Last week, I was delighted to receive this Letter from a Middle School Student asking for my thoughts about the meaning of life. My response is below. I think this brings together several elements of my thinking.
It was a pleasure to receive your letter. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the great tradition of letter writing with you.
I share your interest in the meaning of life. In fact, probably most of us ask ourselves about the meaning or purpose of our lives at some point.
I think there probably are three ways to think about this. The first is about the Meaning of Life overall. Questions that fall into this category include: Why is there life at all? What are the origins of life? What happens after we die? What does it mean that we live in a universe where there is life? The second way to think about this is more personal. Questions include: What does my individual life mean? What is my unique purpose? What am I going to do with my “one wild and precious life?,” as the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver put it. The third way is to approach the question as a psychological scientist. Following this, we could ask ourselves how we might measure the perception of meaning in life, in general, and then consider how to perform scientific studies seeking to uncover what predicts the experience of more or less life meaning in a broad group of people.
Craig is the worship leader at my church. To say his style is unique would be a great understatement.
Craig mostly plays piano and sings at church, combining a mix of folk and country with a bit of blues and funk thrown in for good measure. He is humble, but once in a while, he plays a solo, and when this becomes apparent, my wife and I glance across the aisle at each other, and smile knowingly that we are about to share a sacred moment. Whenever Craig sings his one-of-a-kind rendition of Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece “Hallelujah,” for example, tears flood our eyes. And we leave church a bit different as a result.
Craig is nearing retirement and recently pulled back from leading all three worship services, restricting himself to the early 8:00 service. His replacements are talented musicians in their own right, but many in the congregation started attending church earlier just to hear Craig play. There is just something intoxicating about his music.
The best way I can describe Craig’s music is that it is “soulfelt.”
“Soulfelt” appears in none of the major dictionaries. By this criterion, it is not a word.
But, I think it should be.
What do you really want in life?
It’s a difficult question, but it may be the essential question.
Maybe you would answer with a concrete response, such as “I want sleep,” “I want a new phone,” or “I want to play more golf.”
Or maybe you would reflect more broadly. Some people even go beyond everyday desires to imagine deep yearnings for something more.
Source: Sehnsucht (c. 1900). Heinrich Vogeler / Wikimedia Commons
“Sehnsucht” is a popular German word with no simple English translation (click here for pronunciation). C. S. Lewis often relied on this concept in his writings, defining it as “inconsolable longing” for “we know not what.” Instead of “wishful thinking,” Lewis suggested how Sehnsucht involves “thoughtful wishing.” In my words, Sehnsucht has to do with an intense desire for something beyond our human capacity to fulfill. It is a sense that something is missing – something that, if fulfilled, would make everything complete.
To better understand, let’s consider some of the ways Lewis reflected on the concept.
In his “Chronicles of Narnia” series, Lewis states:
“Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning… a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and always are wishing you could get into that dream again.”
Part of me has always wanted to “make my mark on the world.” When I was in high school, I wanted to be a nationally ranked tennis player. When I was in college and graduate school, I wanted to publish the most cutting edge ideas and research in the most reputable scholarly journals. After finishing school, I have wanted to be recognized as a teacher that is a positive force for good with students.
As I have aged, however, I have sometimes observed that others appear to be making more of a “mark” than I am. It is particularly frustrating when others with more power appear to be using their influence to make the world a worse place. As clinical psychologist Meg Jay notes in her provocative and challenging TED talk, most of life’s defining decisions occur before the age of 35, and these early decisions both enable and constrain possibilities for the rest of life.
I don’t suspect I am alone in these feelings. As famed psychiatrist Victor Frankl observed, humans often long for meaning, and yet sometimes find this urge can be difficult to satisfy. It is easy to be discouraged when comparing ourselves with others who appear to be accomplishing more, whether they are doing so in reality or through a skewed portrait via social media.
My friend from graduate school, Mike Steger, is one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of living meaningfully. Dr. Steger notes that individuals vary in the amount they seek meaning, with some individuals (like me and, if you’ve made it this far in this article, maybe also you) caring more about finding meaning than others. He also finds in his research that one of the keys to meaningful living is in finding opportunities for significance in daily life.
What I am learning by listening to my life and reflecting on this research is that it is difficult – if not impossible – to feel fully satisfied in the extent to which I am making my “mark” on the world, particularly when I compare my “mark” with others.’ It is unhelpful to spend much time regretting past decisions or comparing myself unfavorably to others. Still, there are many opportunities for living meaningfully today.