What brings meaning to your life? I am not asking because I have the right answer. I am asking because I want you to have an answer, an answer that makes sense for you. Making meaning from your life’s experiences is associated with resilience, the capacity to bounce back from life’s hardships. Having a sense of purpose is also correlated with happiness in life, much more than career success or material possessions. (read more here: https://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/martin-seligman-psychology/). So, what gives people a sense of meaning?
Some people get meaning from their work. Firefighters, EMTs, and our military all work to rescue others and to keep us safe, which can bring intrinsic purpose. Teachers, doctors, nurses, and therapists often feel deeply rewarded from helping vulnerable people, and offering them care, hope, and tools to improve their situation. I myself usually feel meaning in my work, although sometimes I wonder, “Am I helping? Does it really matter?”
I feel deep satisfaction when I wrap up a successful case. In the final session, the client and I celebrate the growth he made. We review his progress in therapy, and how much better he feels. Perhaps the client gets a little teary, and thanks me for being there for him. Those moments leave me feeling deeply satisfied. These are the times I know I have made a difference. It is perfectly clear; right in front of me.
But sometimes another dynamic happens. I hear from a former client, someone I worked with five years ago, someone I didn’t even work with that long. The old client calls, perhaps because she is referring someone else to me. The former client says something like, “You helped me so much. I will never forget when you said…”
In my mind I wonder, “I helped that person? I didn’t think I helped her. I don’t even think I said that to her.”
Out loud, I say, “I’m so glad, thanks for telling me.”
It happens frequently that I had a positive impact when I thought I wasn’t having any impact at all. Couples return to me after years after their therapy; couples I feared would probably divorce. “You saved our marriage.”
(“Did I? Wow, I had no idea.”).
“I’m so glad. Its good to see you. How can I help you now?”
The meaning of my life is to use the tragedies I have endured, the losses that I lived through, the deaths of the people I loved, all for good. Each of these tragedies expanded my capacity for care and empathy. Each loss increased my ability to understand others' losses. Armed with my own tragic past, I can witness others who are in pain. I can sit with them and bear their misery. And I can also say, either silently or sometimes out loud, “You can get through this. You can bounce back. Life goes on. Do not give up.”
That is my purpose. What is yours? There are many purposeful paths, so many that I can’t list them all. Some people are artists, using their talent to spread important ideas and values. (I just saw Fairview, a play about racism, which impacted me profoundly.) Other artists create beauty which lasts for centuries. (I listen to Debussy’s Clair de Lune, written 150 years ago, and my heart swells at the opening notes). Some people garden, carefully planting flowers and trees, freshening the air and creating blessed shade for centuries to come. Some people take tender care of their aging parent, sacrificing as they give back to the mother who cared for them. Most people are passionately devoted to their children, creating the new generation of our world. And many people get their life’s meaning from their faith’s values, spreading God's love and teachings.
Any kind of work can be meaningful, depending on your mindset. The cook who creates our delicious dinner has nourished our body and soul. The finance expert who manages of our savings so that we can safely retire; every job has a purpose. Still, if you don’t feel meaning in your work, there are other ways to find it. There is volunteer work, family, friendship, and just plain human kindness.
There are a lot of folks, who have endured great trials, who now use those experiences to help others. In my town, there is a family who lost their son, and now run an organization to create awareness about concussions. Many people run in annual races to raise funds for cancer, because they themselves lost a loved one to cancer. These people are taking their own tragedy and transforming it into a purpose. They have not only bounced back; they have bounced back with increased meaning and purpose. That is resiliency.
There is a certain phrase that makes my blood run cold. I have heard this phrase many times in the course of my work, and it signals grave danger: “Everyone would be better off without me.” This phrase signals not only lack of meaning, but the sinister opposite; the idea that one’s very existence is harmful. These people are a great risk for suicide.
I have lost four family members to suicide. I have also worked with many people who have survived the suicide of a friend or relative. I can assure you that no one ever says, “I am now better off without them.” No one.
(If you yourself are thinking about suicide, or feeling that others would be better off without you, please click here for help: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/)
No one can tell you the purpose of your life. That is a deep question for us all to ponder. What I can say is that I think all life has meaning. We touch each other, in ways large and small. We can help each other, and gain meaning from being helpful. We can create art that moves people. We can raise ethical and kind children. We can shovel our neighbor’s snow when they are sick. We can simply be there for each other, providing companionship and company.
A few years ago, I was having one of those days in which everything went wrong. My computer stopped working, and I couldn’t fix it. I got into a fight with my mother. I had a splitting headache and I was late on my way home. It was pouring rain, but I had to stop at the post office to mail an important letter, which delayed me further. I idled behind a line of slow cars in front of the postal mailbox.
A postal worker popped out from the post office. She wore a heavy black coat, and she hurriedly gathered the mail from the mailbox, rain pouring off her back. But she glanced over and saw me waiting. Quickly, she stood up, trudged through the pouring rain, and held out her hand for my letter. Her dark hood almost covered her face, but I could see her bright smile, beaming with kindness. I rolled down my window, raining streaming in through the opening, and handed her my instantly sodden letter.
I have never forgotten that moment. Was it so important? Not really. But this postal worker changed my day. She single-handedly changed me from feeling aggrieved to feeling gratitude for her unexpected thoughtfulness. I can still see her beaming smile.
I am sure that, if you asked that postal worker, she would have no recollection of this moment. Just like me, when an old client calls and thanks me for saying something, she might think, “I did that? Did I? And it was that important? Really?”
But you see, that’s the point. We never know when we can have a hugely powerful impact on others. Our kindness, our help, our art, our parenting, our volunteering… all of it matters.
What’s your purpose?