It is funny about how we think about life, what it is, what it means and where we belong – just why are we here?  I’ve often reflected on these sorts of things , for myself and for others.  I recall many an occassion when being in a meeting or with someone when a big deal is made of something, which, when one thinks about it, is inconsequential in the big scheme of things.  In those situations I’ve often said to myself, who cares or what’s the difference?  Often times it is a matter of some simple little detail, far from a deal breaker, but a striving for perfection that goes unnoticed by almost all who encounter it.  It seems that in these situations people reveal something about themselves, something about their view of their “purpose”.  However, in the end can we ever really know “our purpose”?

When we think about purpose, many things come to mind depending on context.  There are those situations where we purpose as something about utility – what is the purpose of that tool, utensil or task.  In other cases we may see purpose relative to something communicated – why did he or she say that, what did they mean.  For me, I most often see, or think, of purpose in a grander scheme, in terms of “why am I here” and “why do I do as I do”.  I think Harry Chapin’s Grandfather sort of captured purpose in this story Harry titles “My Grandfather”.  This will be the focus of this writing, an exploration of that particular topic, perhaps with a few other things tossed in for good measure.

From a Darwinian perspective our purpose seems clear, procreate, generate offspring, make babies, have children, all with the intent to perpetuate our species.  On some levels may indeed be all that really matters and one of the cornerstones to those who believe homosexuality unnatural.  While on the surface that may seem true, interestingly, there are studies where it has its place in nature.  I was exposed to one of those studies while in college, kind of enlightening and the premise actually made sense.  Simply put, the experiment involved the overcrowding of mice, which when imposed, the incidence of homosexuality increases in a statistically significant way.  I wonder if there has ever been such a measure in highly populated countries such as India, China or Pakistan.  Enough on that, suffice it to say procreation as a purpose can even be questioned as a very fundamental purpose.

philosophically, the whole idea of purpose came to mind on numerous occasions in my life.  From the time I can first remember, I asked all the big questions, all the things most either avoided or never felt relevant to their existence.  Some people leave these things to greater powers, to their faith, feeling them best answered by saying God, or whoever their Supreme Being might be, deems it so.  Others see it as life, as what happens and how we respond – they view themselves as having some degree of control over what is, and what will be, in their life based on their response to its “tests”.  For me, I see things as an amalgam of all these views while at the same time always seeking the answer to the omnipresent question of “what is my purpose?”.

Often times in life we’ve encountered situations, adversities, where we ask ourselves “why me?”.  Sometimes the question has risen when a sequence of misfortune comes our way, when things seem to be piling on and seemingly testing every fiber and the core of our mettle.  More recently in my life I’ve asked a this a number of times.  I worked hard, directed my efforts to do that which had alluded all within my extended family by not only graduating from college, but getting a degree from an Ivy League school.  Part of the motivator was given rise by a mentor of sorts, the person who offered stability in my life when things at home were anything but stable.  The unfortunate thing was the mentor never lived to see me graduate, never heard me voice how I felt for all he did for me and what he meant to me as a human being.  While we all harbor many characteristics of our parents, those things they instill within us as we grow, this person gave me values, a sense of calm and a certain outlook on being true to oneself.  When he died, in the fall of my senior year in school, along with my grief I asked “Why, why did he die now?”.  I can’t say I’ve ever gotten the answer, nor do I think I ever will get the answer.

For those who follow my writings you will know I am divorced after a 14 year marriage and my son has Asperger’s.  On more than one occasion, while seeing hi struggle with social situations, enduring abuse he knows is such, but unable to respond given his lack of innate ability to understand the social context.  I’ve asked why I married someone whom challenged with emotional issues when that was something I sought to avoid having dealt with my mother’s mental illnesses.  It seemed that with the marriage, it was doomed from the start with the only solace I’ve found being something my divorce lawyer said to me after one negotiation – “I see what you saw in her”.  The interesting thing about my former wife however, is that she is a mental health professional.  Back to my son, I had always hoped that my hard work would yield an easier path for him, a path to a great college which would not only provide him with a solid education, but also the connections to people and places to afford greater opportunities.  On the surface, I, as many in my life, see the confluence of all things in my life as substantive negatives, of getting more than my share of the pleasantries in life, of being challenged more than my share of times.  I sometimes agree, but I also developed a very different view, a perspective of how providence brings things to us in various ways and forms.

I’m guessing you may be wondering what rationalization I will come up with to make sense of these misfortunes, of giving them purpose.  Many may gravitate to the idea of adversity makes us stronger, that these were test of my mettle and how I would respond to the challenges.  While that may have merit, my response is to ask, “How is my son having Asperger’s a test for me when it is something with which he’ll live forever?”.  What’s more, one might ask why the paths of my former wife and I crossed, why when I had avoided marriage for 35 years did I choose her to marry.  All interesting questions and certainly many components I view well out of my control.

When considering my son, there was no evidence, just speculation, of the cause of Aspergers and other Autism Spectrum Disorders.  How would I to know that I would father such a child?  For that matter, what suggestion came forth that, paired with his mother, there would be a propensity to produce such a child?  The answers to all is none and while research in the area is advancing, we remain in the relative dark as to the fundamental origin of the disorder.  In short, it was purely chance, at least by the standards of the day.

When thinking of my former wife, one must consider how our worlds were brought together.  Afterall, she lived in the city and I was a “country boy”.  She had her circle of friends and I mine, all far displaced from one another, both physically and mentally.  Part of the answer to the mystery came from my reading the newspaper one day.  You see, on that day I happened to decide to read the personal ads, something I did now and then, mostly because I found humor in a number of the ads.  On that day I did find numerous ads to provoke a chuckle, but I also found one composed in such a way as to intrigue me.  I saved the paper a few days, reading the ad now and then before finally deciding to send a letter, to answer the ad.

The interesting thing about my answering the ad was that, for the most part, I was quite reserved when asking anyone out on a date.  Some saw me as aloof and in some ways perhaps so, but it was more about my being busy, of having a lot going on in my life and not seeing the need to involve a woman.  The result was I was very selective, selective in the sense that  I didn’t “bother” with anyone with whom I felt I wouldn’t mesh and for the record, that was most people.  Anyhow I mailed the letter which had a brief description of who I was and some contact information – I didn’t have a telephone at the time so I offered my mailing address.  She responded, and this is the interesting part, to my letter which one of several thousand she received.  Here again, what were the chances, what control did I have over the outcome?

More on my son, who is now in his own apartment, something many experts thought would not happen given his disorder, and attending a junior college.  By all accounts he is doing remarkably well and, for the most part, most have no clue of his disorder.  Socially he remains a bit challenged, but in general he has grown into a fine young man who will be more than self-sufficient and whom, I surmise, will have a wonderful life.  No, he is not Ivy League material, and no, it is unlikely he will solve the world’s ills, but he will be happy.  For me, there could be a lot of room for disappointment – he didn’t attend my alma mater as I would have hoped, he is not a gifted athlete or any of those things new parents dream for their children.  What he is, however, is a good person, an interesting person who thinks in many ways and whose ideas are novel and challenge convention.  I sometimes wondered how he came to be who he is, how he grew into the person he is and in stepping back the reasons are clear.  While, as it turned out, his parents were not “made for each other”, we were, as a unit, made for him.  I see him, and my marriage as a sort of destiny, of providence bringing together “two wrongs” to make a right, bringing two people together with a purpose in mind who would never have conceived it on their own.

My cancer is another interesting anomaly, something cast upon me and something of which I’ve also questioned “Why me?”.  When considering prostate cancer, unlike my son, there are correlations which indicate a likelihood of getting the disease.  The principally, is the incidence of this cancer in one’s father, male siblings, male cousins and, while weaker, other males in the family tree.  Interestingly, I am a loner when it comes to this type of cancer.  While I lost a grandmother to some sort of reproductive cancer – my mother was too young to understand what it was when she died and my father had lymphatic cancer it is not related to my situation.  On this point, the epidemiological research is quite clear in concluding there is no correlation between the incidence of prostate cancer in men and the incidence of other forms of cancer found within the family tree.

So the “why me” question I again seem to be lost.  On the surface, once again many seem to think it a misfortune, one of those things in life that happen to people.  Others see it as another test, a test of our faith, our resolve to fight and of our mettle.  I sometimes think there is merit to those precepts, but more often I gravitate to something different, to something that again, is not obvious on the surface.

Earlier I mentioned how I worked hard to go to college and attained a degree from an Ivy League school.  I added I always thought it one of the building blocks to a better life and something of a legacy I could give to my children, something that would help make their lives easier.  I had said I always hoped my son would benefit from the competitive advantage afforded the children of alumni – the legacy factor.  But that was not to be, he was instead to take a different road, perhaps the same road he would have otherwise taken, but the road I feel was somewhat directed by his disorder.  This was not to be the “purpose” of my college endeavor.  So what bearing does my schooling have on my life, to my purpose?

Some background here might be of value and so I shall provide.  As I had mentioned, I came from a rural area and spent most of my youth working on a dairy farm.  Growing up I always saw myself as a dairy farmer and set my sights on that goal.  One step toward that was college where I had hoped to attain skills and tools necessary to be successful.  While there, my interests broadened, as I think happens with many college students.  I began to take a lot of physical and biological science along with business and the core courses.  So hungry for learning, my last semester had me attending classes 5 days a week from as early as 8 am until as late as 6 pm, with a lunch break.  Each day, following lunch, Monday through Friday, I had a laboratory, each requiring an elaborate writeup of that which transpired, of the experiment or lesson learned.  My knowledge base expanded considerably with much of it retained still today.

Back to the cancer.  Upon being diagnosed and learing of the severity of my disease, I began to research it and all things about the disease.  I learned quickly, types, treatments, research underway and so forth.  I became something of a layman’s expert on everything prostate cancer.  I even could offer an explanation of the  intracellular interactions related to the disease.  What I learned was very surprising and very disturbing.  It became very clear, very quickly, that there was little, if any, basic research on the disease and almost as few treatment options.  What I learned was that there was one chemotherapy drug that had any effect but would not cure the disease, that the typical approach was for a surgeon to cut it out or to do “watchful waiting” and the other alternative to non-surgical candidates, was and is, radiation.  For me, the extent and severity of my disease al but totally eliminated surgery as an option.  That left radiation and some “creative” approaches.  Most disappointing was that many of the questions I asked the various doctors I saw, and I saw doctors at 3 different cancer centers, including Johns Hopkins, were they didn’t know.  The one thing they could say, was that, given the current state of the technology, the probability was I would succumb in 5-8 years.

Enter my education.  It seems once again providence directed me to an odd place.  My hunger for learning afforded me the basis to talk with the doctors on a level they had not experienced in the past.  The Hopkins doctor proclaimed I had a better understanding of the disease and my circumstance than the majority of the practitioners in the field.  Those whom I afforded the lead in my treatment began asking me for thoughts on approaches, while at the same time, I challenge their paradigm and all considered as being “the standard of care”.  The result is they have offered me treatments not normally offered others because of uncertainty and the knowledge other patients would not understand all the risks and possible side effects.  What has happened is that, while others, similarly diagnosed about the same time have expired, it appears I will survive beyond that originally predicted.  What appears to have happened is that I’ve contributed to the body of the science and it is likely many more will do better as a result.  It seems, perhaps, life has taken what some consider to be lemons (rotten ones at that) in my life and made lemonade.  What seems to be is life has once again defined my purpose.  Perhaps our purpose is not for us to find, to discover, but we should rather sit back, enjoy the ride called life and it will bring our purpose.

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