Between calls at my day job, I would take 10-minute stretch breaks, walking the perimeter of the pond behind our office complex. It’s a small slice of solace amid the busyness of a sometimes frantic work day. I’d been feeling the simmering for a while, but much like the frog you’ve probably heard about in fables and other examples, I was being cooked alive and hardly noticed it. The temperature rose ever-so-slightly until my insides were boiling.
I wanted to call it “writer’s block,” but it was deeper than just my creative well running dry. I was out of motivation in general. I no longer enjoyed my day job, I felt as if I’d written all there was for me to say, and even my marriage just felt routine. The scariest thing for a naturally enthusiastic guy like me was to pick up my phone during my walk around the pond and admit to my friend Sarah, “I feel like I’m living on autopilot.”
This wasn’t a brand-new revelation for me or even a shock to Sarah, but it’s the first time I remember saying it audibly. I was frustrated, bored, and scared – a toxic cocktail for a creative helper like me. In typical fashion, Sarah listened intently, paused quietly for a bit, and eventually, gently said, “Steve, I think you’ve forgotten your why.”
There are few people in my life who so skillfully balance truth and grace. Sarah Robinson is one of them. As kind as she has always been to me, I remember passing by a dogwood tree that had just bloomed. It was late March in Alabama, and while the dogwood tree was whispering the possibility that newness can come again, I felt washed up and exasperated. Not with Sarah – but with myself – with life in general.
“What does that even mean?” I asked, stretching that last word into four syllables, my voice rising three octaves, like any child who missed a nap. With candor and compassion, my writing buddy and dear friend responded, “What makes you smile? What gets you excited? Where do you feel the most purpose?”
I sat down at a picnic table near the water’s edge, and the coolness of the metal against my pant leg jolted me back to reality “Give me some time to think about this,” I said, nearly in tears. My soul was so parched, I think tears might have been impossible that day.
I thanked Sarah as I hung up the phone and returned to work in a fog. I wondered what this ever-insightful friend of mine had just done to me. “What makes you smile?” The questions echoed through my mind the rest of the afternoon and throughout the weekend. “What gets you excited?” I couldn’t seem to shake the annoying but powerful way my friend had listened past my exhaustion, frustration, boredom, and fear, and heard something more profound, beneath the chatter.
“Where do you feel the most purpose?” In some variation, my answers to each of these questions all revolved around people: loving them, serving them, creating a community (both in-person and online), where the underdog feels welcome and leading only when necessary.
For added clarity, it was equally as crucial for me to list the things that made me smile but didn’t give me purpose. Things like website stats and podcast analytics or social media metrics provide someone like me with a temporary boost of validation. The increase in views and downloads let me know that my message is resonating with my tribe, but any time I switch the priority from people to numbers, I’ve left my purpose at the door.
Sarah’s question began to make even more sense after a talk with my mentor, Sue. She leaned across her desk toward me, her body language saying, “don’t miss this!” Sue asked, “When you take your final breath, and life as you now understand it is over, what will you be thinking about?”
Each time I reminisce about that question, the same word resonates in my depths: belonging. I hope that when my eyes blink closed for the final time, it won’t be stats or metrics I’m wondering about. I pray it won’t be stocks and bonds or savings accounts. I hope I won’t be thinking about accolades or pats-on-the-back, but instead, about belonging.
Did my time, energy, and focus create space for myself and others to belong? Did my words, thoughts, and actions permit me to be human? Did I learn to be honest with myself, even when it was uncomfortable? Did I reach inside myself to find my home? Did I push aside politics and religion and all the ways we distance ourselves from one another, believing the illusion that we are separate? Did I make more room at the table for broken-hearts and friends in need of a warm cup of tea and a gentle reminder of their inherent enoughness? Did I lean into belonging and invite others along for the journey?
What excites me? What makes me smile? Where is my purpose found? In belonging to myself and others who purposefully choose loving-kindness over all else, as a natural extension of the loving-kindness we show ourselves every day.
What’s your why? Answer that, and I’ll bet your sense of feeling overwhelmed continuously will begin to decrease in a big way. When somebody finds the courage to be vulnerable, a fantastic thing happens – they want more.
The freedom is awkward at first, but I’m still free. There’s nothing quite like the taste of empowering honesty, which encompasses courage, reliability, and truth. Freedom begets freedom.
If you’re ready to create the most honest version of yourself, you’ve got to own your story. I know the world is telling you to keep your shirt on, but you’ll never find freedom until you strip everything off and let yourself be seen. It’s why I’ve dedicated an entire chapter to getting “nekkid” in my upcoming book. The power of owning your story will change your life. The best thing we can do is live honestly with ourselves and give others the space to do the same.
Remembering your why is the first step in living your most courageous and authentic life. Being gut-level honest is hard work. Digging down deep to re-discover who you are underneath the labels and expectations and busyness is no small feat. But it’s worth it so that you no longer live in a constant state of…stuck.
Just like those dogwood blooms, newness can come again. You can start over. You can rediscover yourself. You can reconnect with the truth of your being, empowering you to not only tell your truth but live it.
What’s your why? Email me or leave a comment below today.
Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.
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