When Vic Strecher’s daughter died at age nineteen, he admits he lost his own purpose in life but says, through the experience, he was also ‘broken open.’ “She was a heart transplant recipient and when she was nineteen, she passed away.”
Born healthy but, when about six months old, she contracted a virus that attacked her heart. By the age of nine, Vic’s daughter Julia was undergoing a second heart transplant.
During her time of healing Julia used music and writing to help her deal with the anxious dreams filling her nights. Julia documented her experiences in an essay called “Winner’s Choice,” which she shared and discussed with other others attending the FAH Arts and the Heart Roundtable in 2009.
After Julia’s passing in 2010 , the foundation for Vic, his wife Jeri, and older daughter Rachael seemed to collapse. Eventually, Vic’s focus became finding a creative outlet to help re-define purpose and through that exploration a conscious choice to live life ‘on purpose.’
Vic immersed himself in books; reading philosophy, history and authors whose works he may have skimmed in college, but now he fully immersed himself in the writings and, he says, “it was as if these ancient philosophers were writing directly to me,” addressing the issues he was facing, “suddenly they were becoming incredibly personal, as if they were writing back advice that was useful and ancient.”
He notes that philosophers – whether religious, agnostic or atheist– held a common theme; you have to have a purpose or meaning in your life.
“There’s a lot of new research about purpose in life. People with a purpose are less likely to develop depression and less likely to relapse from alcohol and/or cocaine abuse.
Along his journey he decided to chronicle his path toward living a more focused life, and “On Purpose: Lessons in Life and Health From the Frog, The Dung Beetle, and Julia” was born.
The graphic novel details his journey through grieving and his gradual re-awakening to a more conscious pursuit of living a life with purpose and breaking open.
“A graphic novel isn’t like a book and it’s not like a movie, it really is a different entity altogether, you think differently, you write a screenplay essentially, you have scenes in your mind, you have people uttering dialogue and yet it’s not a movie because it’s not moving and I found it a fun challenge to take on.”
“On Purpose” touches on themes from ancient and modern philosophy, literature, and science.
Vic connected with illustrator Kody Chamberlain to collaborate on the graphic novel.
As a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, and an entrepreneur, Vic founded the Center for Health Communications Research and HealthMedia in the 90s. Professional success was firmly in hand, but he knew there was a void in his life.
“Over the years, now, I’ve been less interested in tiny, little informationally-based changes that we make. I’ve been much more interested in epiphany experiences that we have – when suddenly a person goes, ‘oh my god, I really have to change my life.’”
The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you
Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth
across the doorsill where the two worlds touch,
The door is round and open
Don’t go back to sleep!
He stresses the importance of writing down one’s core values. When people write their core values, they are less defensive and more receptive to meaningful change in their life. Reciting those core values, what a person cares about most in their life, deepens the path to real change in their life.
“It’s almost as if the self is locked up in a castle,” he said, “and like a castle wall you need to somehow get above that castle wall. Reciting core values, reciting things related to your purpose in life, seem to help you transcend the castle wall and look outside more clearly.”
“I think artists, at their best, can see life clearly – can see reality clearly,” Vic said. “Their art then becomes an expression of that true reality. We found in our Cancer Center that when you have cancer, you have a need to somehow express yourself. It’s not just a desire, it’s an actual need to express yourself, to tell your story.”
“Writing this book helped me in my own process of grieving,” Vic said.
The personal tragedy that affected Vic and his family profoundly changed him and his purpose in life. “I think my future journey is to help other people to develop purpose to become more resilient, whether bad things have happened to them or not.”
About Victor Strecher. Founder and head of the Center for Health Communications Research at University of Michigan and 2009 TEDMED speaker, Dr. Victor Strecher has taught at the UM School of Public Health since 1995. Along with the University, Strecher founded HealthMedia, Inc in 1998, an Ann Arbor based company that develops and disseminates award-winning tailored health interventions to millions of users.
Vic currently works as the director for Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship, Director of Cancer Prevention and Control – UM Comprehensive Cancer Center, and is helping the University disseminate research to the real world, improving the public’s health nationally and globally.