Updated: Mar 20, 2020
This is the SECOND post in a series about living an "Anderful Life"(click on this link to start with Part 1 in the series). My thoughts are developing, and your input will make them better. I'll do my best to write with insight and stay "in my lane." Your insights and expertise will fill in areas that I have not addressed and cannot speak to with any authority or depth. Please share thoughts and questions in the comments (or on social media)!
A Meaningful and Purposeful Life (my initial proposal)
We seek lives that matter, with connections to others and a sense of direction. We're invested in work, service, and people for the greater good of those in our circles and those we will never meet personally (from Part 1 in this series).
Need to Back Up...Already
When I wrote my first post, I conceptualized this it as one that would talk about finding meaning and purpose in relationship to others and by doing work or service that matters. In general, I imagined it being about what we produce in our lives.
My thinking has already changed in a week's time. For many who are reading this blog, life has changed in the last week. What we did in the world has changed. How we interact with others has changed. We are socially/physically distancing. We are working remotely and attending school online. We are staying at home--both as personal choice and state mandate. We go out for the essentials, as able, but are keep our distance. In a brief window of time, life has changed.
While reflecting on the coronavirus began shifting my thinking, the movement continued as I wondered about the variety of ways that changes in our lives can challenge our ability to root our meaning and purpose in our doing. Illness, aging, employment loss, and so much more, can interrupt our ability to find meaning in our work, service, or productivity.
What now? I propose we back up and think about meaning and purpose a bit differently than how I wrote about it in my initial post.
Finding Meaning and Purpose in our Being
Before we can find meaning in our doing, it is essential that we find meaning in our being. This isn't an easy idea for many of us. "If I'm just sitting on a chair, do I really have meaning and purpose?" we might wonder. Philosophers, particularly those who study "ontology," have long explored the "nature of being." I am not a philosopher, so what I have to say on this matter may not pass muster with more sophisticated thinkers.
Here's my basic proposal: before we could DO anything we were simply BEING, and even at that point in our lives, our existence had meaning and purpose. At that most basic level, as our newborn selves, we were people who lived, breathed, ate, and slept. Our fundamental output involved smiles, cooing, and filled diapers. That's it! And yet, we were people deserving of love, welcome, and belonging. We had meaning and purpose, simply by being.
As we grew up, something shifted for many of us. Very quickly, it became important for us to do more than fill diapers (amirite?). Maybe we learned to walk, talk, laugh, read, and write. [A quick word about our contexts: I realize that this list may vary depending on the bodies, families, or social settings into which we were born, and that may further impacts what comes next). Whether at school or at home, soon enough we learned to produce. In my world that started at school work, and in due time it was a part-time job, then full-time work, and then a career. As time went on, doing became more important than being. What gave life meaning and purpose was what I did, what I contributed to the world, and how the world saw me me in light of what I contributed to it. That's a big shift.
I'm convinced we need to get back in touch with our being. If we're really going to find our meaning and purpose in life, we will do well to start by knowing that before we've done anything in life, we matter. Our being, in and of itself, gives us meaning and purpose.
Why Start with Being?
My contention that we must start by finding meaning and purpose in our being is first and foremost an acknowledgement that our capacity for doing changes over time. If we put all our proverbial eggs in the doing basket, we are going to flounder. Our physical capacity, whether through aging, injury, or illness, will at some point be compromised. If you find your meaning in running a certain paced mile, that's fine, until you get a stress fracture. Then what? If you find your meaning in leading your division of the company you work for, what happens when they downsize? If your meaning is in being the life of the party, what happens when you have to socially distance and stay at home? Life changes, and our ability to DO changes with it. If we root our essential meaning and purpose in our being, then maybe we can weather those changes more easily. Many of you reading this blog post know that my mom had ALS (aka Lou Gehrig's disease). She was older, by ALS standards, when the disease was diagnosed (about 70 at the time). Her journey with ALS took another 2 1/2 to 3 years, about average for what is called Bulbar ALS. The disease started presenting itself in her feet and legs. She tripped often and then fell and broke her leg (sorry, Mom, I know that as a nurse, you'd prefer I'd written "fractured her femur"). While in the hospital, she had surgery to insert a feeding tube. Over time, Mom lost her ability to do so many things: walk, cook, eat, talk, and care for herself. I remember noting that while each loss was profound, somehow she managed to still be herself. She couldn't do the things she was known for (make great meals, bake bread, host gatherings with family and friends, lead a meeting, or have a lively conversation about life and current events), but her essence was still there. SHE was still there in her being.
Not only was Mom was still there with all of us, she made her presence known in many ways. When she could tell there was an active conversation going among family members that she wanted to be part of, she rang a bell in her room to summon us. When my oldest brother and my dad tried to clean a dirty path in the dining room carpeting, Mom made it clear that in her judgment the dining room table needed to be moved and the whole carpet cleaned (all this was communicated by snapping of her fingers and insistent pointing with her index finger). The night before she died, all six of her kids gathered around her. My brother had just returned from his first job interview after completing his PhD. With mom, we listened to my brother and sister-in-law tell us about the interview. Her response was the one that really mattered that night. She scratched out a note saying simply that she'd "heard it all." Later, when my dad was getting ready to leave their room and get some rest, she reached out with urgency to hug him once more. The next morning, sitting next to her, I began to hold her hand. She pulled her hand out from under mine, placed it on top of mine and rubbed it gently until she took her last breaths. Even in the end, in her being, she was a loving wife, mom and grandma. It had been a long time since my mom was doing the things she was known for, but throughout her illness, to the moment of her passing, she had meaning and purpose in her being. Even as so much was taken from her, she lived a meaningful and purposeful life. The same can be true for each of us as well.
When we affirm that our existence is meaningful and purposeful just because we are, we create a foundation on which to build the other aspects of what I'm calling an "Anderful Life." Watch for upcoming posts in which I unpack all of this further. In particular, watch for Part 3 to come soon. In that post, I'll explore how, having found our meaning and purpose in our being, we can then build on it to find meaning and purpose in our doing. They are, of course, interrelated, and I'm sure we'll see that in the end, we need both being and doing in balance.
I would love to hear how you connect to your own meaning and purpose at the level of being rather than doing. How do you affirm your value at that starting point? If you would share your thoughts here in the comments or in or on social media, I feel certain that others will be encouraged by your insights.