The power of meaning: Crafting a life that matters

I have been reading “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a life that matters” by writer Emily Esfahani Smith and as I finished I thought that it must be in my top 10 books of all time. This is the 3rd time I have read it, and it does not fail to rekindle an emotional response in me about ‘the meaning of life’. I don’t rate myself as a deep thinker, an academic or a philosopher, but the way she explains finding meaning in our lives brings me closer to figuring out the concept of my existence as I search for the answers to the elusive questions, such as why are we here and why do we matter? This year with the loss of Dad and Terry, and trying to imagine what our future looks like I I have been pondering what life, death and the purpose of it all is.

Emily writes in a way that I can relate to, and discusses how happiness does not necessarily equate to fulfilment in our lives. Her philosophy suggests that by living a ‘meaningful’ life we don’t need to be happy all the time but that we are able to find meaning to our lives by using what she calls the four pillars. These four pillars of meaning are:

  • Belonging
  • Purpose
  • Storytelling
  • Transcendence

So here are some of my thoughts on these:

I was not raised with parental pressures or strong influences about religion or a spiritual practice, and most of my life have appreciated that this has given me the freedom of choice to find or discover for myself, if I wanted (or did not want) to have a faith in something bigger than myself. To date, I have generally chosen to adopt very neutral values in this respect. I admire people who have enough belief in their ‘god’ or faith that have a belief that they will be looked after in this life, and also in death – in whatever form that takes. But it has not been my personal experience to give over to a faith of any kind. However, looking at ‘faith’ with regards to meaning I can see great value in this, especially in times of adversity, through challenges and in times of loss and grief.

Throughout my childhood there were few challenges – I knew I was loved by my family, I enjoyed a close relationship with my mother and brothers, my father took the role of the provider in our family. There were the usual growing pains, and at times there were clashes as there are can be in any family. I did not experience the loss of a parent, or sibling as a child, and I think my awareness of grief was very limited. When my mother said that her own Dad had passed away when she was 16 years old, I had no concept of what this must have been like for her to take on the role of looking after her younger siblings with her mother. That she had left school at age 14 was inconceivable, and as I now look at my own children, approaching their 16th birthday in December – it becomes so very apparent, how incredibly different my grandmother, my mother, myself and my daughter will view and experience their part in this world.

A few nights ago, at the dinner table, we were discussing which university Holly may attend and we joked that she should leave school after Year 12 and not complete Year 13. Phil left school after Form 5 (Year 11), which Holly is now in and I left school in Form 7 (Year 13) just before exams started. I told Holly that I had gone to Australia for my first term in Form 7, on a Rotary Twin exchange – and when I came home I struggled to catch up academically, especially with Math (her least favourite topic). Her response, “why would you go to Australia on an exchange? Why not somewhere different and exciting?” Yet, for me, I was the first person in our family at age 16, to travel overseas, to go on an aeroplane – this was huge and amazing and Australia was different and exciting. I did not attend university after school, and while it is not a regret – I did not know what I wanted to do – I often wonder what path my life would have taken if I had made that choice, instead of working and traveling.

In the introduction of “The Power of Meaning”, Emily writes about the role universities have played through time in understanding the ‘meaning of life’. She discusses how there has been an evolution from the discussions around purpose, meaning and the philosophy at university alongside learning a topic, to the trend to mastering content, in order to achieve goals and career success. When I was 16 and contemplating whether to go to university or not, it was certainly a path that women could easily take (unlike my Mother, or grandmothers generation). Instead, I got a job, saved a little, started travelling and learned about life that way.

In this way, my charmed life carried on, and I was never that interested in philosophy, history or thinking about the meaning of life or my life’s purpose. I think that in my 20’s and early 30’s I lived in pursuit of happiness and I was very content, traveling, falling in love, getting married, working to build my career, studying, running, learning to play golf, homemaking, drinking lots of wine and eventually at age 36, starting a family with my husband of 12 years. Apart from losing my grandparents, and my parents separating and divorcing in this time, there were no life events that put pressure on my coping skills. What I can see now, is that unknowingly, I enjoyed the first of the four pillars of meaning all my life. And that pillar is BELONGING. I was lucky enough to feel that sense of belonging from family, friends, with my husband, colleagues and in the communities I belonged with.

At the same time, work gave me a sense of PURPOSE. I felt secure in my role and work, valued as part of the team, and my wages, together with Phil’s has enabled us to live a comfortable life. At work, I had an identity of my own and contributed to society by paying my taxes, and doing my job to the best of my ability, getting results that were able to be measured. If I was asked what I did for a job, I was proud to say I worked in the travel industry, and that I was a consultant, or a Manager. It gave me a sense of accomplishment and by receiving payment for what I did, I was acknowledged as having a ‘value’.

In the period of my life, before having my own children, I had meaning based on those two pillars. But, I’ve said it before, my life changed immensely after the children arrived and as I adjusted to life as a mother my sense of belonging and purpose changed as I did.

Which brings me to today, and why I need to rediscover a new sense of “meaning” as opposed to ‘happiness’ in my life. When I imagined motherhood, I misjudged how much it would impact those two very important values. And now, as I journal and write my blog, and read and take notes, and scrapbook, I realise that one of my new pillars to a meaningful life is ‘STORYTELLING‘. By sharing my thoughts, and by creating and recording memories, I am seeking to find meaning. Storytelling makes me happy. It’s a great way to work out my emotions. It’s a healthy outlet. Storytelling is and can be a creative expression and I’m glad I now find meaning to my life this way.

As for the other 3 pillars, I have little pieces of them in my life, the BELONGING is strong within my family and a small group of close friends, and I’m working hard to find belonging with other parents who have children (or adult children) with high and complex needs. I kept wanting that special ‘mother’ friend who really ‘gets’ our way of life, the hypervigilance, the lack of privacy, the hospital time, the behavioural problems, the responsibility that comes from needed to supervise 24/7 and be available at all times. But I’m looking, and I’m getting closer to sharing our life with others. It’s not easy to make those connections and let people in to what life is really like.

And then I now have a new sober tribe – after years of BELONGING as a drinker, I am trying to break into a completely different tribe and it’s happening, slowly. As I become comfortable with the sober me, others will too. Today marks 533 days sober and for that I am proud of me.

As for TRANSCENDENCE, I’m not sure. Maybe I get this with nature, and when I exercise, but I’m not sure this is going to be my main pillar of meaning, but I’m open to what comes along.

Well, I’m not sure if this post is meaningful to anyone else but me, but as the quote says:

“We do not write to be understood; we write in order to understand”.

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