It starts as tightness in the upper solar plexus. Then it starts to droop like the top of an ice cream cone on a hundred-degree day, eventually melting over everything to form a vague coating of ambivalence. Sometimes it matures into hopelessness and, for some, even depression. The “it” is the yearning for meaning. And it can swallow you whole.
I started to feel it in my twenties as I struggled to cling to my dream of being a Broadway star while entering what would be my seventh year of waiting tables in New York City. I had given myself five years to make it, but by the seventh, I still needed to work “day jobs” to get by. It was at that point that, I remember, I first strained to hear some guidance about what I was meant to do with my life. The straining hurt, and the answers did not come quickly. Two years went by, my depression deepening into complete darkness, and then suddenly, meaning came for me in the form of painting floors and stuffing envelopes for the Manhattan Center for Living — a short-lived nonprofit organization that was a haven for people dealing with life-threatening illnesses. Doing menial work for a worthy cause gave more meaning to my life in a handful of Wednesday afternoons than all the years of slogging my way through college and a professional acting career did. It made more sense than the previous four years of therapy had, too.
One day, as I painted the floor with white high-gloss paint, the rocking motion of rolling the roller and the sound of the paint separating from the roll and smacking on the floor, I was brought into a peaceful place. I felt comfort in the task itself. I was fully aware of my actions and fully focused on them. All anxiety about the future or pain about the past began to disappear.
When I finished painting that day, I was alone in a large space that was white of wall, ceiling, and floor. It was there that I settled down at a folding table and chair to the next task that had been left for me. As I stuffed hundreds of envelopes, I developed a rhythmic pattern to my task: flip open the envelope, slip in the paper, run the sponge over the lip, seal — over and over again. The task was menial, but as I scanned the room with my eyes and saw the offices that would become the private treatment rooms, massage rooms, and meeting rooms, I knew that the people who would be walking through these doors to find comfort and help had it much worse than me. They would be dealing with HIV/AIDS, lupus, and cancer. As this registered, I began to feel the shedding of my own desperation. I recognized that my disease was merely a lack of perspective — and although it was snuffing out my spirit and weakening my body, my perspective was definitely something I had the power to change.
Today, I can tell you that the pain I was experiencing and the day in the big, white space were all for a reason. Without that pain, I would not have discovered that I had a calling to help other people and I would not have gone on to spend close to twenty years coaching and counseling others. All of the pain I had experienced had invited growth — and more pain and more growth. And while it’s not over yet, the cycle has become less intense over the years. And now, just as the growth is welcomed, the pain can be welcomed too.
As a life coach and now, more recently, as an interfaith minister as well, I am called on by people to help them heal their lives. “Let me understand my place. That will bring me peace,” is something I hear often. I know the longing that comes with those thoughts. There is pain in not seeing a clear path set out before us to follow. There is pain in not feeling valuable or knowing how we are to leave our mark. We want to know we matter. We struggle when we are not recognized or we feel there is nothing particularly outstanding about us. We have egos and we need validation. We need to be witnessed. Like the little kid about to jump off the diving board at the pool saying: “Mom, look at me, look at me!” we never quite outgrow that. We demand evidence of our existence and feel better when we have it.
So what is this mysterious thing called Meaning? Well, it can come in many shapes and sizes, but one thing is for sure: it’s something we humans all want. And in today’s world our desire for it has taken on a new intensity. Why? Perhaps it’s because we can try so many things — there are so many avenues to choose from — it’s all too easy to forget what we’re looking for. We are confused. We think we’re hungry, so we grab for something to eat. We think we’re bored, so we buy a new toy. We think we’re out of touch (good thinking!), so we go to a spiritual retreat (for the weekend, then on Monday we’re right back where we started). We grab for quick fixes and nothing sticks. Why? Because we don’t realize that what we are yearning for is more integral to our being than any cosmetic improvement can provide.
As I’ve watched coaching clients piece together the meaningful aspects of their lives, it’s been a challenge to help them decipher how to measure meaning. What makes a meaningful relationship with another person? What constitutes meaningful work? Who decides something is meaningful? Is it what is said or done, or rather, how it makes us feel?
I’d answer that meaning is something we feel more than something we do. Meaning is a state of consciousness. It comes tumbling forth from connection — to ourselves, each other, the earth, spirit, work, or even an inanimate object. A necklace is not meaningful in itself, but when we connect with the time, place, and person who gave it to us, it takes on a new specialness. It takes on meaning. It enters our consciousness as something precious that we will take care with.
In the empty, white loft I felt connected to myself (versus my pain) for the first time in a long time and I could feel my connection to others even though the place was empty. Meaning was coming into focus. I could feel the hope of the people who would be walking through those doors and I could also feel their pain and frustration. I experienced their innocence as people who did not ask to be ill, but had to navigate that reality. The compassion of the counselors, therapists, and body workers who were poised to serve there was knocking at my own heart as well. The melting of my own armor of numbness was immediate as I allowed myself to connect with the intention to heal that this white space was imbued with. All it took to feel alive with meaning and purpose was that shift in my consciousness. Sustaining that has been a long journey of ups and downs, but once I felt the shift, I’ve always known how to get it back when I’ve lost it.
For many, religion is the key to this validation of self The Old and New Testaments dictate that living a life oriented around God’s can provide all the meaning one needs. The third Abrahamic tradition, Islam, puts God (Allah) at the forefront of a meaningful life as well. Buddhism urges its adherents to stop searching for meaning in the material world, believing that the only way to avoid suffering is to cultivate this detachment. Native American cultures teach that true knowledge of the self and compassion for others are the paths to a meaningful life. Every culture has its subtly different translations.
Of all the religions I’ve studied, the mystic traditions speak to me as being the most relevant to the yearning for meaning in our time. Mysticism proposes a direct connection between us and the force(s) that rule our lives. There is no middleman, doctrine, dogma, or ritual as a prerequisite. But how can this immediacy be felt? Absolute trust and true comfort with “not knowing.”
Ah, trust. That’s a tricky one these days. All around us, venerable institutions, laws, and constructs for how we operate our lives are crumbling. We no longer know whom to trust to help us guide our course. Our religious institutions, our government, our financial institutions, our corporations, our families, and our schools — these structures don’t work their magic the way they used to. I think one of the greatest reasons we grapple for meaning at this particular time is that we’re struggling to feel a connection to things we can count on. Yet if we cannot count on the same things we counted on previously, we have no choice but to trust ourselves and that which is less concrete. In other words, we have to have confidence in things that are, at least at first glance, far less monumental.
It is one of the great ironies that while our hunger for a “meaningful” life can be enormous, these days more and more our desire for meaning is ultimately satiated by the smaller, quieter aspects of our lives. Meaning is where you look for it — and also how you look at it. Meaning is actually all around us, and the circumstances surrounding it can be like an Escher print. Life can look quite meaningless until we focus on a certain point or points and the picture changes. As it comes into focus, we find the peace that discovering meaning can bring.
As I began to write this book, meaning with a big fat capital M flooded my thoughts. But then a series of other M words emerged as well — words like Mystery, Magnificence, and Mind — and in this book I will take you through them in the hopes that they will serve as markers on your path as you continue to search for your own meaning. As my own search evolved and led me to enroll in interfaith seminary, I found clues in the exploration of many religious traditions that will also be drawn upon here to serve you on your way.
How can we hope to find that specific place that is inside each of us where the joy is palpable? There is no easy answer to this question, but one thing is certain: it involves a sense that one’s life is meaningful. Meaning solves the mystery even as it deepens it. It brings us home even as it opens infinite landscapes of possibilities. Ultimately, though, it eases the pain.
The above is an excerpt from the book The Little Book on Meaning: Why We Crave It, How We Create It by Laura Berman Fortgang. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
Copyright © 2009 Laura Berman Fortgang, author of The Little Book on Meaning: Why We Crave It, How We Create It
Laura Berman Fortgang, author of The Little Book on Meaning: Why We Crave It, How We Create It, is a nationally renowned speaker and life coach, helping individuals, small businesses, and corporations forge new directions and weather change. Recently ordained as an interfaith minister, she lives in Montclair, New Jersey.