Finding Personal Meaning and Purpose
Who Am I?
A series of articles about meaning
Copyright © 1997, 2001 Dorian Scott Cole
Downbeat: Life is what happens while you are making other plans. Want to make God laugh? Make a plan.
What do we find personally meaningful? My presentation of personal meaning in a seminar was delayed by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. I wondered at that time if that event would overshadow the desire for such a seminar. Everyone's interest, to the farthest reaches of the US, to people in other countries in the farthest reaches of the world, was glued for weeks on events surrounding this tragedy.
This event had some "meaning" to everyone. Some people in some countries paraded in support of the terrorists and against the US and further action. Many people in all corners of the world found many ways to express their sympathy and support for the people of the US. They found meaning in this event. US military recruiting offices were flooded with people willing to defend their country. They found both meaning and purpose in this event.
But immediately there was a strong movement to "get back to our normal lives," to indicate that this event would have a place in our lives, but not dominate and disrupt our lives. We in the US immediately sought to understand the significance of this event in terms of its meaningful fit in our lives. We consciously interpreted the meaning with reference to other things in our lives.
For every person the event has a different meaning. Collectively our voices say that terrorism has to be stopped. But individually some interpret the event as: the failure of our government to protect us; the success of our government in protecting us; the failure of our governments to squash Sadam Hussein in Iraq, capture Osama bin Laden, and stop terrorist camps from developing in Afghanistan; the failure of airlines to provide safety; the impossibility to prevent all terrorism; the intention of fundamentalist extremists; the ultimate result of terrorism in Palestine; an opportunity for finally stopping terrorism; the pain of war; loss of family members and friends, and potential loss of more; the need to defend freedom; economic failures; the failure of the US and Western countries to properly address problems in the Middle and Near East, allowing hate and terrorism to take root; US strength and resolve; working and traveling in fear; delays due to heightened security, etc. While there are similar strands of meaning for us all, the event has different and multiple meanings for each one of us.
What these events mean is shaped not by our own thoughts, but by others, or by constraints that we place on our thinking. Most of these meanings were shaped by rhetoric, that is by other people interpreting events for us to support their own agendas. Freedom is a rallying cry (which doesn't mean that it isn't valid), but terrorist actions seem more motivated by the terrorist's own political ends, so punching the superpower US makes the terrorist more powerful in the terrorist's own geography. Various people have argued opposing points of view about the adequacy or inadequacy of security, depending on their agenda. What do we believe about security? We believe what our way of thinking allows us to believe. Sometimes we have blinders that aren't useful to us.
Some have momentarily been thrown into limbo about what they believe. They have asked, "Why has God let this happen?" and "Is our government incapable of protecting us?" and "Is our world to be forever unsafe because of terrorists?" Our interpretation of the meaning of things in our lives affects our beliefs.
The event changed how we interpret the meaning of things in our lives. Suddenly security delays, which before were accompanied by loud protests, now are patiently tolerated and even welcomed. Some people decided to spend more time with their families because the event reminded them of just how uncertain life is. Reinterpreting meaning made many people more in touch with what is really important in their lives. Understanding what is important to us, seeing meaningful things in perspective, removing blinders to meaning, and understanding what can be meaningful to us, is what this article is about.
Transitions and Attitude
One thing that transitions often do is place you in a temporary place, in limbo, where you may feel that you literally don't know what to believe until you complete the transition. This article may evoke some transitions in your life. Transitions are dealt with in a later article. If you become uncomfortable with what is said in this article, or you are having a personal crisis, please see someone you feel comfortable with and discuss it.
Relevant Scripture and Comments
God guides the steps of a peaceful heart.
Think on these things. (Apostle Paul to the Philippians 4:6-9; 2:13)
Anxiety, basically the product of fear and uncertainty, captures our minds and prevents us from listening to our hearts. Paul was no stranger to anxiety. He mentions his own anxiety in Philippians, being in jail at the time awaiting a trial that could result in his execution. Paul knew that if we can get rid of that fear, then the peace of God will be with us. How do we do that? By focusing our minds on the good things. Paul lists them: true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, praiseworthy - think about these things.
The result is, it is Godliness that directs both our will to do things and the things we do. Where we focus our minds is where we go. As Christ said in Matthew 2:21, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." If we want to listen to our hearts, we have to stop listening to fear and other demands, and instead listen to what is good.
But, keep in mind that we don't always "want" to do everything - we resist doing some general things that God asks us to do. Loving your neighbor or your enemy isn't usually a burning desire. But this series is not about general things, but about individuals.
Topic - Getting to the Root of Who we Are
Fear and anxiety are just the beginning of things that cloud our vision. The world around us clouds our hearts and minds as well. The world is demanding. We have jobs that occupy us 9 to 12 hours a day leaving us almost no time. We have houses and cars to maintain, social relationships to nourish, sports to watch or play, school and community activities to support, and neglected hobbies and interests that often drift away into oblivion. We have churches in which we participate and probably should do more. We have families that deserve much more time than they get, so that demand is ever present even when we do find a few spare minutes.
Who we are is all of these things. These are all legitimate things that we are either required to do, or have chosen to do, but they have varying degrees of meaning to us. We can become so preoccupied with our commitments to the world that we are unable to see who we really are - what God made us. And sometimes we reach critical junctures in our life, such as selecting a college major, or a midlife turns into a crisis, or the children leave home, or we retire, and we identify only with those other things and not with the things that are very important to us. It sometimes ends in tragedy.
Rekindling. There is a good chance that because of years of neglecting what we are about as individuals, we will take months and even years to recapture that. This is a three to four month class for a reason. And even if we recapture that, our lives may already be so full of obligations that all we can do right now is rekindle a direction that will eventually take us where we want to be.
What we relate to. The first step in finding personal meaning and purpose is to find out what things in life we actually relate to, other than things we must do. In this first class, we will try to look at things in a different way, and see if shaking up our thinking helps us find a much better perspective about who we are.
Exercise: Who are you?
This exercise will help peal away the layers of the many things that we are and get back to the core.
(Downbeat: If you peel away the layers of an onion, there is nothing left.)
When men in the US first meet, they typically ask about the other person's work... or sports. We go right to the work aspect of life right away. In the UK, I'm told, asking the other person what he does for a living is considered rude. I suppose it is a work ethic that has placed that thought foremost in our minds. Can we get beyond it?
Who are you? I'm a tax attorney. Who are you? I'm an electrician. Who are you? I'm a nurse. What do you do? I'm a tax attorney. What do you do? I'm a nurse. What do you do? I'm an electrician. We have become so permanently displaced in our thinking, that we can't answer either question correctly. These things are defined roles.
What do you really do? I prepare taxes for people. What do you do? I wire homes for people. What do you do? I take care of sick and injured people. But this is just scratching the surface of who we are.
Who are you? I'm Scott, Sherry, Bill, Debby... This is a better answer - our names at least symbolize who we are. When people get to know us, our names speak volumes.
What are our personal characteristics? We like to: nurture things, be creative, take care of people, fix things for people, make numbers balance, be wise and advise, help people heal, keep people secure and free from fear, lead groups, make money grow, listen to others, make peace, help people grow, show people new things, organize things, educate, organize people, make things run smoothly.
Personal characteristics are much closer to who and what we are. They begin to touch the essence of "us." These are the ways we relate to life. I work in communications in order to do some of the things in the previous paragraph. There are many life pursuits (jobs) that allow people to express themselves in many ways, and it doesn't all have to be through a job. These pursuits express our most basic values, such as giving us a place, a community, a sense of value to others, and of identification.
Many of our characteristics are born simply of our basic nature, such as a liking for orderliness, or a liking for disorder and mayhem. Two people born in the same family and raised the same often have very different basic natures. For whatever reason, we seem to enter life having certain characteristics. We react to them one way or another and they shape our personalities. For example, I don't like noise. Sometimes in the past I would react to noise by shirking from it or avoiding it. But after working in high noise areas, and after raising three noisy children, I don't even notice noise that really bothers other people. I've been deconditioned. Each of us are different and are shaped by our environments differently. My sensitivity to noise has created a strength. I can work effectively with many distractions present.
Workbook Question - Who are you?
Describe yourself in terms other than your work and other life roles.
Life story: Telling our stories - thinking about our lives
One of the main ways we can begin to think about our lives differently is to see different meaning in our histories. Each event in our life can teach us something. Each person that we encounter probably taught us something, even if we didn't like the person. I learned a lot of very positive things from a manager who was himself on a path of destruction.
Important elements. The elements that I consider important are the influence of others in your life, the ideas in your life, the events that helped shape your life (some events have no influence at all), the turning points in your life, and the resulting impact on you. The culture (including religion) you are in creates a structure for interpretation of meaning in your life. How you interpreted influences in your life at the time of their occurrence is important, but it is also important how you view those same influences today.
Caution. Be careful not to fall into the trap of listing what others think is important, or listing events that are viewed by your culture as significant. Marriage, raising children, joining the armed forces, graduating school, etc., may not currently have any significant influence. Don't force them into significance just because someone thinks that they should be.
Caution. Also, write this for yourself with no one else in mind. It will be a lot more useful to you as an uninfluenced report, and not so much a tribute to yourself. When you are finished, if it might be useful to others, such as a legacy to your continuing family, so modify it at that time as needed and give it to them.
Individual differences. Every person's life is about different things - no two of us are the same. Many things are interwoven to create very unique individuals. None of us really have any idea what other's lives are about. And the same events in different lives often are perceived or interpreted differently.
Some lives are about:
Each of our lives, to an extent, encompass all of these different aspects.
Avoid lives of quiet desperation.
Life has areas of development that can be useful categories for looking at our lives. There are no really fixed limits, and these interact. Development sometimes becomes negative as you confront obstacles, but these things are often turned into strengths. As you work with the questions, you might keep the following in mind:
Things to keep in mind
I recommend discussing these with a friend.
Article 1: What we gained from our experience with others
1. What would you like your epitaph to be - and if you can't focus it on one concept, narrow it to three. (See "Epitaphs" on the next page.)
2. What positive traits did your mother give to you? Your father? Negative traits? (learned or genetic)
3. What did your teachers give you?
4. What did your best friends give you? What did you give them?
5. Who were the three (or more) most influential people in your life? What did they give you?
6. What did you learn from your childhood?
7. What have you given to the people you have touched in your life?
For every life there is an ending. As the final curtain is falling, most of us have days, months, or years to reflect on our lives. Sometimes it is with a feeling of fulfillment - lived a good life - lived a full life - accomplished her dreams... Sometimes it is with a feeling of regret, pain, and dissatisfaction - things prevented him from... full of struggling - unfulfilled - lonely - lost dreams - could have been...
Sometimes restrictions are impossibly providential, and sometimes they are just obstacles. I think that some dreams were meant to keep us going while we wrestle with other important problems in life. Other dreams are things we could have if we really reached for them. We make our choices and we live with them. I like to differentiate between what we appreciate in an idealized way and what we really really want - want badly enough to stretch for, and even sacrifice for. I also like to differentiate between what is possible and what is probable. It may be possible for most people to accomplish a purpose that requires extreme measures, but it is not very probable that most will - only a few.
What is really important to a person, I suppose, might be the final words a person says to the rest of the world - an epitaph - a few brief lines on a tombstone. A sense of humor is an important trait to have, and some epitaphs reflect a sense of humor. Others reflect love, etc.
If you had to write an epitaph for yourself, what would it be? What would your life have stood for - what meaning - that you could sum up in a few words on a headstone? Following are some quick thoughts with no particular order or message:
Every person is very important to God
Affirmation of God's grace and acceptance of who we are and will be
I believe that God created me worthwhile in his eyes, and that his purpose for me is worthy of God.
Thoughts about coping
First, what I hold onto is my deep seated and long held belief that what is good in this world outweighs in value, and sustains more power for positive change, than anything that works against it. Goodness reflects God. And that belief is now directed at an object: I believe that regardless of our faults, we live in a nation that primarily works for good.
Second is the feeling that we can survive adversity, and we can overcome whatever obstacles are thrown at us. And that belief is now directed at an object: we can survive and overcome terrorism.
Third is a judgment directed at our adversary: I feel that terrorism can rarely, if ever, be deemed a positive action - it deserves our condemnation, and to survive we absolutely must stop it.
Fourth, discussing issues has given me the opportunity and personal mechanism to question more deeply some of the things that I think about our world and what is "just." I have had to ask myself such things as whether terrorism is ever acceptable, does it really accomplish anything - especially attacking civilians, do our actions in the world cause terrorism and in some way make us responsible, and what do we need to avoid to avoid reacting as terrorists or causing more of the feelings that fan those flames. It is this talking that is invaluable because without this I might never thoroughly consider the issues. And certainly other points of view are valuable in assisting that inner reflection.
Fifth, I have to direct my mind toward what I think about. If I watch TV news a lot during the day, I find that I am more compelled to think about that event and not get back to my "normal" life. It is imperative that I put my mind on things that are "good" or at least normal for me. This seems to balance me and gives me the ability to think things through without reacting in a lot of inappropriate ways.
Sixth, I also have the experience of living through the Korean, Vietnam, Cold War (nuclear mutual assured destruction), and Kuwait invasion eras, and realize that the threat of war does not mean that the future is bleak.
And so my attitude in this current transition is composed of personal beliefs fortified by experience, knowledge that comes from discussion and analysis, emotion based on experience, and the ability to maintain balance. These things sustain me in crisis and help me cope.
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