I received a lot of interest in my last post on “How Hedonism Harms Us.” The point was that a happy, selfish life actually does us harm, physically. Contrariwise, a meaningful life of self-giving brings us health, though it doesn’t always make us happy, at least in the short term.
So it made me think: What is a meaningful life?
- Mistakes matter. I’m nowhere near a perfect person and I’ve never claimed to be. In fact, I rather like my mistakes and my faults. This is weird to say but it’s true. You learn a lot from the mistakes you make and most of all you learn you’re not perfect and it’s okay. God forgives and so should you, both yourself and others.
- Delay gratification. This is a virtue that used to be taken for granted. It’s the simple idea that you have to give stuff up in the short term because you need to do the preparatory work to succeed in the long term. When was the last time you heard somebody talk about delayed gratification? As an academic, who struggled to get his job and was just named a full professor, I feel like my middle name is delayed gratification. This means the delay is real, but the gratification is very real as well, a job well done, a position well deserved.
- Be faithful to your primary relationships. My partner, thank God, said yes to me when I asked her to marry me. I have remained faithful and true to her and our family and our two girls. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling set of loving relationships. They are my rock, my joy and the people for whom I will sacrifice my life. Has it been easy? No, it hasn’t, but it has paid off in deep joy.
- Build friendships. I have been very lucky in friendship and I am intentional about those with whom I choose to be friends. I nurture those friendships; I find enormous joy in my friends; I am vulnerable with my friends; I learn from my friends; I support my friends, and my life is richly blessed by these friendships. I feel bad for the many men I know who don’t have good friendships. I know that they are missing something that is precious in life.
- Teenagers are terrific. Too many parents say to me, “Well, when our kids get to be teenagers, it’s all over.” I feel the opposite. I thought my kids were and are far more interesting as teens than as children. And they need and have needed us a lot more. Parents should pay a lot more attention to their children as teenagers; this is the most critical time in life. And when you have a good relationship with your teens it is deeply satisfying.
- Do service using your gifts. I help out with our youth ministry. I think this is one of the most satisfying things that I do. They are not easy to relate to, but when it happens, when you feel that they are getting what faith is, and are beginning to care about God, themselves, each other and the world, there is nothing that is more satisfying.
- Become an elder. No person has taught me more about this than Richard Rohr. Rohr is a Franciscan monk who is on the outs with his church, just the kind of priest for me! His recent book, Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life is beautiful, profound, and nearly every sentence is spot on. Our culture more than ever needs people of wisdom, who, as Rohr shares, embody a “bright sadness.” They know suffering but they also have lived through it, and feel the divine joy of love that moves through suffering with and for others.
- Practice your faith. Recently I was leading our youth group mission. We helped to rebuild an old coal town left to rot in West Virginia. I led a communion at the end of the week with our adults and youth, and during that experience of shared love, grief, sin, joy and the passing of the peace, I thought, “This is the Kingdom of God.” It was not some happy-clappy, positive self-help kind, but a deep experience of being loved, forgiven and reconciled with each other and God. We experienced “new life” in that coal town and in the adults and youth in our group.
- Enjoy paradox. Life is full of these “problems.” I used to think you could solve these contradictions: liberty and law, freedom and discipline, toughness and tenderness, letter and spirit, boldness and gentleness, mourning and laughter, judgment and grace—we always want one side or the other but it’s always both. Jesus said, “Those who lose their life, will find their life.” Add that paradox to the manual of how to live a meaningful life.
- Breathe beauty. The other day I was in my garden pruning and watering, but mostly just feeling the lushness of it all, and in a moment a hummingbird hovered near me, two feet from my face. She paused and opened what seemed to be her neck, which became red, and she did a little dance, and I felt alive and at peace.
Okay, so that’s what meaning means to me. It’s really more an experience than a product, more a moment than something that can be purchased, more a presence than a calculation—whatever it is, I do love it.