A Meaningful Life

Posted: Apr 27, 2017 12:01 AM
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This month has included the passing of my friend Julie who, at 41 years of age, was almost a decade younger than I.

Julie had been diagnosed with cancer 38 days before she died. Her funeral, while filled with shock and sorrow, was also filled with joy and peace. A committed Christian, she brightened the lives of those she touched and left a legacy that resonated among the mourners: go and brighten others' lives as she brightened yours. The fact that she had found solace, purpose and strength in God, faith in Christ and belief in an afterlife made her funeral service more of a celebration than a sad event. While her life was far too short, it had great meaning.

Her death and the deaths of three of my friends' parents remind me of my own mother's passing more than three years ago and raise the question in my mind of how I want to live out the balance of my life.

With both of my children in high school, (Maggie is a junior and Robert is a freshman), I am no longer bogged down in the minutiae of child rearing and home building, but can raise my view higher and imagine a future in which our children are grown and my day-to-day world is changed. But how? For what purpose?

Last month, in my column, "Where We Belong," I noted that Emily Esfahani Smith, author of "The Power of Meaning; Crafting a Life that Matters," wrote that there are "four areas that influence our ability to create a meaningful life; belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence. Belonging includes forging 'relationships in which we feel understood, recognized, and valued -- to know we matter to others.' Purpose includes having 'a far-reaching goal that motivates us, serves as the organizing principle of our lives, and drives us to make a contribution to the world.' When Smith writes about storytelling, it's the ability to take 'our disparate experiences and assemble them into a coherent narrative that allows us to make sense of ourselves and the world.' While transcendence is the feeling that 'we have risen above the everyday world and are connected to something vast and meaningful.'"

That column focused on belonging and multiple group identifications and their influences. "The challenge becomes when the various groups and interests have different values or goals, which one wins out."

The more obvious challenge, and one that each of us takes on daily, is determining which values win out when they conflict. These decisions and our view and understanding of our individual purpose inform and shape the narrative for our lives.

For example, if our goal is to make the most money possible, then our narrative might be well - "I had to work all those hours and miss time with my family to reach my goal." If our goal is to be present at all of our children's sports activities, then the narrative might be, "I was passed over for promotion because I put my family first."

If goals and values match, then the results can be explained, understood and can make sense.

Each day, each of us must trade one activity for another (no, you cannot have it all... at least not at the same time). Those decisions about which activities to put first reflect our values and ultimately shape the goals that we value most highly at any particular time.

One of the benefits of growing older is gaining a broader view of time and of how goals might change throughout our lives - even though the values that define them may be consistent.

For instance, valuing hard work and effort might take the form of a graduate degree in our early 20s, long hours at work during our late 20s and long hours taking care of children and older parents in our mid-40s. The values are consistent while the goals change over time.

As I reflect on Julie's life and on the great impact she had on those she touched, I'm left with the takeaway that, while words matter, they matter only when they are reflected and reinforced by our actions, only when our decisions and our values are consistent with what we say.

While Julie was eloquent in her speech, it was her works, her activities and her actions that have left an indelible legacy of peace and hope for her family and her friends.