Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion
Part 2: Human qualities that help keep us connected.
Posted Sep 21, 2020
My last blog post addressed the challenge of maintaining enthusiasm for life at a time when our lives are being altered and restricted by a pandemic. Admittedly, during these months of uncertainty, it is difficult to be inspired to take an interest in ourselves. The fear and challenges of today throw us into survival mode and leave us defended and disconnected from our feelings.
The previous blog post opened a discussion about using this period of time creatively and constructively for self-development. It reviewed goals and qualities toward that pursuit that were outlined in Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion written by my husband, Robert Firestone. In his words, “If the good life is fundamentally one in which we fully develop our human potentialities, describing these potentialities is central to our understanding of how to proceed.” This blog post explains the last four of the eight human qualities that Robert presented in his book:
- the desire for social affiliation
- the ability to set goals and develop strategies to accomplish them
- an awareness of existential concerns
- the potential to experience the sacredness and mystery of life
Human beings have a far greater capacity than any other animal for social affiliation—the ability to share our thoughts, feelings, and experiences with others, as well as to nurture, support, and enjoy the company of our fellow beings. Developing this characteristic is vital because we live, survive, learn, and grow through our interactions with others. Social affiliation is generally crucial for growth. While it is of course possible to enjoy solitude and/or use it creatively, it is the rare human being who lives in total isolation from others, and the even more unusual soul who is able to do so successfully.
Imagination, Goal Setting and Planning the Future
An important dimension of achieving a meaningful life involves envisioning goals that express one's unique identity and interests and then taking the actions necessary to realize these goals in the real world. The ability to imagine, to conceptualize something new, and to plan for the future are uniquely human traits. Out of the potential for inventiveness and imagination comes achievement, aesthetic and innovative pursuits, and material success. Developing the ability to conceptualize the possibility of change is necessary to both personal satisfaction and social progress. Closely related to imagination is the ability to set goals and develop strategies to attain them. Actively striving and competing for one's objectives rather than seeking satisfaction in fantasy is crucial to a fulfilling life.
The ability to imagine has not only afforded humankind great accomplishments, it has also burdened us with the horror of being able to conceptualize our own death. Nothing has shaped civilization and how we live, for better or worse, more than our realization of our finite existence. When people who are defended are faced with the fact of mortality, they will tend to progressively retreat from living in a futile attempt to take control over death and avoid the anxiety from the ultimate loss of their own life and of their loved ones. On the other hand, facing issues of mortality can give life a poignant meaning in relation to its finality. Imagining the end of life in an undefended state of mind makes us aware of the preciousness of each moment, and we are more likely to invest more of ourselves in our relationships. It can spur us to greater creativity and make us more compassionate toward other people because we share the same fate.
Spirituality and Mystery
Human beings possess the ability to have spiritual experiences that transcend the satisfaction of material needs and to sense mysteries that elude human understanding. At many points on the journey through life, we encounter events that bring out an overpowering appreciation of nature and the unknown and generate spiritual experiences that evoke deep emotional responses. It is when this search for meaning and spiritual awareness takes us to the edge of human understanding, where we accept the ultimate mystery of our lives and the limitations of science and rationality, that we know at the most profound level what it means to be fully human. When we accept the uncertainty and ambiguity of life, we understand that there are no absolute "truths" to be discovered. We come to realize that wherever there is an absence of fact, we have the right to choose and embrace beliefs regarding the origins and nature of life.
The Benefits of Remaining an Undefended
When we are vulnerable and undefended, we are exposed to a world that is perpetually new and continually changing, a world where life is an open-ended adventure. We retain our excitement about living primarily because we are still connected to our emotions and experience both the pleasure and sorrow of life. We develop a depth of compassion and a basic trust in other people that have powerful effects on all our relationships. Understanding that all people ultimately share the same fate, we see no person as inferior or superior to us, nor do we invest any person with greater or lesser status.
Being mindful of the qualities that define us as human beings can help to keep us connected to ourselves and others. Striving to hold them in the foreground of our awareness can have a powerful and broadening effect on our lives, especially in these difficult times.