When I talk to people about meaning in their lives, in their work, or in their love lives, the conversation invariably reaches a point where I can see the gears of their mind start to work furiously. This is the point in our chat where I've asked them what makes their lives feel meaningful and they start to feel like their answer isn't fancy enough. I guess it doesn't seem like enough to create strong and mutually nurturing relationships, parent a child, feel spiritualy inspired, venture forth into the world to find your niche in the vast global economy, or wrest occasional moments or serenity from the pinging, flashing pinball machine of life!
(The fact that my curiosity about what fills people's lives with meaning often provokes these kinds of responses is the leading bummer of being a meaning in life researcher!)
Right before my eyes, I can see their perspective on such things as being an inspired parent, generous lover, conscientious worker, or tranquil contemplator shift, and color them as run-of-the-mill, tenuous, amorphous, insufficient....BORING!
Some aspects of these run-of-the-mill meanings get celebrated by our culture. Finding one's true love is all over in the movies (even if movies typically neglect the careful work of being an open, responsive, invested partner over the long haul). Movies like Lorenzo's Oil and Mr. Holland's Opus show us the depths of the parenting experience (even if these movies accidentally foster the idea that all parents of kids with developmental or physical challenges need to be heroes and the rest of us are interchangably unremarkable). Movies that celebrate working hard and working well typically focus on monomaniacal artists (Pollock; The Agony and the Ecstacy) iconoclastic innovators (Tucker: The Man and His Dream). Far fewer are the stories about people who invest the most important aspects of their lives with their focused attention, interest, commitment, creativity, and love.
More often than not our culture gives us stories about deranged, damaged, vain, childish, neglectful, and rivalrous parents, and tedious, mindless, soul-crushing, hostile, treacherous workplaces. Better yet if they're lethal or cannibalistic!
Let's not even mention the stories about parents and work that we get from the evening news.
In most of these stories, people suffer and suffer until The Big Thing comes along and saves them. The iconic image of my generation might just be John Cusack standing in front of an old Buick with his coat sleeves rolled up to his elbows (was there any other way to wear coats in the late 80s?!) holding a boombox (remember those?) and vicariously serenading Ione Sky with Peter Gabriel's high-school-dance-favorite, "In Your Eyes."
The Flash of Insight, The Grand Gesture, The Rousing Speech, The Last Straw. All of these are doppelgangers of The Big Thing, which too many of us wait for to come along and change our lives. The secret is, of course, that it's not coming. Worse, by waiting for The Big Thing, you could let the little things that make life rich, and accumulate into the foundation of your life, slip away. One day, you might rouse yourself - like a patient in a waiting room who suddenly realizes that she forgot to sign in and grab a number - and see that while you hopelessly waited for some Big Thing to make your life matter, you neglected to invest in the little things, the little moments, the little pieces of experience that make life meaningful.
A number of citizens of Finland in their mid-80s were asked to draw a "life-line," indicating the most strongly positive and negative moments of their lives, year by year. This group of people was born between the World Wars for the most part. In World War II, Finland lost and regained territory to German and Russian forces several times, and most of the men called war and military service the most important event of their lives. Beyond that, though, life was made up of working, moving, promotions, school, the ebb and flow of chronic illness, retirement, marriage, and the deaths that every 80 year old must endure. Even with enemy troops at your doorstep, life isn't made up The Big Thing - at least not for women, and it wasn't the only thing for men, either. Also, life kept getting better. It didn't peak with the defeat of Germany and Russia, it didn't peak at the wedding day, it kept getting better. Because of the little things that, like the stitches of a tapestry, sew our lives into a meaningful story.
Don't let the little things slip away, or you could come to someday with a nasty surprise barreling down at you
© 2009 Michael F. Steger. All Rights Reserved.
Takkinen, S. & Suutama, T. (2004). Life-lines of Finnish people aged 83-87. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 59, 339-362.