What does it take to transform your life in a way that you find greater meaning and satisfaction in what you do on a daily basis? Psychotherapy is certainly one option but the effects aren't often as long-lasting as we prefer; it also often takes considerable time and resources. I teach and supervise therapists for a living so I'm a big fan of the power that such an experience can have. And yet. . . there are other ways to find meaning in our lives and produce life-altering transitions. For instance, religious or spiritual involvement is a path that is often chosen. Others seek salvation in their work or immerse themselves in social activities. Still others pursue greater satisfaction and meaning through creative outlets or through reading and studying subjects of interest. I would suggest, however, that it is through service to others that we can most easily produce transformative changes--not only in those we help, but also in ourselves.
There is such a hunger that many of us feel to find greater meaning in our lives and work, to engage more meaningfully with those we love, to create deeper intimacy in all our relationships, to feel the incredible (and frightening) thrill of encountering new experiences that move us emotionally, intellectually, and also deep in our souls. This search for deeper engagement with life is what leads to travel, education, to devour stimulating readings (to read articles like this!), but also destructive forms of self-medication that are intended to stifle that inner voice that challenges our current life choices. So how can we most effectively (and swiftly) produce such life-changing experiences?
I would submit that one consistently powerful option that often has lasting effects involves reaching out to others who are neglected, ignored, oppressed, abused, or marginalized--those most in need. It seems to make little difference exactly what you do, whether it is in your local community or a remote village abroad, whether you work with one person or a large group, whether you teach, mentor, support, consult, or build something; they key is feeling like you are doing some good. Your own life feels redeemed by your effort to use what you know, what you may have suffered or endured, what you can do, to help others who would otherwise have been left to flounder.
To select one problem that I find especially heart-wrenching is the prevalence of sex trafficking around the world. In one small region of Nepal, a place I have been working for many years, there are over 12,000 girls each year who are kidnapped or sold into sex slavery, some as young as 8 years old. These are mostly lower caste girls whose families have experienced catastrophic illness, deprivation, or hardships. With little money or resources to support all the children in school, it is the young girls who are most at risk. Whatever assistance or interventions that are offered by volunteers, it has been fascinating for me to observe the ways that their own lives have been transformed in unexpected ways. It is not uncommon that people return from these service trips resolved to enrich their friendships, build greater intimacy with their families, make abrupt shifts in their careers, or initiate dramatic changes in their lifestyles. Many of these life-changing experiences result from the transcendent feeling of greater meaning and purpose that often accompanies altruistic efforts.
Lower caste girls supported by volunteers and scholarships from Empower Nepali Girls
"I meet these children and, initially, I feel such pity and hopelessness for their plight," one volunteer shared. "But then I realize that it is really my life that has been so impoverished in many ways. As little as these people have, they are often far happier and more engaged with daily life than almost anyone I know back home." It is gifts such as this that increase our awareness that it really makes little difference what we have, what we own, what resources we control or power we wield; rather
So, the big question is that if you wanted to change your life, how would you go about doing that through paths other than the more traditional education, therapy, or reading? The answer is one you'd anticipate, but also one you'd prefer to deny: It means making some tough choices about priorities and values followed by sustained hard work. It also often involves taking constructive risks that involve a certain amount of sacrifice, pain, and inconvenience.
Each of us has a responsibility to take care of those who are less fortunate, who suffer terribly and without hope. It is through such service and activism that we not only make a difference for those who need help the most, but we also transform our own lives in ways that provide deeper meaning and greater satisfaction.
Growing up I felt pretty useless and inept, wondering if I would ever do anything of significance. I got caught up in ambition and achievement, trying to prove my worth through academic or professional success. It doesn't feel like I ever made a conscious choice to devote my life to service but rather it was chosen for me. How could I, how could anyone, ignore injustice or deprivation or suffering and not do something about it? When the very first girl in remote Nepal was pointed out to me and I was told she would be sold into slavery, I never stopped to think about the consequences of doing something to rescue her. It was only afterwards that I realized that once I had made that initial effort I really had no other choice except to follow through on what I started quite impulsively. Frankly, the responsibility terrifies me.
Each of us has an opportunity to make a difference in the world in our own small way. It doesn't matter whether it is in your own community or another remote part of the world. Sure, giving money to causes can help, but it is no substitute for sharing our love, caring, and expertise with people directly, especially with those who are most neglected and desperate. One of the amazing joys of activism and promoting social justice is not just what it does for those we help, but how our own lives are transformed by the experience.
Jeffrey A. Kottler, Ph.D., is a professor of Counseling at California State University, Fullerton, author of 80 books, and President of the grassroots organization Empower Nepali Girls.