This is a question that humans have asked as long as they've been human. Before this piece is over, I may drift into the philosophical or metaphysical realms, whatever they are, but it's the basic question that struck me while listening to a sermon last Sunday. (Does anyone else take notes during sermons?)
Anyway, I'm sure we've all asked ourselves this question, usually when we are in unfamiliar or uncomfortable territory. I remember the first dance I ever attended with a date. I asked myself the question. I asked it again when my college roommate had to bail on a date with his girlfriend and he asked me to take her to the movie with all their friends. As you might suspect, the point of being in the dark, secluded balcony had more to do with slobbering all over each other than with watching the movie. My "date" and I were no doubt the only ones who could even tell what the movie was about. We were the only ones who finished a bucket of popcorn, too. These were pretty shallow relationships, but "what am I doing here" can pop up even in long terms ones.
Three friends and I took a 100 mile wilderness canoe trip one time. It was about 10 days on the lakes and rivers from central Maine northward. It never occurred to me that it might rain or that wind could blow us into the corner of the lake for a whole day and night. If ever there was an event that ran the gamut from "I really love it here" to "what am I doing here," that was it.
I went back to school almost 30 years after I received my bachelor's degree. As I sat in the first class, surrounded by bright, energetic "kids," the question came up again. Then at the first class's final exam, the question in my mind was in big, bold, letters in flashing neon. "WHAT AM I DOING HERE?"
I could go on and on. Ok, ok, here's one more, if you insist Early in my career at Family Services, I was assigned the "Recovery Group" in the Warren County Jail. My mentor had prepared me well, but when I went on my own for the first time and those five or six big metal doors started clanking shut and being locked behind me YIKES! "WHAT AM I DOING HERE??!!" indeed.
Look at that stuff. All that negative stuff. Why in Heaven's name do we dwell on these things? Just thinking of them gives me twinges of discomfort even after 5, 15, 25, almost 50 years.
The sermon mentioned earlier led me to another angle on this issue. A question, really. Do we ever stop and ask ourselves: "What am I doing here?" when there isn't a crisis? When we're being successful, when things are going well?
What I'm getting at here is the concept of "self-talk." At some level, consciously, semi-consciously, or subconsciously, we're always telling ourselves something about ourselves. Way too often, we're dragging out just negatives. "I'm a loser." I'll never be loved." "I stink at --(fill in the blank) -." "I should have known better." Add to that any similar-sounding input from the outside and it's no wonder we get down on ourselves.
If the question: "What am I doing here?" is generated only when we're in trouble or distress, the answer is simple. Don't go wherever "here" is ever again. The trouble with that idea is that there is often a huge difference between a simple idea and what is "doable."
But what if we started to ask ourselves" "What am I doing here?" when something wonderful is going on. That happens a lot, right? The sun comes over the hill on a fall morning and the temperature jumps 20 degrees. Your dog happily greets you at the door after a hard day at work You get to try a delicious "Texas Hot" at a joint you've never visited before
I'm pretty sure if you give this a try, asking yourself: "What am I doing here?" in good times, you will have an answer that should put you in an excellent frame of mind. What am I doing here? I'm enjoying my life!"
Gary Lester, M.S., R.T.C., is the executive director of Family Services of Warren County, a charitable agency the helps people with counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups.