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Michael F Steger Ph.D.

Meaning, One Moment at a Time

Meaning can bloom in little, everyday experiences.

Out here in Northern Colorado, the fraying of our global climate has been felt in tenacious droughts, soul-shattering forest fires, and the fact that the three noticeable episodes of precipitation we've gotten since spring were all snowstorms. In September and October, the weather pattern was bizarre. Before both snowstorms, the temperature was hot, the wind was powerful, the sky was orange and gray with smoke, the air was brown and filled with ash and cinders, then the next day it would snow.

The political climate and the surging COVID-19 pandemic both reinforced the feeling that giant gears were spinning out of control somewhere and that my little life was an insignificant bit of cast-off shrapnel.

On more than one of these recent days, finding some grand, cosmic meaning in everything was a bridge too far.

Photo by Michael F. Steger, PhD
Little invitations to find meaning
Source: Photo by Michael F. Steger, PhD

It has been the little things, the passing moments, the ephemeral scenes captured only for an instant that have given life meaning. Snowfall, however strange in September, brought clean air, whitewashed the layer of ash coating everything, and scattered glinting crystals across leaves on trees and the drooping seedheads of prairie grasses. Yes, it also brought skidding cars, slow traffic, and shoveling, but it gave us a new world to look at, one with pristine beauty to replace the beleaguered scenery of life underneath a giant smoke plume.

Similarly, when schools called students back to the classroom to be followed almost immediately by my son's sudden fever, and when the nearly four-day wait for COVID test results canceled even modest pandemic-adjusted Halloween plans, the hours my family spent carving pumpkins together then listening to ridiculous Halloween-themed playlists in the jack-o-lantern glow created a modest memory book that I know I will flip through as long as I live.

This year has been hard. The act of making meaning of a calamity like 2020 is one that must unfold over the coming years; it isn't something most of us can concoct in a day or two. That heavy lifting will continue, must continue, after the freak snowfalls have melted and after life tries to find new footing in the scorched mountains where forests once stood.

We can, however, make meaning in smaller but equally important ways each day. Instead of rushing past the snowflakes glinting in the sun, or past the reflection of a cloud in a puddle, or past a loved one squinting at a tiny screen-shared spreadsheet, pause. Pause, and let the meaning of that ephemeral moment speak to you. Let it tell you a little bit about what matters to you, about what you wish to hold in your heart, and about what you want to nurture.

Here is one way to try to embrace those little invitations to find meaning:

  • Slow—pause and let your senses take in what is around you
  • Heed—guide your awareness to something that catches your attention
  • Appreciate—look for the beauty in the inanimate, or open up to love for people or pets
  • Reflect—contemplate how this moment reflects what is meaningful to you, what is worth cherishing in life, even in these hard times
  • Enjoy—amidst everything else going on, there is still this gift to appreciate and enjoy

Finding meaning in the moments gives us an important tool for withstanding and making sense of the challenges in the world around us. We can keep working on understanding what these portentous times will mean someday, but when that job seems too big, we can simply focus on what is happening here and now.

Right now, I'm going to take a moment to enjoy the aroma of my tea and enjoy our blue, smoke-free skies.


About the Author

Michael F. Steger, Ph.D., is the Founder and Director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose at Colorado State University.