In two years of working with individuals and organizations, we have seen that there is nothing more important to people than meaning. We are driven by a desire for purpose. We want to be significant, or at least participate in something significant.
Each of us is searching for fulfillment. We want a life that satisfies. One that does not feel so empty or passionless, where we are going through the motions, stuck in ruts, and trapped in cycles of apathy.
Our tools promise a fulfilled life, a Transcendent Life, through intentional living and self-awareness. But the question has hit me recently: is this even possible? Is true fulfillment really achievable or is it an illusion? Too good to be true. The answers might surprise you.
The answer, in essence, is no. Or, at least, not in the way we think. As I have been working on a book about all of this, I’ve also been writing a commentary on the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. It is interesting to hold the two up next to each other.
Ecclesiastes basic thesis is that we cannot achieve meaning. We don’t know what is going on. We are cursed with a compulsion to make sense of everything but we just can’t.
When we think about fulfillment, what we are really wanting is a cure from life’s imperfect circumstances and our imperfect character. We want to skip over the pit of despair. A way to avoid suffering. We want to feel better and to do so all of the time. We want to rid ourselves of the deep angst and nagging annoyances of life on Earth.
But we can’t. There will always be a sensation of dissatisfaction in life. The Christian perspective says the reason for this is our hearts are longing for eternity while we are stuck in this temporal existence. Even if you don’t hold to that teaching, the fact is that nothing in life will ever truly satisfy us. The compulsion to know and understand everything will elude us for as long as we live.
But, Also, Yes!
The cure for this (and the reason our tools are not a hoax) is a redefinition of fulfillment. Or, better said, a proper perspective surrounding it.
We will never be exempt from the reality of The Mood Curve. In that way, we will have to wrestle with why we are eternally dissatisfied and lacking in the complete and constant joy we long for.
Fulfillment on this earth is not about avoiding all the ills of life. It is about traversing them properly. Sometimes circumstances won’t make sense to us. Full self-awareness will elude us, let alone a full awareness of the whys around everything happening in life. But how we approach these realities, react to our circumstances, and treat our emotions will bring a shading of purpose otherwise unavailable to us.
Here is the real kicker. This is actually better than our superficial ideas of satisfaction. Our desire to trust in something bigger than us is actually bigger and deeper than our compulsion to control and understand. We want to avoid pain in life, but pain is a valuable teacher and a developer of character. Where would you be without the hard lessons of life? Would you be able to care for the people in your life the same if you hadn’t experienced some tough times with them?
This is the message of Ecclesiastes. Despite popular sentiment, it is not about meaninglessness. It is about meaning in context. The word often translated as “meaningless” actually means “vapor”. We reach for it, but cannot grab it fully.
This is the nature of purpose in our lives. We can set a vision that allows us to participate in purpose. It allows us to be filled to human capacity, transcendent of circumstance and setting. It doesn’t “fulfill” us by solving all of life’s woes. It fulfills us by equipping us to handle life’s woes with a fuller idea of their value, the realities of the pangs of character growth, and the complexities of truth.
Fulfillment is available. It just isn’t complete. And it doesn’t look the way our superficial minds imagine it should.