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How to Find Meaning

One small exercise can change the way you live.

Sara A. Showalter Van Tongeren personal photo taken on iPhone6s
Fall in a graveyard in Michigan
Source: Sara A. Showalter Van Tongeren photo taken on iPhone6s

The most important plaque we will ever be given is our headstone. Often, our ideas of success are based on letters after our names, things we have “won,” or the balance of our bank account. I want to invite you to a different way of knowing—a way that I am convinced you already know in your being.

When we challenge our conditioned, culturally-constructed narrative of success—that often includes careers and job titles, material possessions and salaries, and achievements and positions we have held—we can begin to look at what we actually value. To do so, take a moment to write your obituary. That’s right—I said it.

What do you want to be known for? What do you want others to remember that you embodied years after your body is no longer living and breathing? That is your answer to your definition of success. Often, we conflate success with achievement and do not even consider what is meaningful to us. When we live in the awareness of our values, we then can begin to align our time and energy with those values and discover where we will find meaning.1

I have chosen to share my obituary, publicly:

Sara was a truth-teller, a passionate, honest, loyal human who was committed to learning and growing more than she was committed to ideas. She grew in her awareness of love—that it was bigger than she was taught. Sara found hope in nature—and trusted that life and death and life again were all tenderly held and in communion with one another. She had the courage to listen to others and value their perspective without needing them to prove their perspective to her. She welcomed other’s pain and did not run from existential fears, but rather accepted them as truths. She did not sacrifice honesty for people pleasing, she spoke up about injustice and acted upon it. She grounded herself in a deep trust that she was good and worthy enough to receive and give love. She held hope even when she faced suffering and was brave enough to cry and rest and dance. She was a mystic, someone who saw this life for what it was—beautiful and painful.

May we reorient our idea of success, and challenge the one we were given by orienting ourselves toward a new way to use our time and energy—or at least what we have left.

Please consider writing your obituary and tag @theexistentialtherapist and @psych_today on Instagram. We would love to see what brings you meaning, and what you learn about yourself along the way.


1. Van Tongeren, D. R. & Van Tongeren, S. A. S. (2020). The Courage To Suffer: a new clinical framework for life's greatest crises. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.