Sunday, April 6, 2008

Finding Meaning in Life

Last night, I had a powerful conversation with my friend, Olin, about life and how to find meaning in it.

It boiled down to the following two questions:

1. What is my mission in life?
2. What do I need in my life in order to complete #1 to the
best of my ability?

For example, if someone's mission in life is to help troubled children, then it doesn't matter where in the world one does that. However, if the goal is to help troubled children and you find yourself in an environment which doesn't provide what you need to best help those children, then you are doing everyone, including yourself, a grave disservice.

I offer this because I've been thinking lately about my life's mission and if my current work is in line with it. It's not. My mission, I've realized, is to help others become their best possible selves -- physically, emotionally, spiritually. I've tackled this mission through teaching, which was a step in the right direction but limiting because the job's confines don't allow me to work with the entirety of the person sitting within my classroom.

I've also learned that in order to best help others see their own gifts and talents, I need to be well rested, energized and live in a positive, intellectually/spiritually/emotionally nuturing environment. DC ain't that!

My current work does not touch either one of my life's goals, and it's time to change that before my environment changes me.

Olin pointed out that if a human being is going to thrive in the world, then he or she needs to find meaning in life. If you can't find meaning in your suffering, then it's just going to diminish and kill you. He also reminded me of the quote: "That which doesn't kill you only makes you stronger." And I giggled at his suggestion for an addendum "...but you have to find meaning in those hellish times."

This morning I finished watched a powerful documentary about the Iraq War entitled "No End in Sight". It was haunting and fascinating, and I was riveted by what I saw and heard. During the documentary, they interviewed a few soldiers about their experiences in Iraq. One interview stood out in particular because it so closely followed the theme of my conversation with Olin. Army Gunner Hugo Gonzalez stated that he hoped that the situation in Iraq improves so that one day he can look back on it and find meaning to his current suffering (loss of some vision, brain trauma, post traumatic migranes, memories, etc...).

I don't know from where this desire for meaning comes but it seems an universal one. Perhaps it's to give us each a sense of purpose for showing up on Earth. Perhaps it's because we want to know that we matter in this world...that our actions can and do affect others. I still don't have any answers.

Olin also asked me to consider if I can find meaning in my current work. If I can't, he wanted me to ask whether I really needed to be involved anymore. Powerful questions, and I know the answer.

So, the good news is that I've correctly identified the problem and can label the "what". The uncertainty now lies in the resolution of the problem...the "okay...what now?"

I'm tackling it one day at a time, confident that the resolution is close at hand. I know it involves a move away from here and probably to the Northwest, and my deepest desire is that it returns me to Missoula.


Jennifer said...

Hi Kelly,
Hooray on pinpointing the problem, thats good and something many people struggle with. Any community where you choose to live will be lucky to have you.
Hugs and Peace,

Patia said...

Hurry up and move back, wouldja?

Nacho Cordova said...

Oh, glad to find this post! Meaning of life, mission, etc. : ) I think we can have more than one. I also think we can find multiple ones, and at different times in our lives change approaches. : )

Meaning of life is what we make it, and our lives have meaning in themselves, but primarily in our giving it to them. Hence, we don't find it a priori, we have to live our lives for it to emerge.

"To help others become their best possible selves -- physically, emotionally, spiritually..." dovetails really well with being a teacher (whether as a professor or not). In my experience things are changing so much, I spend a lot of time with students in their performances, in their labs, in participating with them in demonstrations, in artistic, creative, spiritual events on campus, in fun at the coffeehouse, in the classroom, in my office with some of them in tears, and much more. It is rich in possibility to be of help, and quite often to just be present with them in their suffering.

Lately, my thinking has turned toward how a lot of what I do as professor is to be present with my students and colleagues, in those moments when they need another to be present. With my students it has become often to gently share with them how to be strong, compassionate, caring, and good people in the face of suffering (of themselves and others). This is in fact what my last talk of the semester will be. It is part of what I said to the audience that came to listen to my "last lecture" series speech last year.

I sense that deep compassion and caring all over your writing here Kelly. All the best,


Kelly said...


I'm *so* pleased to meet you, and I look forward to more conversations between us. One of the benefits of all this new fangled technology, methinks, is that kindred spirits (and non-kindred spirits!) get to encounter each other in ways that likely would not be possible otherwise.

I like what you say here about having several life missions. I know I do but I think the theme is the same. When we identify the theme then it becomes easier to expand from that centered place. Of course, the reverse is true, too. Sometimes is takes a whole lot of expansion to focus our energy and mission.

I hear what you're saying about your students. Oh, they are often so vulnerable and desperate for someone to hear them, see them and validate them. I think this is where an empathetic teacher, like you, can make the difference. Often, students simply need someone to sit with them and witness their lives -- whether intellectually or emotionally. I also think that when students can open to a teacher in this way, it is a sign of recognition and trust.

So, while I don't know you, I'm betting that you are a very good professor who is well respected by his students.