Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion

Four essential qualities for creating a meaningful life.

Posted Sep 01, 2020

Part 1

The beginning of this month marks a half-year of being quarantined in my home. I really can’t complain; I am living with my husband and some family members in a comfortable house in a lovely setting. But it’s getting long and it’s hard to see an end to my situation in the near future. This has left me thinking about how I can make the most of the next six months.

I assume that there are many people like me, who are trying to maintain their enthusiasm for life in spite of their days having been altered and restricted. These current circumstances (with the psychological perfect storm of fear, isolation, and uncertainty) can diminish optimism and make it more challenging to pursue a meaningful life.

With these thoughts in mind, I began to reread Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion written by my husband, Robert Firestone. In the first chapter, he discusses goals and qualities for creating a meaningful life. I found these suggestions to be helpful and heartening and thought it would be valuable to share them on my blog, especially now when life is throwing us a curveball. I will discuss the first four qualities in this post, and the last four in a blog later this month. 

There is no rigid formula for what constitutes a meaningful life for a given individual (nor should there be). However, it is possible to ground one's goals for a better life in sound mental health principles that include an understanding of what it truly means to be a human being. The essential human qualities crucial to this include: 

  • The search for meaning 
  • The ability to love and to feel compassion for self and others 
  • The capacity for abstract reasoning and creativity 
  • The ability to experience deep emotion 
  • 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

The Search for Meaning

The desire for meaning is a basic component of achieving a better life as we go beyond our basic needs to engage in activities that we regard as having greater meaning for ourselves, society, and the future. We find meaning for ourselves when we invest our own feeling and personal energy in activities that express our special wants and priorities. The artist, musician, or novelist finds meaning in self-expression. Some people experience it primarily through interaction with friends and family. Others do so by contributing to a humanitarian cause or improving the lot of future generations. As Ernest Becker wrote, "The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force."

Love, Compassion, and Empathy

Perhaps the single, most important life-affirming human quality is the ability to love--to feel compassion and empathy for, and express kindness, generosity, and tenderness toward, other people. There are few experiences in life that make us feel more alive, which are more critical to a better life than genuinely loving or caring for another person. Lao Tzu wisely observed, “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” 

The word "love" has become so overused that, to a large extent, it has lost a clear sense of meaning. Love can be defined as feelings and behaviors that enhance the emotional well-being of oneself and a loved one. Loving operations can be characterized as affection, generosity, tenderness, and a desire for close companionship in life. Genuine love also requires respecting the autonomy of one another and valuing each other’s goals in life separate from our own personal needs and interests. Empathy and compassion are based on the ability to see the other person in their own terms, that is, seeing how we would feel if their experience were our own. Loving someone in our thoughts and feelings is a necessary but insufficient component in creating a loving relationship. Love must also be expressed through loving behavior to optimally affect our partner, family member, or friend.

Abstract Reasoning and Creativity 

Human beings have the unique capacity for abstract thought. The creation of language, the development of complex mathematical systems, and the evolution of culture began with the ability to think abstractly, in symbols. However, many of us lose touch with our capacity to function creatively and intellectually and end up living in a shallow, concrete, or rigid fashion. Erich Fromm reminds us of the vitality of creativity, “Conditions for creativity are to be puzzled; to concentrate; to accept conflict and tension; to be born every day; to feel a sense of self.” A fundamental aspect of a better life is using our mental capacities to the fullest.

Throughout history, people have used their miraculous brains for both good and evil, to enhance life and destroy it. However, we can choose to use our intelligence in a moral manner by combining it with feelings of empathy and compassion. While many believe that the capacity for thought is a human being's most distinguishing feature, it is actually the interaction between thoughts and feelings that separates us from other animals. 

Experiencing Deep Emotion

Human progress can best be measured not by material success but by our long and slow progress in learning to accept, understand, and appropriately express our feelings. Only by leading a feelingful existence can we come to relate to each other in a rational, peaceful, lawful manner. In contrast, when we are cut off from our feeling selves, we are the most destructive to ourselves and others. In his upcoming revision of The Fantasy Bond, Robert writes, “It is the nature of emotional trauma that if it is suppressed instead of experienced, it does not dissipate or disappear, but retains a bodily component. Pain that is not fully experienced at the time continues to exert its damaging effect on the person and finds symbolic expression through patterns of self-limiting, self-destructive, or aggressive acting-out behavior.” However, humans have an astonishing ability to feel deeply, to reflect upon their feelings, and to use both thought and feeling to create a full, alive, and meaningful life.