Last week, I was struck off guard by an essay written by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks was the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, and publishes his weekly sermons in a fabulous series called, Covenant and Conversation. The particular essay I’m referring to is called, The Pursuit of Meaning. I highly recommend reading it, even if you don’t consider yourself a spiritual person, because there are underlying truths in the Rabbi’s writing that transcend religion. In the essay, Rabbi Sacks writes:
Happiness is largely a matter of satisfying needs and wants. Meaning, by contrast, is about a sense of purpose in life, especially by making positive contributions to the lives of others. Happiness is largely about how you feel in the present. Meaning is about how you judge your life as a whole: past, present and future.
The reason this struck an unusual chord with me is that this is a counter-intuitive idea—opposite of how one typically strives to achieve “happiness”. Rabbi Sacks also references the American Declaration of Independence, in which “the pursuit of happiness” is named among the inalienable rights of all Americans. But, what if happiness is the wrong thing to pursue? Would it be better if the statement were amended to the pursuit of meaning?
The Holocaust survivor and psychologist, Viktor Frankl famously wrote about this very idea in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. On happiness, Frankl writes:
Happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.
This idea of an indirect path to happiness is similar to that of author and New York Times Op-Ed columnist, David Brooks. In a beautiful Commencement speech to Dartmouth University, David writes:
You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is arrogance and pride. Failure can lead to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.
In other words, if happiness is to be pursued, it cannot be pursued directly. Happiness can still be your end goal, but only as a byproduct from the pursuit of meaning. What then, is the best way to pursue meaning? How does one go about finding a purpose, a calling, a vocation? Rabbi Sacks offers the suggestion to examine the intersection of, “Where what we want to do meets what needs to be done.” Certainly, that’s one way to go about it.
I think there are actually two ways to define this concept of a “life’s purpose”. First you have the macro-lens, the big-picture, the capital-P Purpose, and the immediate and obvious understanding of the idea. But you also have a more-subtle, day-by-day, life’s purpose. Your purpose on a daily basis may not have some grand, world-changing significance, but may probably be just as crucial. As we know from Frankl, meaning can be found anywhere, including hell on earth. Meaning can be found in just getting through the day, cleaning the house, washing the pile of dirty dishes, folding your socks, paying your bills, or cooking a good meal. Meaning can be found in simply taking care of your body, your health, and your spirit. Like love, meaning is one of those things that builds on an inner foundation and then radiates outwards. Failure to see one’s capital-P Purpose, is nothing but a simple truth that in the day-in-day-out trenches of everyday life, it’s entirely too easy not to see how it all adds up.
That is where the concept of faith comes in. If you pursue meaning in your days, you will live a “meaningful" life. If you answer the call to help, no matter how small, trivial, or insignificant, you will be making a difference. Americans aren’t wrong in their desire to pursue happiness. But I'd argue that for too long, we’ve actually been chasing the wrong idea. As Rabbi Sacks says, “The door to happiness opens outward.” In other words, don’t look for something that will make you happy. Instead, look for something that makes you feel useful. Joy may be found in the fruit of your labor; but without your labor, there is no fruit. My understanding of my life’s meaning only goes as far as I can see. Right now, I can’t see the entirety of my life; I can only see today. That's what really caught me off guard in Rabbi Sacks' essay, and that's why this idea of "meaning" needs redefining. It's not that we lack Purpose, but we've been searching for it in all the wrong places. The more subtle, average, nuanced kind of meaning is all around you, every day, calling. So to live a meaningful life, a life that is full of meaning, you simply have to answer the call.