So what gives my life meaning? My immediate answer is not different from that of other Furman professors: My job. My job gives my life meaning, even though I do not like to be looked at and listened to and I always have a nightmare the night before school starts. (Surprise?) How can a job make me so anxious and still give my life meaning? To answer this question, maybe we should try this one first: Must life be pleasant and enjoyable in order for it to be meaningful?
I enjoy walking around Furman Lake. I listen to music, scientific and NPR podcasts, stories, or audio books when I walk but sometimes I walk silently in the company of myself. I have been volunteering almost every Saturday morning for years. I like volunteering with my friends but sometimes we busy ourselves with individual tasks and we work alone. I love practicing yoga with a roomful of people but sometimes I only have time for home practices. I enjoy sharing meals with friends and family but sometimes I eat alone. Are activities done with people more meaningful than activities done alone? How about asking this question in another way: Can a moment be in and of itself meaningful, whether it is shared?
The truth is however much we try to create as many meaningful experiences as possible life is not strung together by one meaningful moment after another. Although some experiences and interactions are intrinsically meaningful, most mundane doings and random encounters do not seem to be. Therefore—forgive me for thinking like a scientist all the time—the meaninglessness to meaningfulness ratio in life is pretty high. To lower the ratio and make my life more meaningful, I try to transform meaningless experiences to meaningful ones, and thus lower meaninglessness and increase meaningfulness. That’s right, I believe meaning can be discovered or cultivated from every seemingly meaningless moment in life. It is not hard—cultivating meaning is like watering plants; you just have to be intentional about it and keep doing it.
Maybe we don’t have to be so proactive about it. Isn’t everything happens in life for a reason? If we have faith that there is one and if we wait patiently, the reason will reveal itself. Right? Well, based on my observations, everything happens in life not necessarily for a purpose or a reason. And even when it does, the long wait may blind us when it subtly appears. So what are we to do while waiting meaninglessly? To me, everything happens is an opportunity to cultivate its meaning. A purpose or a reason seems to be a maximal answer that we may or may not get—immediately or ultimately—but there is always meaning to be cultivated. The cultivated meaning is merely the product of inner reflection, based on our perceptions of where we are in life at the moment, that leads to recalibration of our outlooks of life from that point forward. We can even revisit a past experience at different times in life; reexamine it and gain new insights. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to a meaning as long as it means something to us as the moment.
Enriching our lives by rendering each moment meaning, outwardly we deepen our relationships with others and recognize the interconnectedness of humanity, and inwardly we find our true selves and gain self-knowledge. Through all these, who we are and the meaning of our existence emerge, develop, and take form. So we realize that, for interactions, fellowship can be as meaningful as solitariness; for relationships, betrayals can be as meaningful as friendships; for health, cancer can be as meaningful as exercise; for spirituality, being in church can be as meaningful as meditation; for vocation, anxiety can be as meaningful as sense of accomplishment. Emotionally we can be in pain but not suffer, physically we can be healed but not cured, and vocationally we can have a holistic appreciation of the meaning of our jobs standing outside of our comfort zones.
Ultimately we learn that cultivating meaning is in itself meaningful: What gives my life meaning is that I give it a meaning. I know when I do so, I become present and aware of every moment. When I am present, I value things I do and time I spend with others, and I become more grateful. When I am full of gratitude, I become more compassionate. And only when I am compassionate, the present moment comes alive and becomes meaningful.
Being compassionate is another topic for another day…
This definitely gave me a lot to think about! I’d like to hear your thoughts on how you cultivate meaning/make relationships meaningful. I know you mentioned the element of compassion, is that the main element you would point to (in connection with everything you cited as leading up to compassion) or do you think there is another big side to it? The juxtapositions you presented were also helpful and made me think about how we derive meaning. It was striking to me that you distinguished between an action/experience/vocation being meaningful and being rewarding as two separate things. Could you elaborate on that?
Thanks for sharing,
Ah, the how! I wish I were wise and insightful enough to write an instruction manual. Being where I am in life now, I think being mindful about the present moment is the key ingredient to cultivate meaning. It is pretty much like being in a class: If you are not paying attention, you are not going to learn it, not from the teacher at least. Well, let’s look at a few examples. Family reunions, weddings, and funerals are meaningful events because they are about people you love and care, and they elicit emotions and memories. The cognitive engagement is in and of itself meaningful. Yet you can get more out of it if you are more mindful about your participation. You may get some good recipes that you are dying to try after a family reunion, know what not to wear for your own wedding, and learn some interesting tidbits about your family from the eulogies. But there is more if you dig deeper. You can take the opportunity to think about conflicts and forgiveness in a family, the sacred nature of love and commitment, and who you are in this community of families and friends. Of course, there is not much you can do when you wait in line to pay for your grocery. Yet, occasionally when I was aware that the cashier was stressed, and I would make a point to greet, compliment, and thank her/him. The interaction was brief and I did not know how much it meant to the cashier, but it was meaningful to me because I made it so. And I knew the moment would be lost had I not paid attention.
Separating meaning and reward came from my learning and teaching experiences. I was a hard-working student and my grade point average was decent. Yet, I knew my grades did not reflect how much I had learned and certainly not my enthusiasm in learning. It was not at all rewarding, at the time. But was it meaningful? You bet it was. Anytime you put your heart and soul in doing something, it is meaningful, regardless of the outcomes! Same as teaching. I can confidently say that I love my students a lot more than they love me, and I want to see them succeed more than anything in the world. That, in and of itself, is meaningful. Yet, the evaluations, the rateyourprofessor.com, and the lack of efforts from the students certainly make this job not rewarding. But is it meaningful? YES! Of course we can argue that the rewards may come later. I still remember quite a bit of what I learned in my biology courses in college because I spent so much time trying to understand them. I often received wedding invitations and thank-you emails and cards from past students. And so many of my student researchers are so successful!!! So you can say that there are some rewards after all. Yet, the immediate, external rewards are not good, reliable motivating factors, don’t you think? However, if we are aware of what we are doing and why we are doing it and believe that it is meaningful, that this becomes a reliable internal motivator.
Can you think of anything other than teaching and learning that can be meaningful but not rewarding?
Compassion is something I have been thinking about lately. I have found that I can become more compassionate when I truly believe that life, not what life brings, is intrinsically meaningful, and if this is true about my life, it must be true about other lives. I really can’t tell you how and why I went there in my essay, though. I just wrote what was in my mind at the time and it came up.
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