A Sense of Meaning
Nourishes the Soul
Gordon Livingston

Of all the reasons we work, the effort to leave a footprint to mark our passing on the earth is the most compelling.  Among those who come to me with their stories, it is easy to get caught up in the medical cycle of diagnosis and treatment.  It is not hard to recognize depression and anxiety, the two most common disorders of those who seek help from a psychiatrist.  The fact that we now have medications that are effective in lifting these burdens from people can obscure the fact that happiness is much more than the absence of depression.

I often tell people that the medicine I am about to give them is designed only to relieve the burden of depression:  The crushing weight, the cloud, the shackles that rob their lives of pleasure, their nights of sleep, and their closest relationships of the simple joys of companionship and intimacy.  For many people, this is more than enough help.  Relief from a pain long endured is a state devoutly to be wished, and people are grateful.  For many, it is like being freed from prison, though the important question remains:  free to do what?

And yet, pleasure is not the absence of pain, nor is health the absence of disease.  It is what we do and who we are with that makes us happy.  In a larger sense, our mortality confronts us with questions of meaning.  What is the point of our daily struggles?  Most of us now have the leisure to contemplate the reasons driving our work and our play.

There is a certain emptiness to the simple equation of work and consumption.  ("I shop, therefore I am.")  None of us are young enough or rich enough to live up to the icons we create to stoke the engines of commerce.  No one is immune to these influences, but all of us are in danger of endorsing the superficiality they purvey.  The pictures of people in stores trampling each other to get to bargains on the aptly named "Black Friday" after Thanksgiving are both revealing and disturbing.

In our daily lives, questions of personal worth are recurrent, if seldom articulated.  This is never more evident than in the lives of those who retire.  We are so defined by our work that our identities without it are in question.  Unless we have something else to anchor us, we are in danger of disappearing, of becoming unseen by those who are still "productive."  Our families provide the most obvious continuing connections to a meaningful life.  In this society, however, the status of the elderly is sufficiently devalued that even family ties are freighted with questions of mental and physical decline.

The groundwork for this unenviable state has been laid in the choices we make when young.  The nature of most work--repetitive and unsatisfying--guarantees that we think of our jobs as little more than a means to support ourselves and to enable us to pursue leisure activities that commonly add little to our sense of personal significance.  We are, in short, starved for meaning.

I am convinced that this vacuum is what accounts for our fondness for organized religion.  Deprived of a clear sense of purpose or satisfaction, apprehensive about the significance of our lives, fearful of the apparent finality of death, we are desperate for an explanation for our existence and eager for some reassurance that there is a guiding purpose behind our daily struggles. . . . But religious belief is not the only path to a life of meaning.  It is possible to revere our world and the people in it, to accept the uncertainty that is the hallmark of our world, and to place one's faith in the angels of our better nature.  Above all, we might do well to cultivate a certain humility about our particular conception of what constitutes an ethical life and be willing to accept those who peacefully disagree with us.

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Work nourishes the soul.  All the creatures of the universe are
busy doing work, and we honor life when we work.  The type of
work is not important: the fact of the work is.  All work feeds
the soul if it is honest and done to the best of our abilities
and if it brings joy to others.

Matthew Fox



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When you spend your life doing what you love to do, you are nourishing
your Soul.  It matters not what you do, only that you love whatever you
happen to do.  Some of the happiest people I've known have been nannies,
gardeners, and housekeepers.  They put their hearts into their work, and
they used the work itself as a vehicle to nourish their Souls.  I've known
other people with more prestigious professions who absolutely hated their
jobs.  What good is it to be a doctor or a professional if you do not
genuinely love what you do?  Working in a job you do not love
does nothing to nourish your Soul.

Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross


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