What gives meaning to our lives? How do we live a meaningful life? These questions we often ask ourselves without really knowing where to find the answers – can meditating on a life well lived point us in the right direction?
Striving for a life worth living
As I am nearing the end of my life, I ask myself:
“What can I leave for the younger generation?”
“What has given my life meaning that I can share with a generation of young people in whose hands lies the future of the Earth?”
“How can I inspire our youth to seek to live a meaningful life?”
First, I would like to offer respect and trust. And, I would like to ask for forgiveness for what I haven’t done and for how I may have contributed, unknowingly or even knowingly, though inadvertently, to a part of the present destruction of our Mother Earth. Humanity’s fate is now in your hands. As I age, I begin to feel a little more frail and in comparison to your youth and strength, I feel weakened, so I need you to takeover, to shoulder the burden we are leaving you and take us all in a new direction that I cannot even imagine.
I still want to help, and I hope that you can listen to what I have learned. Please understand that I cannot give what I do not have and I cannot be what I am not. But I can teach with words, and I hope the example of my experience is what makes a difference. This is what I think may help you–to see a life well lived, caught in a moment of time, in one generation of humanity. Much may not be useful to you, but there is an unfolding of consciousness in what I have lived that may be helpful. And then you can learn by doing.
Sharing what is meaningful
I did not live a perfect life. I am a product of the society I live in, and I see with the perspective of my generation, the generation of baby boomers who boldly demanded change and hoped they were making a difference. We demanded a say, we looked toward human freedoms. Growing up with the threat of nuclear war, we demanded peace. Being brought up by authoritarianism, we demanded freedom to be ourselves. There have been some changes, and some of us are more free. But we ignored some bigger issues. We contributed to the destruction of the Earth and allowed the misuse of its resources to continue.
What is destroying the Earth is our greed. I have participated in a generation which preached ‘Free Love’, a free love that turned out to be for myself and those who matter to me. I did not see beyond what I wanted at that moment: to satisfy a passing desire, a false direction, and to be recognized.
Do you, have the courage to see what you must change, and then make the changes we have not? Can you assure a future for your children that we have not given you? I hope so, for I can see where we have failed, but now we are not in the position that you are in – a position of power, that maybe we never even had.
. . . this land is my land. . . this land is your land. . .
Living in the short sightedness of my generation did not prevent me from living a meaningful life. We all must live our lives starting with the circumstances we are born with, limited by the beliefs and expectations our culture taught us, and with our own human weaknesses. I know I can’t tell you what to do, as you know better than I do. However, I can share my experience and hope you will find meaning in my sharing.
A friend of mine shared with me what she heard from an elderly person living in a nursing home. He said in despair, “I burned all my chips.” What did that mean? I asked myself. It took many years for me to understand the analogy. Relating it to a card game, you need chips to play. As long as you have some chips to win or lose, you can remain in the game. But he felt he didn’t even use his chips; he burned or wasted them. He was approaching the end of his life, and he hadn’t played the game of life. Now the time had gone by, and he had nothing left to play with life.
I may not have understood the analogy when I first heard it, but I did understand the misery of getting to the end of life and not have lived it. My real question now is: Does living a meaningful life make a difference? It has made a difference to me, and I believe it makes a difference for humanity.
How to make a difference?
To help you, I need to admit my mistakes and shortcomings and let go of the control that I think I have. What we really need is to let go of our desire to personally prevail and to realize that we are all in this together. My happiness and future are connected with your happiness and future. We are in this together—all of us. If you can’t survive on Earth, nobody can. If some do not have a decent life, no one does.
Do you have the courage to develop an expanded love in ways that we haven’t?
What has my generation done? What have we offered you? We are working toward a definition of freedom that respects differences and includes diversity. When we were demanding Free Love, this did not necessarily include the Black, Gay, Differently Abled that it includes today. And it may still be in process, but the momentum is begun. Can you take this further to include the polarity of beliefs that separates us? If we all have the freedom of our opinions and lifestyle, let’s also make an effort to listen to each other to discover other points of view.
New Lessons from an Old Teacher
What I have learned from being an educator is that the way to teach is not to tell you what to do to fix it. Most probably you have a better way. I won’t tell you, that what you suggest won’t work, because my perspective is limited by my own life experience.
I remember witnessing a beautiful example of a mother teaching her 3-year-old. The young child wanted to use a black handled grippers to lift jars from the water. The child picked up the grippers from the yellow gripper end, using the black handles to pick up the jars. The mother patiently suggested she hold on to the black end and to experiment on which way worked better. Then she waited for the child to experiment on the different ways to use the tool. The child not only learned to use the grippers, she learned how to think, to solve problems, and to experiment with different solutions.
It inspired me to think more deeply about what I wanted to leave for the next generation. I went to my meditation and reflected on what I want to leave to the generations growing and coming into their power. My meditation revealed to me that I can leave a life well lived. I can live a life, although far from perfect (however you may define perfection) by learning from my mistakes. I used these painful experiences to see what I could have done better. Like the child using the handles to grip the jars, I could look at the dropped jar and not blame the tool or justify my ignorance. I could see what I did wrong and do it better from then on.
Continuing to learn even as I age
I am still working on how to love as much as possible. That means for me that I care about the wellbeing of others. It matters to me that there are people who are hungry, homeless and oppressed while I enjoy good food, an adequate home and freedom to make choices.
The most important choice I’ve made was what to do with my life. I searched and tried various ways, but I was unsure of what I was looking for and where I was going. After various failed attempts and a search that took me around the world, I went back to my hometown where it all began. I saw the usual answers that others had found: marriage, family, career. But nothing seemed to fit. What I wanted to do was feed the hungry, stop the wars, and be free. This seemed like an impossible endeavor. What could one person do to solve such big problems that were a part of humanity? Which direction would take me there. What meaning would I find to my life?
Opening up to find a meaningful life
I did find someone to point me in this direction. I learned that to make the changes I yearned for, I needed to change myself. The greed that caused hunger and wars, as well as climate change, was within me too. The aggression that caused wars and threatened lives, I had too. I had an idea of where I was going, but no certainty of what I would encounter along the way.
There were many surprises, times of trials and doubt, and seemingly getting lost. But I kept on going. I didn’t give up. I didn’t get “There”, because there was no “There” to get to. Eventually, I realized, it was just my life, made up of my own choices and mistakes, with ignorance and love. And still, I wanted my experience to be meaningful and to be an offering to help the needs of humanity.
Directions to finding a meaningful life
I think that discovering a direction to take your life and finding a way to do it, is a big challenge. Sometimes, it takes going off in the wrong direction and then being able to see that you are lost and having the courage to ask for help. Then, once you discover the direction you want to go, it takes commitment to what you have begun. It took a lot of energy and love to be more conscious of my individual place in the world and at the same time to know I am part of the whole. Understanding this mystery can be a lifetime endeavor.
The painful reality of it for me, was that there was no sign that said “This is your meaning. This is what you need to do.” I had to discover that every day. And, every day, in fact, every moment came with a new meaning to unfold. Each day, whether they were the hard days, boring days, or joyful and adventurous days had a meaning to be discovered and learned from.
How to have a meaningful life?
When I circumscribe my life to just myself, the meaning I give life is limited to this small perspective. When it’s all about me, the meaning is greatly reduced. Of course, I need to look after myself and to meet my responsibilities. But I am also a part of, and have responsibility for the greater whole. I realize that what I do or not do has an impact on others – I am not a separate, isolated piece, I am a part of the whole.
Every so often, I stop to keep in mind that I am working for the whole, not just myself. I have an outlook that goes beyond my own happiness. I am thinking of others, not just myself, and including them in my consciousness. A job well done goes to the greater good. When I make a mistake and I learn from it, it is for the learning of humanity. My experience is meaningful because it is for the greater good.
Are you ready to live a meaningful life?
What do you understand about finding meaning in serving the greater good? So many days have started with me focused on myself. What is going to happen? What can I do? Will I be all right? This is not a comfortable place to be. There is no immediate answer because what lies ahead is uncertain. There is no knowing ahead of time.
What helped me get out of these dark mornings was to think that this day was an opportunity for me to help someone. Just raising my thoughts a bit beyond myself, helped me see that the day was worth living. I wasn’t looking for an easy day, a happy day, and day of accomplishments. I was looking to help. It wasn’t about me. This can be a good place to start. It may seem counter intuitive when you are looking for meaning in your life, it would seem to imply that you are concerned about your own life, but when you meditate on the idea of looking for meaning, it seems that it puts your life in a different context, and that is where you can begin.
Going beyond my own limited life made that day meaningful. I was able to use my time, energy and resources to help someone else. I learned to expand my horizons.
What if no one notices? What if no one cares?
The effort when made to help someone else may be taken for granted. But when it is given freely, without expectation, it adds meaning and purpose. Think of the poppies that bloom on the hillside after a rain. The hills become a splash of color, and then they are gone. That does not make the life of each individual poppy meaningless. The poppies did what they were made to do. The potential within their seeds received the right conditions to grow and bloom, and they did. Going back to the card playing analogy, they played their chips!
Life can be hard. In fact, I have found that it is the hard parts that make it meaningful. It is my shortcomings and failures that are my greatest gift to humanity. They are a gift because I am working on them. I am working to make less greed in the world. Often, it is my suffering which makes me learn and connects me with others. Suffering can be my best teacher. It is the ingredient that adds to the grit, the flavor, the love. It contributes to making my life meaningful, because I don’t suffer alone. I am paying the consequences of my own greed and possessiveness, and I am learning the lesson.
I make my life meaningful by living it at the service of others.
When I offer my life to the service of others I am balancing the individual with the whole. I am not a lone separate individual; I am a unique individual who is a part of the greater whole. This makes my life meaningful.
I cannot tell you how to make your life meaningful. That is for each of us to discover on our own. We are the ones playing our “chips,” by engaging in the game of life.
What I can share is that engagement with life is what makes a difference, and what gives life meaning. I know that you can do what you need to do. I know that you can find the clarity and direction to do it with love.
About the Author(s)
Diana Autumn lives in a spiritual community in Southern California. She likes trees, walking and being with friends.