(This post is part of the 30 for 30 Challenge.)
What does it mean to be fulfilled? To have a meaningful life? As sentient beings, aware of our past and future selves, how do we reconcile our sense of meaningfulness in the present? Some of us find solace in religion, and resign to its teachings of mystery and sacrifice as a way towards greater meaning. Others find meaning and purpose in how they make their livelihood, or the activities that make up their daily lives (parenting, teaching, cooking, etc.). Still others find their deepest meaning when silencing the mind, and disconnecting from their worldly relations.
We seem to be on a constant quest to discover who we are, and become paralyzed with fear when when we can’t identify meaning and purpose with the person we see in the mirror. As curatorial blogger of all things interesting, Maria Popova, says in a recent post,
This is the cultural pathology of our time: If we stopped doing what we do, we might not know who we are.
Two other great writers/thinkers on the subject describe the effort to find meaning in the following ways.
Joseph Campbell, in
People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning:
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
A recent article in The Guardian discusses how Americans are especially prone to defining themselves by what they do. The article goes on to talk about a sociological study that seems to show a shifting by Millennials in how they attribute meaning to their lives:
They [Millennials in the study] would emphasize what Dr Silva calls “narratives of personal growth” such as feeling they had matured in a relationship with a relative or lover or had some sort of self-discovery.
In other words, tying career paths and material gain to self-worth is not how Millennials are defining themselves. A reasoning behind this is that due to the growing uncertainty of long-term employment, new people to the workforce are not viewing their occupations as defining qualities of themselves. This is a mentality mostly reserved for older generations who view working in the same job for one’s entire life as the norm.
If not stability in the same job, then what else might help give people a sense of purpose and added meaning? Much research has been done of late on trying to figure out what specific qualities of activity (work or play) give people a sense of accomplishment and oneness with their actions.
The term to describe this is FLOW. As the challenging aspects of a situation increase, so too should one’s capability to deal with them. The sweet spot where “effort expended” meets “challenging reward” is FLOW. Outside of that sweet spot, the activity digresses into feelings of frustration, boredom, anxiety, and ultimately, resignation. It is when we are outside of FLOW when we most feel our actions lack meaning. When you are in FLOW on a task or activity, you get the feeling of ease and oneness with your mind and body. One feels very little resistance, and everything just seems to “work”. In short, FLOW is another way of saying that you are “in the zone”.
Whether thinking about identity in terms of career or in terms of relations with others and experiences had, these questions are constant probing reminders, or anxiety creators, of how one identifies and relates to the world around them. What about when opportunities for exploring these questions have come (or are about to come) to an end? How does one grapple with figuring out who they are when there is no more time?
Older people say, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I think what they mean by this is that one doesn’t realize until they are older that a fulfilling life means having taken advantage of experiences while one is younger, so as to have a richer life to look back on when you’re older. Many indications in literature and in real life experiences show that we often don’t appreciate or recognize the beauty of life, or our place in the world, until we’re knocking on death’s door.
Sometimes, however, death comes sooner than expected, and we are faced with even more challenging questions of a stolen life yet to be lived.
A young neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer in his mid-30s reflected on these difficult ideas in the last years and months of his life in his memoir When Breath Becomes Air. His revelation of understanding that who he “is” is who he “was”, was a difficult prospect for someone so young. His future potential was quickly evaporating before his eyes, so he continually looked to the past to define himself. He elaborates on the idea, saying:
What emerges is an uncommonly insightful, sincere, and sobering revelation of how much our sense of self is tied up with our sense of potential and possibility — the selves we would like to become, those we work tirelessly toward becoming. Who are we, then, and what remains of “us” when that possibility is suddenly snipped?
Nearing the end of his life, Kalanithi writes:
Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.
In the book How We Die, Sherwan Nuland describes the act of dying as a way to create room for the world to come:
We die so that the world may continue to live. We have been given the miracle of life because trillions upon trillions of living things have prepared the way for us and then have died — in a sense, for us. We die, in turn, so that others may live. The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life.
In this sense, the act of dying is purposeful in and of itself. It allows us to make room for others to find their own purpose and meaning.
It’s difficult to summarize a post with so many ideas about what it means to have meaning. I think the lesson those who have written on the subject wish to teach us is that we should try our best, as flawed as we are, to discover and cherish the moments of our lives. This is achieved through mindfulness of the present. As much as we would like our lives to be the future, or in some cases the past, they are only the present. I (and you) are only now. Reminding oneself of that, and experiencing the world from that mindset, allows oneself to gain a deeper understanding of what they value, and what they will cherish when the end comes.