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Career Success
NOV 2, 2016

The Meaning of Life

By Mark Lee Ford

At age 30, we think that we still have enough time to change the course of our lives. We compare our progress with that of other people regarding career, marriage, lifestyle, and so on. We make ambitious plans—professional and personal—and work hard to fulfill them.

      By our late thirties, we know that most of our plans have missed their marks. No matter some of the unexpected outcomes can be very good. And we always make new plans, anyway. Singles, however, might start to agonize about being left behind. They worry about whether they will ever marry, let alone be able to have children. Even those in marriages or long-term relationships might wonder if they have a future with their spouse. Pile on other unfulfilled dreams, a dead-end job, and pressures from parents, and the urgency to do something—anything—to change one’s life intensifies.

      In our forties and fifties, we know mortality well. Some of our friends have already died. Birthdays fly by, and we sense our bodies deteriorating. “Why am I here?”, “How long will I live?” and, “What should I do with the rest of my life?” are questions on our minds.

      What is the meaning of this journey that is sometimes beautiful, often painful, and always uncertain, one that we incessantly question and struggle to change to our liking?

      If happiness is important on this journey, and if happiness comes from pursuing our dreams of who we want to be, then how can I know who I want to be, or what to do to get there?

      The answer comes from understanding how to manage our lives.

      “Life is short” is a dangerous fallacy. People who have convinced themselves that “life is short” will try to change their lives by drastic means, as if frantically scrambling for an emergency exit. One might have an affair, end a relationship, or leave town for a new life. It is exhilarating to think that one is finally breaking free, finding credence in the bad advice that is common among well-intended friends. New lovers are the worst influence; they instigate escapism with adulation. But life always worsens for the “escapee”, and shatters the lives of those who love her or him. The friends and lovers, meanwhile, go unscathed. It is a great pity that so much unnecessary heartbreak is created by free people attempting to escape an illusory jail.

      If you convince yourself that life is short, your lifetime will indeed shorten. Life is intrinsically neither short nor long. If you manage your life properly, it will extend sufficiently to allow you to become whomever you want to be, whatever your age. As Seneca wrote, “Life is long if you know how to use it.”

      Aristotle said that happiness is a state of well-being that comes when your abilities—your creativity—flourish. Your creative products are the outward signs of who you are inside. They are anything that you can make from your mind, heart and hands: a relationship, technology, a family, music, a negotiation, raising a child, a venture, spirituality, a meal. Anything at all. How people react to your creative products will feed back to your psyche and enhance you. As you continue your journey in life, you will want to add even more interests, knowledge, and experience to feed your creativity. The vision of “who you want to be” develops incrementally inside you from doing this, not by your premeditated design, nor by declaring, “From today, this is who I shall be!” Sometimes the incremental steps are planned, sometimes not. People who are better at doing this are happier than people who are not. Thus, happiness is not only a state of well-being; it also is a measure that tells us how we are doing at managing our lives.

      Improving our abilities is necessary, but not enough, to make our creativity flourish. Nor is it sufficient to manage our lives well. Something beyond abilities—beyond intellect—is needed.

      People bring out the best in each other only when they love each other with a quality of love that is rooted in honesty and sacrifice. Oxford professor Terry Eagleton says love is the reciprocity between people that allows their abilities to flourish best. Compassionate treatment of other people is one of the conditions for our own thriving.

      This kind of love is indispensable for reaching our creative optima. And if creativity—born in our abilities and our love for each other—is really a way to help us to become who we want to be, then happiness will naturally arise within us. We will have achieved our state of well-being, and we will know it is so because we will be happy.

      The way that we progress through this journey is how we create meaning in our lives, and for the lives of those accompanying us. It is never too late to manage your life…to achieve happiness.

      People will disappoint you. They will fall short of your expectations and irritate you. Maybe you feel that they let you down, wasted your time, and did not help make your dreams come true. But if they love you, and if their love genuinely comes from honesty and sacrifice, despite all their shortcomings, then do not deride or reject them. Reciprocate their love; if it is difficult, it means that you have more work to do on yourself. Love is always in short supply, but only by our choosing. Granted, understanding how to love from a position of honesty and sacrifice is harder than the intellectual side of adding new interests, knowledge, and experiences. But giving up on someone who loves you really means that you are giving up on yourself. For it is only through love reciprocated with other people, no matter their faults, that you can achieve meaning in your life. And if you think that you have lost the person and the love that came with him or her, fear not. By their very nature, they are forever recoverable; it only depends on your will to recover them.

      The universe is, for all its glory and beauty, abjectly dumb. It is beholden to change without design. In all this, and perhaps more, the love of which I write is the only thing that is immutable, beyond the reach of all natural forces. For in a universe that otherwise knows only change—dumb change—love is the only fixed point that enables you to thrive with a change of your own making—intelligent change—to have a meaningful life.

Excerpt from “Change” (c) 2016 Mark Lee Ford, edited by Lennox Samuels. Translated by MacMillan Office.  Reprinted by permission from The Moneo Company.  All rights reserved.