Enlightening The World
Founding Partners
Faculty & Associates
Workshops & Institutes
Executive Coaching
Client Comments
Web Links
The Event Horizon: Essays On Our Spiritual Journey
Empowerment Stories
Networking Groups
Paul Houston's Blog: Political pH
Contact Us
Center for Enlightened Leadership

Search for Meaning

  Christa Metzger
  Christa Metzger
Guest Contributor

       What gives life meaning? I believe that meaning is derived from a purpose that is based on values expressed in some way—possibly as a mission, vision, or goals.

Values → Mission/Vision → Purpose → Meaning

As children begin to mature, they move beyond a desire to please the adults in their lives and begin their own search for values and meanings. And as young people become adults, their mission becomes building a career, finding a partner, forming a family, and establishing friendships. As adults, we find purpose in being actively engaged with whatever is important to us (our values), such as helping others, being a good spouse and parent, making money, being successful, and acquiring whatever we feel we need for a happy life.

What happens, then, when we feel that our life has lost its meaning? Why are millions suffering from depression and escaping their lives through drugs or alcohol, or giving up altogether and committing suicide? I believe that loss of meaning often results from having identified too strongly with a particular purpose or a role—our career, our status, power, wealth, a place, a person dear to us, or even a state of mind, such as our striving for success. In fact, true meaning may lie elsewhere—in a deeper purpose.

Several years ago I interviewed 39 superintendents who had been fired or forced to resign from their positions, most often resulting from turnover on their school boards (“Involuntary Turnover of Superintendents,” Thrust for Educational Leadership, January 1997). Many of them experienced depression, and all reported a loss of meaning in their lives. They had made it to the top of their profession and then were deprived of what had become their identity.

I believe that, in this life, we are meant to learn that true meaning does not come from external situations, people, or events—even those that spring from laudable purposes based on worthy values. How might we find a deeper meaning that survives the inevitable changes in our circumstances, the disillusionment of unmet expectations and unfulfilled purposes?

The Benedictine monk Willigis Jaeger states in his book, Search for the Meaning of Life (1995), that “the quest for the meaning of life…isn’t a search at all. Rather the Divine is unfolding in us and through us.” He describes this process of unfolding as an essentially mystical experience.

Here are two other quotes on which I have often reflected. At first glance, they seem to contradict each other, but do they truly? One is from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “If a man has a why for his life, he can bear almost any how.” The other quote, by a 17th-century poet, Angelus Silesius: “The rose is without a Why, she blooms because she blooms…” Perhaps the “why” for our actions is so deep within us that we can spend a lifetime uncovering it.

In his landmark bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl tells how he survived his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. He found himself in an “existential vacuum,” facing the ultimate loss—his own death. He created meaning by focusing on little things in his environment: the rhythm of daily routines, a sunrise through the prison bars, the sound of a violin in the distance, the tree outside his cell (he called that tree “his only friend”). He became more conscious of his own inner values and spent time imagining himself in a better time and place (with his wife, for instance). He became an observer, a witness, asking about the meaning of his own suffering—and that of those around him. He was intrigued by how some individuals were able to face suffering with dignity and grace.

When I moved from a very busy and productive professional life into retirement, I faced the task of creating new meaning. I had observed colleagues and friends who had experienced great difficulty with this transition, so I prepared myself by learning meditation and yoga, delving into spiritual books, and developing my hobbies of painting and playing musical instruments.

And yet…there are still mornings when I wake up to an empty day with no important projects or deadlines and wonder about the “why” of my life. What “should” I be doing now—to contribute to society, to help to solve the world’s problems?

Here is what works for me at such times. First, I acknowledge my melancholy and face the reality that something that was so precious to me—my active life—is now behind me. I may sit in my meditation corner and cry a little. The objects on my shelf in that area represent persons I hold dear in my life and who care about me. I find their place in my heart. I become silent and look inside myself. What are my deepest values now? Is my purpose now to learn to be rather than to do, to get to know who I really am—without all the external busy-ness? To find my “why,” I know that I need to be more united with the divine spirit within me. Often I walk outside under the trees, listen to the wind and the songs of the birds, and sit near the waves on our river. The antics of squirrels trying to get at the bird feeders re-awaken my sense of humor, and I laugh.

Discovering the meaning of our life and of the situations in our lives is a journey of intensification of our inner life. When we have experienced loss and have practiced separation from external identities, we learn to trust that our life has meaning just because it is, and just because we exist.

Center for Empowered Leadership ®
Email: info@cfel.org
Phone: 1.609.259.7911