As we approach the end of the year, it is a good time to reflect upon the meaning of our lives and work, as well as focus on the things that and people who really matter the most to us. Of course, there are many folks who just want to put 2009 behind them with a “good riddance” sigh of relief. Let’s face it, it has been a very difficult, challenging year; one that we’d probably like to forget. The economic climate proved to be more of a perfect storm. Like a tsunami, it generated monstrous waves that were intent on destroying anything in their path. And economic concerns were not the only source of turbulence, fear, and insecurity during the year. In this regard, I’m sure that the mass media’s “end of the year” reviews will provide many other examples of why 2009 is a year that deserves to be forgotten.
No matter how “bad” the year may have been, however, there is always opportunity to view it through a meaning-centered lens. And by so doing, the year gone-by offers us reason to engage in some deeper soul-searching, guidance in advancing our personal growth and development, and a platform for planning a positive future. Reflecting on what really matters, i.e., (re)discovering and authentically (re)committing to the meaningful values and goals that ultimately drive and sustain us, is a healthy process—one that helps to define and differentiate our very “humanness.” What better a time for such self-reflection and meaning analysis, then when we experience the end of one year and beginning of another?
It is also meaningful to look back on life and work to see where you were, what has changed, and also what appears to have stayed the same. Some years ago, for example, I (Alex Pattakos) wrote an article in the Journal for Quality and Participation called “Reflections of a (re)evolutionary.” In this article I wrote the following about my own life:
Time and experience certainly tend to influence what seems worth having and doing. In my case, however, these influences have been tempered by the fact that I have maintained over my adult life a set of core values or principles to guide my thoughts and actions. In effect, these values, which have manifested themselves in different ways over the years, comprise the foundation of my character and emanate from the essence of my very being—my soul, if you will. It is as if my growth and learning have spiraled higher and higher over time above the very same point. With the experience of being able to view oneself from a distance, I can now “see” more clearly the contours of my life’s journey, with all of its zigs and zags, in some orderly fashion.
This said, my “worth ethic” has always centered on the notion of service, especially public service. More than 20 years ago, I was committing to causes greater than myself. To be of service to others, especially to those less fortunate than I, became a “calling”; and the opportunity to challenge the status quo, no matter how much conflict was involved, became a quest worth doing. From participating in the anti-war effort during the Vietnam era to helping to fight the “war on poverty” in the inner cities and rural areas of America, my notion of “worthiness” revolved more around the doing or experiencing of something of value than it did the having. Driven by a core value in which self-fulfillment was always more important than material success, I found myself submerged deeply in what Professor Peter Vaill has termed the “permanent whitewater” of change. Indeed, I eventually learned, oftentimes the hard way, that you can change without growing but you cannot grow without changing.
Since writing this piece some fifteen years ago, I recognize that the “permanent whitewater” of change has been ever-present (I must thank both my dear friend and colleague, Peter Vaill, who coined the term, and the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, for helping me to understand this fact of life). One reaffirming experience that has deepened the meaning of this earlier message came when my book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, was published. It started what has effectively become for me a “meaning ministry” that reaches out across the world, one meaning-full experience and opportunity at a time. As I have mentioned often on this blog, it is a book based on the wisdom of my mentor and teacher, Dr. Viktor Frankl, world-renown psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of the classic bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning. Again, I realize that much has changed in this discovery of deeper meaning and purpose in my life through my connection to Frank’s meaning-focused message and legacy, and much has stayed the same.
Over the years, I have been able to reaffirm over and over again, like I wrote in the above-mentioned article, that my growth and learning have spiraled higher and higher over time above the very same point. From this vantage point, I believe that it is the authentic commitment to meaningful values and goals (i.e., will to meaning) that has enabled me to navigate, as well as discover the seeds of meaning within, the permanent whitewater of change around me. Who knows, perhaps this is what is meant by the notion of the “path to enlightenment!”
As I travel the world carrying my message of meaning to and for others, I find myself reflecting upon and learning about my own life in meaningful ways as well. In Prisoners of Our Thoughts, I quote something from Dr. Frankl that is relevant to this very point: “I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system.” Put differently, there is a humanistic concept advanced in South Africa called “UBUNTU” in the Zulu language. UBUNTU can be translated roughly into English as “A person is only a person through other persons.” Moreover, UBUNTU is not about relationships per se; rather, it is about human-ness and how only human beings can truly establish the human-ness of others (that is, our human-ness can only be truly expressed as a “reflection” of others). In the context of Viktor Frankl’s humanistic and existential philosophy, we must be able to extend beyond ourselves so that we can fulfill or realize more of ourselves.
Reflecting again on my article in the Journal for Quality and Participation, this is what I meant by having a “set of core values or principles to guide my thoughts and actions.” In the midst of the permanent whitewater that surrounds us all, ultimately, it is our will to meaning that guides us through the rapids of life and enables our learning and growth to light the way. And while this may not appear to be a “revolutionary” concept, because it happens continuously over our lifetimes, it is (re)evolutionary!
So, now, ask yourself: As you travel through the permanent whitewater that is your life, what set of core values or principles would you say guides your thoughts and actions? Furthermore, how are you applying the concept of UBUNTU so that you can fulfill and realize more of yourself along the way?
Dr. Alex Pattakos is the author of Prisoners of Our Thoughts (www.prisonersofourthoughts.com) and Elaine Dundon is author of The Seeds of Innovation (www.seedsofinnovation.com). They are co-authors of Innovating with Meaning (forthcoming). Note: A second edition (revised and updated) of Prisoners of Our Thoughts will be released in July 2010.