In the name of growth, I have listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts and workshop leaders and I have read countless books, articles, and course material. A month ago, during a walk in the Maine woods, I stopped abruptly in the middle of a Tim Ferriss podcast. I couldn’t absorb another word from well-intentioned people spinning verbose webs to claim a corner of the rapidly expanding personal development business. When something becomes an industry, even when the origin is pure, a land grab becomes the inevitable next step. We race each other up hills as children and continue to do so in more sophisticated ways as adults.
Two questions emerged as I finished my walk in silence: What is true? How do I stay close to what is true? I have been sitting with these questions the past few weeks.
There are two things I know: when I am in the presence of purity, and that to stay close to the truth inside me, I must find time to sit quietly throughout my day and allow the layers I continuously accumulate to peel away. During periods of simplicity and silence, what’s needed for the next step of my journey surfaces. If I am attached to a fixed set of circumstances in my life, the process is not easy or comfortable. Inflexible thinking weighs more than armor.
After reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, I understood what it is I crave, now, and throughout my entire life, it’s the same thing you crave: meaning. During Viktor’s time at Auschwitz, as everything was ripped away, he became acutely aware of his insatiable desire to find meaning. An Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, Viktor observed a pattern in the men who refused to get out of bed or eat their daily ration one day with no explanation. What appeared as a random decision was, in fact, the result of a much deeper one. The men had lost or abandoned the meaning that had been motivating them to carry on in excruciating circumstances. All of these men died within twenty-four hours, long before much sicker men surrounding them.
In Viktor’s words, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” Locate meaning and find your reason to embrace your existence, no matter what happens.
Meaning in our culture has become a singular objective. I bought into the “find your purpose” conversation for years and the pressure it created only added to my discontentment. Viktor had a different point of view: “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.” Creating meaning, moment to moment, day by day, is an attainable aim for all of us.
Certain sounding people delivering concepts packaged as researched data spin me in circles. My honest quest for meaning can devolve into a striving for significance in minutes. Creating pockets of peace every day is essential so I can stay close to my intention. In these lulls, my meaning is obvious.
Last week, I listened to my first podcast, since that moment in the woods. It was Oprah interviewing Zainab Salbi on her Super Soul podcast. Zainab is the founder of Women for Women International, and her work is astounding. But it wasn’t her contributions that captured my listening, it was her beautiful, true soul. She spoke with freedom and love that carried me to my own truth.
Later that day I saw three twenty-something-year-old girls walking down the sidewalk near my New York City apartment. They were wearing bright lipstick and walking confidently in high heels. Instead of thinking my usual thought, one day they will know that nothing you put on will make you happy for long, I thought about an epiphany Zainab had when she started working in war-torn countries to advocate for women.
During the Seige of Sarajevo, women in Bosnia asked Zainab to bring them lipstick. Zainab assumed that they would be desperate for vitamins or some other necessity. Surprised by their response, she asked why? Their answer changed her thinking forever. “It’s the smallest thing we put on every day, and we feel beautiful, and that’s how we are resisting. They want us to feel that we are dead. They want us to feel that we are ugly.”
After that conversation, Zainab let go of her judgments and assumptions about what women she sought to help needed. She understood that paths to joy and freedom are as diverse as human beings themselves.
The girls I passed may have found a deeper meaning in their lipstick and high heels than I find there. Someone else’s meaning is not ours to know or judge. The only way to help loved ones find meaning is by fully inhabiting our own. When we do this, we give people the courage to unzip an outdated identity and connect with their true nature.