What is the meaning of life? Have you ever been asked that question, or perhaps asked it yourself? My current answer for that question is that there is no meaning assigned to life in general by some cosmic overseer; it is up to the person living an individual life to bring meaning to it. Some find purpose in their religious faiths, believing that God has a purpose for them, for all of humankind, and for the universe. We as Spiritual Naturalists do not subscribe to the belief that there is a supernatural entity that takes an interest in us, or has some comprehensive purpose for us. That does not mean our lives are purposeless.
Lives can be wasted. Lives can be spent doing nothing but pursuing sensory pleasures and indulging vices. That’s one philosophy, though one I doubt any reader of this article regularly practices. I do see it practiced, though. It’s all around me. I can only shake my head in pity for those who, as adults, seem to only live for the weekend and its associated, stereotypical indulgences; these might include eating too much unhealthy food, drinking too much, watching an excess of television, staying up way too late, getting up way too late—the list goes on. Those vary from person to person, and to be fair, everyone may occasionally slip in one or more of these areas. There’s something out there for everyone; it’s a free country, as they say. The problem comes when the pursuit of those behaviors becomes one’s over-riding purpose, when everything between indulgence of the vices is but a boring nightmare to be endured or to fund the vices of the future.
But I’m just having fun, they say. Don’t you ever have fun? Sure. The key is in finding a way to make your fun and your life’s purpose one and the same. A Gallup poll from 2017 demonstrated that 85% of Americans hate their jobs. That would suggest that their jobs aren’t “fun” for them; the thing that they spend most of their time doing is something they hate. Therefore, one can conclude that their “fun” comes at times when they are not engaged in their “work” and is totally unrelated to it. I would be willing to wager that a list of activities that those people from the poll see as fun are actually just temporary distractions from the “job hate” that consumes most of the hours in their days. The “fun” never lasts; it’s an overlay. They always know they will be going back to what they hate doing before long, either by the end of the short weekend or the end of the longed-for vacation. That reality nags at them, perhaps even tainting the “fun” activity while it is happening. Where’s the fun in that?
It’s a matter of perspective; we need to be able to see a purpose in our lives and the work we do in them. Without that purpose, we will feel unfulfilled and miserable. I will use my own profession to try to illustrate the point. I am a public high school teacher. Now, it is easy to imagine why someone would hate this line of work—particularly if one doesn’t like kids. If you don’t like working with kids, many of whom don’t necessarily want to be working with you, then stay away from this profession. It isn’t for you. You will hate it for sure. Even if you enjoy working with kids, there are things about this work that can push your patience to its limits.
My subject area, English literature and composition, is very mentally intensive, involving considerable amounts of reading and evaluation of student work. I don’t give assessments that machines can score—everything is written or orally performed in my classroom, as those are the lifelong skill sets the students need more than test taking. Yes, I too need some mental down time to recharge and get ready to come back and tackle another day, week, or year. However, I never once feel as though I “hate” the work itself, taxing though it is. I know it is making a difference. Maybe not for all of the young people I work with—we can’t reach all of them no matter how hard we work (though we never stop trying). I feel a sense of purpose in the work I do.
When I hear back from a former student five or ten years later, and he or she tells me that something I did make a difference for them or helped them in their future, then that sense of having a meaningful purpose is affirmed. As long as even one student is positively impacted during the course of a year, then I will never long for the day, week, or year to end. The more time I have to do that job that provides for me a sense of purpose, the more happy and fulfilled I will be. Being away from it (such as during the interminably long summer) makes me feel frustrated and directionless. I can see having a one-month summer (one week to close the school year down, one to relax in my own way, one to mentally prep for the upcoming year, and one to get the room physically ready to roll) as a reasonable interval between school years. But two months? People, please. We have work to do, lives to impact—differences to make. Retirement? It is a ways off yet, but I am not particularly looking forward to it. I’ll do this work as long as I feel I am effective at it, I am still making a difference, and my mind and body can do it.
That’s just me. How about you? Do you number among those who hate their work? If not, then I congratulate you for finding (or forging) the path that brings you fulfillment, a sense of purpose, and genuine happiness. If so, then what could you do today to bring a greater sense of purpose to the life you now have? You have no doubt heard the phrase “Those who love what they do never work a day in their life.” Well, I can agree with the spirit of that statement, but it implies that work is a thing not to love. Meaningful work, however, is something in which we can take pride. What pride is to be found in doing nothing meaningful all day? That’s where boredom comes from. I don’t think we have an excuse to be bored. There is just so much that needs doing, either through the work we do or through volunteering our time to help someone or better some aspect of our communities or world. We want to be able to go to bed each night knowing that the day preceding it was a day well spent, and we did something that day to make things a little better.
But Jeff, some may say, it isn’t that simple. I can’t afford to chase a dream or find some like of work that will make me happier. I am trained to do one thing, and it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I can’t afford to just quit my job and go back to school now. It is too late for me to change course at this point. I just don’t know what else I can do. I get it, and yes, that sounds really scary. I have had darker times over my 26 year career in education where I wondered if I was cut out for the work I do, particularly in the first couple of years. I stuck to it though, having seen how good it could be, and knowing that I would hone my craft and get better at it. I had worked too hard to get where I was, and a difficult year was not going to get me to turn my back on the profession I had worked so hard to join. None of us know how to do a job we have never done before. It takes training and experience to start to feel competent and doing anything. I also just couldn’t think of any other field that interested me or matched my skill sets and aptitudes. That doesn’t mean they aren’t out there, I have just never seriously entertained looking for them because I found the joy in what I do—it just took some time. Several never find it, but they do find a way to change course. I know several people who have completely changed career fields in the middle of their lives, and I am sure that none of them would say it was easy for them. They have their own reasons for doing it, and finding a sense of purpose could well have factored into that decision, along with a myriad of other personal reasons for the change. Ask yourself this if you say that you can’t afford to make a major change: can you afford not to?
None of us is going to live forever. I am acutely aware of the passing of time, and that I am not getting younger. I am only 50 years old, but many of those I went to high school with are no longer alive. My wife’s brother, who is in his early sixties, just had a stroke, and his life and the lives of his family members have just changed forever. That came out of nowhere. None of us knows when one of life’s unexpected curve balls will come our way and bring massive change to the status quo, no matter how well we think we have planned our futures out. We do not want to be left with regrets, with our minds filled with “if only” statements; “If only I had chased that dream when I had the chance…” “If only I had taken advantage of that opportunity and not been afraid to act…” We can choose to control the path of change, chart the path of that change…or something outside of our control can make the change for us. It might anyway, despite our best laid plans. The key is to live our lives in such a way as when the unexpected changes come, we can at least say “Well, I have no regrets.”
Military service members are trained to face situations that could result in injury or death. They race into those situations with courage and fortitude, determined to trust their training, their fellow soldiers, and accomplish the mission. They all know that they may not come home from a mission, or that they could come home irrevocably changed. Perhaps they will come home blind, or missing one or more limbs. Perhaps they will be paralyzed. They actually chose a life where any one or a combination of those outcomes is a very real possibility on an ongoing basis. They no doubt feel fear, but they are trained to control it, to focus it, and to not let it interfere with success of the mission. Their brothers and sisters beside them are counting on them to have their backs. They don’t want to let others down.
I shake my head in awe to read and listen to the stories of those who come home from such missions with undesirable and permanent changes having been thrust upon their lives. Many see their careers in the military over for good. So what do you do if you are blind or paralyzed or your legs and arms are gone, and you are only 24 years old? You find a new mission. I have never once heard a service member facing such circumstances complain about them. Instead, I have seen them change course, regroup, and find a new means of fulfillment, a new purpose that will restore meaning to their lives. They could have died, but they didn’t. They still have something to offer, as do all of us. How can we look to such people who sacrifice so much and sit back feeling bored or that we have no purpose when we have full command of whole bodies and minds? That is embarrassing.
We all have something to offer the world, and it is our responsibility to find out what that is and work to hone the skill sets we have to maximize our impact. Don’t wait. Don’t make excuses. Read the stories and listen to the motivational speeches of those who have faced what seems like unendurable hardships only to overcome them and make a difference in the end. Let those stories inspire you to find your own best purpose. It won’t be easy; nothing worth doing ever is…but easy is boring. Our time has a limit set to it. Will you choose to constantly indulge your vices, all the while being nagged in the back of your mind by your better self, saying “What are you doing? Why are you wasting this time? There is good work out there that needs doing!”
School starts again in three weeks—and I could not be more ready. There is so much in my school environment that is great, and so much that can be improved. This year will mark the completion of a four year long construction project that will grace us with a brand new school facility—the perfect time for a reboot, a fresh start, a new beginning. My purpose is to help create and sustain the environment necessary for students to learn and succeed. That is my mission. That is what brings be fulfillment and joy. It’s difficult work—and that’s what makes it worth doing.
Look to your own work now, that which you spend the majority of your time doing. Where is the purpose in it? Are you fulfilled? Do you feel your work has meaning? If so, keep doing it! If not, can purpose be brought to it? Is there a new way to approach the work or see it that will reveal a purpose in it you have not yet seen? If the answer to these questions is no, and you have already tried everything you can think of, then perhaps it is time to take a risk—to go back to school, to re-calibrate, to find a new direction that allows you to employ your skill sets in ways that helps others and helps yourself, giving you purpose at last. Don’t wait—you can’t afford to. We have but one brief, little life. Make the most of yours while you’re still living it.