I'm reading
Does my life have meaning?
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Does my life have meaning?
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Does my life have meaning?
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
29 May 2018

Does my life have meaning?

“There’s much I don’t know about birds and trees, but this I know for sure: they don’t wonder or worry about whether their lives have meaning.”

Written by Parker Palmer

This post is sponsored by our friends at Talent Nation.

What does this mean?

This post is sponsored by our friends at Talent Nation.

What does this mean?

“All that I have written seems like straw to me.”

Those are the words of Thomas Aquinas—Saint Thomas Aquinas to Catholics—one of the Western world’s most influential theologians and philosophers. He spoke them three months before he died in 1274.

Aquinas was wrestling with a question that dogs people of all sorts, from parents to plumbers to professors, people like you and me who will never achieve anything like Aquinas’s fame or historical impact. It’s a question asked by adults of all ages, but perhaps most urgently by elders who wonder if all those years add up to anything worthwhile: Does my life have meaning?

As I go deeper into elderhood, that question rises in me more often than it did when I was young. Sometimes, I’m able to affirm that I’ve made meaningful contributions in at least parts of my private and public lives. At other times, everything I’ve done seems as flimsy and flammable as straw.

If you’ve ever been downcast about the meaning of your life, you know that reassurance from others, no matter how generous, doesn’t do the trick. The question of meaning is one all of us must answer for ourselves—or so I thought until 5:15 a.m. on Thursday, May 12, 2016.

I was starting my day as I often do, with coffee and poetry, when I ran across a poem on the nature of love. As I read and reread it, I began to see that brooding on the question “Does my life have meaning?” is a road to nowhere. Whether I give myself a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, there’s a flaw at the heart of the question, a flaw created by my old nemesis, the overweening ego.

Here’s the poem that opened my eyes, by the Nobel Prize–winning Polish poet Czesław Milosz:

Love

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

There’s truth and liberation in those last two lines. No matter how clear my goals may be, the truth is that I often don’t know whom or what I will end up serving.

I remember a talk I gave a long time ago. My intent was to blow the audience away, but they were not impressed, as indicated by a brief and tepid round of obligatory applause. I was young, and it took weeks to get the bitter taste of failure out of my mouth. Years later, by rare chance, I met a person who’d been in that audience. “I’m glad to meet you,” he said. “I’ve wanted to tell you how your talk changed the way I approach teaching, and how good that change has been for me and my students.”

His words were a powerful reminder that I don’t and can’t know the meaning of my life, let alone dictate or control it. As Milosz says, “It doesn’t matter whether he [she] knows what he [she] serves.” All I can control are my own intentions, and my willingness to give myself to them: may they always be to serve rather than show off.

The poet goes on to say, “Who serves best doesn’t always understand.” Those words are liberating because there’s so much about life that’s triple-wrapped in mystery. When I’m sure I know exactly what I’m doing and why—so sure that I miss vital clues about what’s actually needed and what I have to offer—it’s a sign that my ego’s in charge, and that’s dangerous. My best offerings come from a deeper, more intuitive place that I can only call my soul. Embracing the fact that there’s no way to know with precision whom or what I’m serving helps free my words and actions from the ego’s dominion.

Speaking of the ego, the first few lines of Milosz’s poem are a direct challenge to its lust for center stage: “Love means to learn to look at yourself / The way one looks at distant things / For you are only one thing among many.” Ah, yes, now I remember: I’m not the sun at the center of anyone’s solar system. If I keep trying to put myself there, insisting that I am special and my life must have some sort of special meaning, I’ll die in despair or in delusion.

Peace comes when I understand that I am “only one thing among many,” no more and no less important than the bird and the tree Milosz writes about. There’s much I don’t know about birds and trees, but this I know for sure: they don’t wonder or worry about whether their lives have meaning. They simply be what they be. In the process, they befriend people like me who are elevated simply by taking time to appreciate the gifts so freely given by the natural world.

Milosz says, “Whoever sees that way heals his heart, / Without knowing it, from various ills.” Time and again, that’s been my experience. There’s nothing like a walk in the woods, into the mountains, alongside the ocean, or out in the desert to put my life in perspective and help me take heart again. In places like that, the things of nature befriend me—just as Milosz says they will—as I settle into the comforting knowledge that I am “only one thing among many.”

Then there are Milosz’s beautiful words about allowing one’s self and the things of the world to “stand in the glow of ripeness.” Please don’t ask me exactly what that means, because I don’t know. But I do know this: once I understand that I’m not the sun, I can get out of the sun’s way and stop casting shadows. I can step aside to let the true sun shine on everyone and everything, making all things ripe with the glow of life. This, it seems, is Milosz’s ultimate definition of love, and it works for me.

At the moment, I rest easy with the notion that I don’t need to ask or answer the question, “Does my life have meaning?” All I need do is to keep living as one among many as well as I can, hoping to help myself and others grow ripe with life and love as we stand under the sun.

If the Big Question returns to me over the next few days or weeks, and I find myself struggling to come up with a “Yes” or dodge a “No,” I won’t be surprised. When it comes to jailbreaks like the one Milosz’s poem gave me, I’m a lifelong recidivist.

It’s not easy to subdue the overweening ego in order to free the adventuresome soul. But whenever we manage to do so, it saves us grief and serves the world well. So if you see me on the street one day, quietly muttering, “Only one thing among many, only one thing among many,” you’ll know I’m still working on it. Or it’s still working on me.

 

This is an extract from our friend, Parker Palmer‘s up-coming book, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old, on sale from the 26th of June, and now available for pre-order

Parker Palmer

Parker Palmer is a writer, speaker and activist, and the founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, an organisation dedicated to creating a more just and compassionate world.

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.