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Center for Enlightened Leadership

It depends on what the meaning of is, is?

  Dr. Paul. D. Houston
  Dr. Paul D. Houston
Founding Partner

Those immortal words uttered by a former president of the United States give rise to two thoughts. First, the issue of meaning is personal and can’t be viewed by anyone but the person looking for meaning. Second, everything just depends. One man’s “is” is another man’s “IS.”

Make that three thoughts: The third is that every one of us is on a series of journeys. Just as that particular president was in a deep valley when he uttered those words, trying with all his might to journey away from responsibility, we are all on many journeys through life. Some journeys are positive and some are flights away from trouble—our own personal version of “Chutes and Ladders.”

I recently commented to a friend that a lot of my own life’s journey has been from being a wise ass to trying to become a wise man. I must admit that journey continues; some days I am still more butt than brain. But I have gained a little wisdom about a few things, and one of those is that the issue of meaning or purpose appears much different to me than when I was a wise ass most of the time.

Let me explain. Most of us tend to visualize big vistas and towering edifices when we think about “purpose.” It starts at a young age, when we’re asked incessantly, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” The pressure created by that question is probably one reason so many of us try our best to avoid growing up. You notice that the questioners don’t ask, “What are you going to DO?” They ask, “What are you going to BE?” That issue of being is one of the BIG vistas regarding purpose. The other is that we often feel drawn to a big sense of purpose. So we come up with big answers: “I am going to make the world a better place. I am going to find a cure for cancer. I am going to be a pro athlete.”

As we get older, and our world view narrows, those kinds of grand dreams are often left on the heap of children’s clothes we used to wear. This is when we start to hit that existential wall. What are we going to be when we grow up—now that we are grown up? Panic hits us. Not much, it seems.

There is a song in the movie Crazy Heart that goes, “I used to be somebody, but now I’m somebody else.” I love that song because it captures perfectly the notion of life’s journey that I mentioned. We all used to be somebody until we became somebody else.

Within this context the search for meaning becomes less daunting. Meaning and purpose depend on who we are and where we are at any particular point in time. And the good news is that life is full of opportunity to create purpose and meaning—some of it BIG, but most of it little. So your purpose depends on what is happening at one point in time and where you “is” at that moment. Worrying about the meaning of “is” and what it is, is useless. It is what it is. Helping an old(er) lady across the street is giving meaning to life just as surely as seeking world peace.

Now let me take a little detour. Humans tend to think this search for meaning is what separates us from animals, that our need to have a purpose somehow makes us special. I recently ran across some research that found that when rats are given food, without any strings attached, but are given the option of getting food by doing something, they choose to do something—to have a purpose, as it were. There may be a reason why the rats keep winning the rat race—they have a sense of purpose too!

The bumper sticker that implores us to “think globally, but act locally” is spot on when we worry about world peace. Go ahead and worry about world peace or saving the planet. But start with the purpose of being a nicer, and a wiser, person. See, that childhood question that haunted us—“What are you going to BE when you grow up?”—really was the right question after all. In the world of purpose, being trumps doing every time. What do you choose to be? What is your meaning of “is”?

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