Life of Meaning
“...the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”
Viktor Frankl (Man's Search for Meaning)
I have pondered my Aunt Lane's life over the past weeks. When I left her on Sunday, she was the most peaceful dying person I have ever seen, and, let me tell you, I have a broad basis for comparison. There she lay, on her side, fist tucked under chin, seeming sound asleep, with a half-smile on her face. My immediate thought was, I want to die like that—at peace, knowing I have done what I could, and ready to see what comes next. If the deaths of all my family members have taught me one thing, it is that people die the way they have lived.
When I returned home to Alabama, I had emails from two friends; one who had done ritual for a friend who is choosing to die today due to debilitating, incurable disease, and one who sent an article from The Atlantic about the difference between a “happy” life and a “meaningful” life. I love the serendipitous ways that people appear when you need them. I also had a letter in snail mail from my friend, Cedric, who has just begun graduate school, an exciting new chapter in his young life that includes teaching in a prison. All of these together simply warmed my heart.
The article in The Atlantic, by Emily Esfahani Smith, was published January 9, 2013, and titled, “There's More to Life Than Being Happy.” It is based on the work of Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist who survived the Nazi death camps, and wrote the classic book, Man's Search for Meaning. Also, on the findings of researchers, Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Akers, and Emily Barbinsky who published their results in the Journal of Psychology. They found that there is quite a difference between leading a happy life, and leading a meaningful life. Being happy, it seems, is based on getting one's own needs met, while finding meaning, is based on being able to help others get their needs met. In other words, finding a useful purpose to which to devote one's life. Frankl suggested moving from the attitude that life owes me something and I will be happy only when I get it, to “realizing that life is still expecting something of [me],” and I will find depth of meaning in fulfilling that responsibility. He said, “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” Happiness, like all emotions, is fleeting, while meaningfulness endures.
I think my Aunt Lane led a meaningful life. I remember when she more or less ran a cottage industry making baby blankets for the multitude of grands and great-grands that her prodigious family produced—four children, nine grandchildren, twelve great-grandchildren, and more on the way. She didn't have two cents to rub together, but somehow or other, she turned out those beautiful works of art for her babies. She “spent” her life, rather than saving it. Her reward seems to be deep peace at the end. Peace that passes understanding. I want that. Don't you?
In the Spirit,