by Pari

So here’s a little question for a day off of work:

If you could do anything to bring more meaning to your life, what would it be?

I know, I know, that’s pretty heavy for a Monday. But it is a national holiday and we are honoring Dr. Martin Luther King who certainly did many meaningful things in his life.

Last week at work, we hosted William S. Breitbart, MD, from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in NY. Dr. Breitbart — who is board certified in internal medicine, psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine  — has spent much of his career working to ease the emotional  fallout facing terminally ill cancer patients and their families . During his decades of research and clinical experience, he has developed short-term meaning-centered psychotherapies based on Viktor Frankl’s theories first outlined in Man’s Search for Meaning.

It’s no wonder I spent a lot of last week thinking about my life, its meaning, and how I could live more fully. Because, as Dr. Breitbart pointed out many times, though we may not want to face it and may not know when and how we’ll die  . . . we will indeed die.

Dr. Breitbart describes facing death as facing a wall. We can’t stare at that wall all the time. So we turn around and see where we’ve been. Unless we’ve got a terminal diagnosis, most of us don’t spend a lot of time sitting with that introspection because we’re so darn busy looking to where we’re going — to work, to dinner, to the store . . .

But when we do stop to look, meaning can be found in many places: relationships, the natural world, spirituality/faith . . . art.

As I writer, I know I find meaning in telling stories that are important to me, in figuring out how to express thoughts and ideas that matter in my world. I’ve kept the fiction to myself during the last couple of years, but the nonfiction also matters a great deal. I delight in your responses here at the ‘Rati. I also hear from others about the articles — even the press releases — that I write and how they matter.

I like that as much as I like the process of writing for myself.

In addition to the pleasure of meeting people who’ve enjoyed my writing, I’ve also known the incredible honor of hearing that my books brought laughter to at least two people in their last days of life. I can’t begin to express how profoundly that truth has affected me, how much I cherish knowing that something I’ve done delivered those moments to others as they faced the Wall.

I’m not sure where this post is going . . . it’s probably just the beginning of a process of examining what I want to do with my writing now, how I want to delight in its meaning for myself and to experience more of the ineffable pleasure of knowing it has meaning for others.

Today, on this holiday, I have no conclusions about any of this . . . just a desire to bring up the subject and discuss it with anyone who wants to participate.

Look at that question at the beginning of this post and, if you’re willing, let me know what ideas it sparks for you.



21 thoughts on “Meaning

  1. David Corbett

    A perfect question on a day honoring Dr. King, Pari. What is my dream? What do I see when I climb the mountaintop.

    When I was a busboy in my 20s, I worked with a Pakistani named Mahkmoor, and he had a running gag. Every time he saw me or any other busboy, he would smile mischievously and say, "Very good job. If you could, though, please — just a little bit faster."

    What could give more meaning to my life? This, what I have, just a little more.

    I love my life, really, despite the anxiety and terrible losses, the broken hearts, the loneliness, the fear. But I've come to a place where I feel I'm doing a reasonably good job with my life and my art. But I can do a little more — engage with others and my city more, listen a little bit more attentively, reach out to others a bit more, concentrate more fully, eliminate the distractions, focus. Clear away the clutter.

    I want to live more truly by the three virtues I consider key to my happiness. In any given situation, I ask myself: What is the loving thing to do. What is the honest thing? What is the brave thing? Do it. I hope to live more fully committed to that ethos.

    I saw the film Melancholia last night, and it deals with the end of the world or clinical depression, take your pick. What it forces you to address, either way, is death, and our helplessness before it. it's still haunting me this morning. And all I can think to tell myself in the face of what I'm feeling is: Be honest. Be kind. Be brave.

  2. Pari Noskin

    Those three principles, three ways of living each breath, distill so much about you and what I know of you. I think to be able to verbalize this is a remarkable gift and I honored you shared it.

    There's a mantra quality to them. One I can hold on to too.

    Thank you.

  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I would spend more quality time with animals.
    It's one of the few things I can imagine that would give me a sense of peace.
    My very first job, when I was thirteen, was working with Arabian horses. Brushing and cleaning them and preparing them for auction. Whenever life gets me down, I threaten to go back and do that again, and live in some hut without electricity or something. I've also threatened to run off to work at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the Marine Animal Rescue, the Los Angeles Zoo, Sea World, or one of those gorilla rehab centers in Uganda. I've even considered joining the Sea Shepherds.
    I think there would be a hole in my life if I didn't find a way to do one of these things before the final curtain.

  4. Pari Noskin

    I wonder if it has to be all or nothing . . . or if you could build in a little of that now? I don't know how it works for you, but I'm trying to look at things I can do more often in order to feel that meaning in the here and now.

    Thank you for sharing this today . . .

  5. Fran

    I've come to appreciate family, and I'd like to spend more time with mine. Okay, be honest here, with SOME of mine. Not all. But for me, that's a start.

    I'd like to be in a place to rescue animals too. We can't where we are now, but that's something we're working on. It resonates with something inside me, and someday, someday. If I could find a way to tie in rescue animals as service animals for a domestic violence shelter, I think I'd be content. I plan to try, anyway.

  6. Sarah W

    I'm taking the day off (my library doesn't close for the holiday) to spend the day with my older daughter, who is also off (her little sister has an all-day play date).

    We had breakfast out, ran some errands, and then crawled all over the craft store (second only to the office supply store in our hearts) escaping with only one big bagful of stuff, had lunch at the restaurant of her choice ("McDonald's? Seriously? C'mon, kid.") and now she's graciously allowing me to check my e-mail before we fire up the SchoolHouse Rocks! DVD (also her choice, but with no accompanying parental whine) and start gluing pompoms, sequins, and other objects together to make 'stuffed animals' for her dolls.

    I need to do this one-on-one-Mommy-kid-day thing more often — and not just for the kids' sake. I'm away or turned inward so often . . . But this is the meaningful stuff right here, because we're together.

    Oops, she's back. And tapping her foot. Hope this made sense.

  7. Barbie

    I've tried to do things to make my life more meaningful — or, not as meaningless and worthless — but, as the loser I am, I failed. I'm at the point where I just believe there's nothing for me, really. I used to have this childish belief that I was going to be great and do wonderful things. Now, I just hope I don't screw up too much before I die and that the misery ends soon.

    Funny how things change, huh?

    Sounds morbid, I know. I have moods like these 🙂

  8. lil Gluckstern

    To me, the meaning of life is to live as much as possible in the moment, and to enjoy the heck out of it. Sarah, this day is a treasure to be held and remembered. To plan, yes, to be productive yes, and to follow David's mantra-be honest, be kind, be brave-and to keep your own counsel. Life is a dance and we can't always live by our beliefs. My thoughts anyway.

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari
    What a wonderful and thought-provoking post. To answer your original question – what would I do to bring more meaning to my life?

    At the moment I’m striving for contentment. I want to need less, so I have more.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t still have goals and ambitions, but appreciating where I am now – being happy in my own skin – would be a good step on the road to contentment. I have no desire to reach that Wall, look back and wonder what was that all about?

  10. Pari Noskin

    That makes perfect sense and is exactly what I was thinking of with meaning — here you're nurturing your relationship with your child. What could possibly be more satisfying in life than that?

    I do know those moods. One of the reasons I started deliberately practicing gratitude daily was to counteract all the internal self-bashing I did. I started small, just looking for one good thing in the world outside of my own head . . . and my gratitude grew from there.

    How beautiful is that? I love what you have to say. No we can't always live by our beliefs, but remembering the dance can be tremendously meaningful in itself.

  11. Pari Noskin

    Oh, yes.
    I think the acquisition of things loses its charms for many of us. It's the quality of our lives, of the in-out breaths of treasured moments, that matter in the end.

    May none of us have to face that wall too closely too soon.

  12. John Shannon

    What a terrifying question. The wall. But if the universe is expanding, what's BEYOND the edge of the universe? Extinction. Non-existence. Death of all energy? No, death of my thoughts.

    Old Joke: Partial annihilation of the Jews: when they kill everyone but me.
    Total annihilation of the Jews: when they kill me.

    I used to ignore the question because I knew that I had a private deal to go on forever, but no more. Too many friends going abruptly.

    I saw Pina last night, the Wim Wenders pic about Pina Bausch, and it was like somebody reaching down into my unconscious and stirring all the fears and awkwardness and life and death questions. My wife was unexpectedly weeping. I was just struck dumb.

    I'd like to say something about living intensely in the moment, but for me I'm sorry that would be rubbish. I'm too lazy, too given to denial, to cutting a few corners on life. Sorry, my brain hurts. More important, I've spent a lifetime writing about what it means to have experienced in your core being a movement of like souls fighting for a better world and then have the ground taken away, believing that it's necessarily a collective question and there is no individual answer and you now have no possibility (for our lifetime anyway) of touching this sense of right and passion again. Alas. The human condition, I guess.

  13. Susan Shea

    The first thing that comes to mind isn't possible: Have my sweetheart back. He made life colorful, exciting, adventurous. He kept me off balance in a nice way, if that makes sense. Since he died almost 4 years ago, the way I have to approach it is, how will I keep that meaning and joy in my life? I count on smart, funny friends and young grandkids, travel, and the pleasures of this writing career. The second immediate thought is to use time better to write the books I still want to write, and to work energetically and imaginatively to get them out into the world. Getting complacent, insulated, and sedentary is Enemy #1!

    P.S. Saw Melancholia a few weeks ago – I loved it. If the world has to end, what a gorgeous, thrilling end !

  14. Pari Noskin

    There's a lot to respond to in that comment of yours. Holy cow.
    One thing that Dr. Breitbart spoke about was the usefulness of denial, how it can help us function in the face of things that may terrify us. I think that's very true as is the fact that no one can face the wall or introspection all the time; it's too taxing. What we can do is life in meaning, whatever that meaning is for us.

    I don't know if I'll see Pina. It sounds almost too moving for me right now. I've lost some friends unexpectedly during the last month or so, and if it weren't for Dr. Breitbart's visit, I might've gone on very happily in denial a bit longer.

    That Enemy #1 is a doozy. Wow. I think I'll hold on to that thought for a long time. Complacent/Insulated/Sedentary — fie on you all!

  15. KDJames

    Well, I did have to work today, so I'm not sure my brain is up for this. But for me, lately, it's not about finding "more" meaning so much as changing the meaning to something more satisfying. To stop being afraid to make changes or take risks. To live without regret.

    It is incredibly difficult to accomplish. To do something or say something, not knowing how it will be preceived by others whose opinion you value. Or fearing it will turn out their opinion wasn't as valuable as you had thought. It's a huge risk, being yourself without regrets. But it is also immensely rewarding.

    As for what my life might mean to others? Meh. I'm content to leave that up to them. We each decide for ourselves what is valuable or meaningful. Nothing I can do to change that.

    As for death, I love this piece I read a while back titled: I want a physicist to speak at my funeral

    I don't mean to offend those of you with different beliefs, but this pretty much sums it up for me. I particularly love this concluding sentiment: "…not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly."

  16. Susan Shea

    KD – I love that piece – thanks for the link. It's exactly what I believe. The laws of thermodynamics are immensely comforting and satisfying, actually, when applied to a loved one's death.

  17. KDJames

    Susan, you're welcome. I sent the link to my (adult) children. So far, they're ignoring it. One day, one distant day, I hope they will remember it and find comfort.

  18. MJ

    Good post, good question. Egads, I've been overtaken by Enemy #1. I'm bored and complacent in a "nice" job where I help businesses save money. Yes, I'm sure this trickles down and helps employees, or something, maybe a vendor is getting paid on time. but I don't feel meaning in nagging people to settle tax disputes. So, as I've crossed the 40 barrier and now find people around me dying in various ways (several brain tumors, plane crash, car crash, a few lawyer suicides, massive heart attack etc) I'm being constantly reminded – The Wall is waiting. What will I do with each day until I meet it? Change is hard….

  19. Pari Noskin

    KD, Susan and MJ,
    Am home sick today but was so pleased to see your comments. Thank you all for continuing the conversation!

    I'm going to that link right now.

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