to the top (or we’ve got
to wherever we’ve got to) and we look back on our careers, will we be able
to say we are happy with how we’ve spent our lives? Will we be able to
say it was all worth it? So many of the people I speak with and read about in
high flying corporate careers seem to have very little time to enjoy the spoils
of their achievements. They’re mostly working 80 hour weeks. Why do they do it?
Why do you do what you do?

I do believe we are all motivated by an “enduring purpose” and, to
some extent, that purpose is shared. I don’t pretend to understand how
we develop a sense of purpose or how there are elements of that purpose we share
as a community. I don’t even know how to put that purpose into words. But I believe
it is there. I believe also that when we connect with that purpose, whatever
connecting with a purpose might mean for each of us, we tap into a source of
creative energy and knowledge that enables us to achieve great things within
our own sphere of influence.

My message of hope then for this festive season, and it is my hope, that when
we live our lives in service of the purpose that motivates us, we will know
that even if “that’s all there is” we will also know a sense of
enormous satisfaction and we will know that somehow we have contributed to
the greater good.

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