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Procrastination and Death: Conference Postscript

A life's vocation and a question for a deathbed

My final day at the conference for the International Network on Personal Meaning (INPM), "Living Well & Dying Well: New frontiers of positive psychology, therapy and spiritual care," provoked further thoughts about death and procrastination. I've written some closing thoughts about my conference experience with some reflections on vocation, fulfilling one's purpose in life (whatever that may be) and the specific nature of existential courage captured in the notion of psychological hardiness.

Leo Michel Abrami, a retired rabbi who now devotes his time to logotherapy, made a presentation this morning entitled, "The concept of vocation in the writings of Carl Jung and Viktor Frankl." In fact, he also included Martin Buber and Abraham Maslow in this exploration of vocation, as each identified a similar theme related to the notion of vocation or "calling." As Rabbi Abrami summarized these thinkers' writing, it is in our deeds that we reveal who we are (Jung), and our own unique vocation or mission in life is captured in the concrete tasks and projects that comprise our lives (Frankl). The essence of vocation is the essence of our individual lives; each a unique life, something original and new, that cannot be repeated. Jung, Frankl, Buber and Maslow, four great humanists of the 20th century, emphasized both the uniqueness of the individual, as well as the central task of actualizing the individual's potential through an authentic engagement in one's vocation.

Rabbi Abrami had a great deal more to say about vocation, but it was the comments he made at the end of his presentation about his current research that interested me most. He has created a 45-item questionnaire that he is using with individuals who are dying. As time today did not permit him to summarize the whole questionnaire, he simply noted that the key question he asks of each person whom he interviews is phrased something like, "Did you live the life you wanted?" or "Were you the person you wanted to be?" or "Are you satisfied with the life you lived?"

Sadly, Rabbi Abrami remarked that most of the answers he got to these questions were "no." I asked him, "Did these people who were not fulfilled with their lives, the vocations they had, etc., know what they wanted to do instead but didn't choose to follow this path, or were they just unhappy with the outcome of their lives?"

Rabbi Abrami replied, "In most cases, they knew what they wanted to do instead, but they didn't do it." Of course, I had to ask, "Why?" and "What did they say about this?"

His answer was direct, almost abrupt, and it surprised me. He said, "They just gave me a lot of excuses." For example, he explained how an individual knew what his "calling" was, the vocation that would fulfill him, but he took "a job" instead, excusing the choice by saying he needed the money. The individual did not pursue his vocation, and in the end he made excuses for the choices he made and regretted it deeply.

At the heart of these excuses lies self-deception, I think. Unfortunately, this self-deception was unmasked as death loomed; only regret remained. This speaks back to my blog entry yesterday in relation to grief and procrastination. Unfulfilled intentions, regrets of omission, were found to be terribly problematic in grief. The research that Rabbi Abrami has begun indicates that unfulfilled intentions with respect to life goals, vocation and self-identity are problematic at life's end when we struggle with what Erikson defined as a stage of Integrity versus Despair. To some extent, a sense of integrity about our lives depends on our actualizing vocation in our lives as advocated by Jung, Frankl, Buber and Maslow as I summarized above. When we reject our own agency in making this fundamental choice of who we are as defined by our calling or vocation, we set ourselves up for deep regret and perhaps despair when life nears its end.

This is a particularly sad or disturbing summary, so I won't end here. Instead, I'll close with a few ideas presented by Dr. Salvatore Maddi (University of California, Irvine) who provided one of two keynote talks over lunch today. Dr. Maddi has long been known as an existentially-oriented personality psychologist, and he has spent the last 30 years focused on the concept of psychological hardiness. I conducted my own M.A. research on this concept in the mid 1980's, so I may return to it in a future blog. In addition, my students and I have explored hardiness in relation to procrastination. However, for now, I want to focus on how Dr. Maddi addressed the concept in his talk today and link this to the sad regrets of those individuals whom Rabbi Abrami interviewed.

Dr. Maddi and Dr. Suzanne Kobasa originally coined the term psychological hardiness in a publication in 1979. Essentially, this term was used to describe the attributes and attitudes of individuals who despite stress, did not get ill - they were "hardy." The three attributes are Control, Commitment and Challenge. As Dr. Maddi says, the 3C's.

Most importantly for this brief blog entry on death, vocation and procrastination, is how Dr. Maddi refers to this constellation of attitudes or attributes known as the 3Cs. He calls it, "existential courage."

Why is this so important? Well, as I noted in my blog entry from yesterday, "courage" is what Paul Tillich argued is necessary to live an authentic life - a life that would be defined by following one's calling and choosing to engage deeply in the vocation that fulfills you. What Dr. Maddi does in his research is to identify aspects of our personality that facilitate this courage.

To the extent that

  • we can work to affect change in our lives by taking Control and not waiting on fate;
  • we are deeply Committed to whom we are as individuals and the uniqueness this represents; and
  • we accept the changes and stresses of life as a Challenge to address as opposed to a threat to avoid,

we are engaging in life courageously.

Control, commitment and challenge represent aspects of the existential courage that may have been lacking in the lives of the individuals whom Rabbi Abrami interviewed when they answered, "No, I have not fulfilled myself in my life. I am not happy with the life I have lived."

Food for thought on this Sunday night. I'm sure I'll write more in the future about hardiness, the research that established the concept and what we know about it in relation to procrastination. For today, I just wanted to add this conference postscript with my final reflections on "Living Well & Dying Well: New frontiers of positive psychology, therapy and spiritual care."

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