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A meaningful life
Sometimes I wonder what makes our lives meaningful. Is it fame or power? Is it the kindness we dole out or the risks we take? Is it creativity or diligence? Does a meaningful life mean climbing the social ladder or the political one? Is life more meaningful if you are devoted to your friends or your family? Is happiness or sacrifice more important? When it comes to defining a meaningful life, there are always more questions than answers.
Perhaps no two people would have the same definition of a meaningful life. We all have our own set of priorities. The definition of a meaningful life changes over time, but I think I truly found the answer last week. When I was a child growing up on an isolated dairy farm in Ohio in the US, I thought my life would be meaningful if I had a purpose. I was fortunate to be growing up in the 50s and 60s.
The first seven years of my life were spread over the 50s when my father, mother and grandparents had survived World War II. I knew a meaningful life meant appreciating the simplest things in life—food on the table and a roof over our heads. I knew it was a miracle my father survived as a radio operator in the American Air Force where less than 20 per cent of crews survived.
From my mother and maternal grandparents I learned that a meaningful life meant picking yourself up by the bootstraps and going on when you had lost everything in the world. They had sneaked out of Romania and ended up in Germany only to find themselves as displaced citizens living in Nazi Germany. My dad bombed my mother’s city of Hannover and wiped it off the map. The 50s unveiled simple lessons of survival.
The 60s made me believe that a meaningful life meant following your social conscience. This was a time of great promise when singers and politicians dedicated themselves to righting the great wrong of prejudice in the US. Young people protested and demanded equal rights. I was too young to join these movements, but they were there beckoning me to join them some day.
In the 70s, a meaningful life meant a university education. The television had been blaring ads since I was five: “Go to university and be someone.” So I grew up believing that university was a place where you could go and magically come out a better person. By the time I reached university, I believed a meaningful life meant studying for a fascinating degree like anthropology. I was sure how anthropology was going to make me a more better person.
By the 80s a meaningful life meant exploring the world and finding what connected us all. I had landed in Trinidad and Tobago and a meaningful life meant being the best journalist I could be. It meant figuring out the world from the little board house in the middle of a sugar cane field where I lived. By the 90s, a meaningful life meant being the best mother and teacher I could be.
Then the children grew up and went along their way to discover the world and I, like all mothers, was left to ponder the purpose of a mother in an empty nest. I fumbled around and felt that a meaningful life would materialise when I had a book published. I had seven books published. That too added a feeling of purpose to my life, but still I couldn’t exactly place my finger on what makes a meaningful life.
I was sure that I found the answer when I went to YTC to teach CXC English language. That eye-opening experience turned out to be one of the most meaningful things I ever did in my life. I learned so much from my students, more than I ever taught them I am sure.
After that experience was over I was left again thinking about life. If one project ends—raising your children, teaching in YTC—is life still meaningful? I would like to think it is, but unless you keep doing or reaching for a sense of purpose I think you stand the chance of becoming a relic of the past, a dinosaur or an aged rock musician who has wrinkles and long hair but plays songs in 2012 that were popular in the 60s.
So what is the secret of a meaningful life? A few months ago I finally found the answer in an ESPN interview with Jim Brown, the greatest American football player who ever played the game. Brown, a superb athlete in his day, said: “I have had a good life. I am 73 years old and I’m still relevant.”
Yes, I thought, that’s it: relevance. You have to flow with the times, change and grow, look for new and innovative ways to fit into culture and fit into life. You have to be aware of the problems and issues that define us while you appreciate the journey of life. Politicians, musicians, businessmen, artists, scientists, engineers, innovators—everyone needs to be relevant. That is what ultimately makes life meaningful.
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