As we approach the end of the year, it is a good time to reflect upon themeaning of our lives and work, as well as focus on the things that and peoplewho really matter the most to us. Ofcourse, there are many folks who just want to put 2009 behind them with a “goodriddance” sigh of relief. Let’s face it,it has been a very difficult, challenging year; one that we’d probably like toforget. The economic climate proved tobe more of a perfect storm. Like atsunami, it generated monstrous waves that were intent on destroying anythingin their path. And economic concernswere not the only source of turbulence, fear, and insecurity during the year. In this regard, I’m sure that the massmedia’s “end of the year” reviews will provide many other examples of why 2009is a year that deserves to be forgotten.
No matter how “bad” the year may have been, however, there is alwaysopportunity to view it through a meaning-centeredlens. And by so doing, the year gone-by offersus reason to engage in some deeper soul-searching, guidance in advancing ourpersonal growth and development, and a platform for planning a positivefuture. Reflecting on what reallymatters, i.e., (re)discovering and authentically (re)committing to themeaningful values and goals that ultimately drive and sustain us, is a healthy process—one that helps to defineand differentiate our very “humanness.”What better a time for such self-reflection and meaning analysis, then when we experience the end of one year andbeginning 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) wrotean article in the Journal for Quality and Participation called “Reflectionsof a (re)evolutionary.” In this article I wrote the following about myown life:
Time and experience certainly tend to influence what seems worth havingand doing. In my case, however, theseinfluences have been tempered by the fact that I have maintained over my adultlife a set of core values or principles to guide my thoughts and actions.In effect, these values, which have manifested themselves in different waysover the years, comprise the foundation of my character and emanate from theessence of my very being—my soul, if you will.It is as if my growth and learning have spiraled higher and higher overtime above the very same point. With the experience of beingable to view oneself from a distance, I can now “see” more clearly the contoursof 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 ofservice, especially public service. Morethan 20 years ago, I was committing to causes greater than myself. To beof service to others, especially to those less fortunate than I, became a”calling”;and the opportunity to challenge the status quo, no matter howmuch conflict was involved, became a quest worth doing. Fromparticipating in the anti-war effort during the Vietnam era to helping to fightthe “war on poverty” in the inner cities and rural areas of America, my notionof “worthiness” revolved more around the doing or experiencing of something ofvalue than it did the having. Driven by a core value in whichself-fulfillment was always more important than material success, I foundmyself submerged deeply in what Professor Peter Vaill has termed the “permanentwhitewater” of change. Indeed, I eventually learned, oftentimes the hardway, 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 mydear friend and colleague, Peter Vaill, who coined the term, and the Greekphilosopher, Heraclitus, for helping me to understand this fact of life). One reaffirming experience that has deepenedthe meaning of this earlier message came when my book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts,was published. It started what haseffectively become for me a “meaning ministry” that reaches out across theworld, one meaning-full experience andopportunity at a time. As I have mentioned often on this blog, it is abook based on the wisdom of my mentor and teacher, Dr. Viktor Frankl,world-renown psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of the classicbestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning. Again, I realize that much has changed inthis discovery of deeper meaning and purpose in my life through my connectionto Frank’s meaning-focused message and legacy, and much has stayed thesame.
Over the years, I have been able to reaffirm over and over again, like Iwrote in the above-mentioned article, that my growth and learning have spiraledhigher and higher over time above the very same point. From this vantage point, I believe that it isthe authentic commitment to meaningful values and goals (i.e., will to meaning) that has enabled me to navigate, as well asdiscover the seeds of meaning within, the permanent whitewater of change aroundme. Who knows, perhaps this is what ismeant 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 aboutmy 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 thetrue meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man orhis own psyche, as though it were a closed system.” Put differently, there is ahumanistic concept advanced in South Africa called “UBUNTU” in the Zululanguage. UBUNTU canbe 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 beingscan truly establish the human-ness of others (that is, our human-ness can onlybe truly expressed as a “reflection” of others). In the context of Viktor Frankl’s humanisticand existential philosophy, we must be able to extend beyond ourselves so that we canfulfill or realize more of ourselves.
Reflecting again on my article in the Journal for Quality andParticipation, this is what I meant by having a “set of core values orprinciples to guide my thoughts and actions.”In the midst of the permanent whitewater that surrounds us all,ultimately, it is our will to meaningthat guides us through the rapids of life and enables our learning and growthto 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 whitewaterthat is your life, what set of corevalues or principles would you say guides your thoughts and actions? Furthermore, how are you applying the conceptof 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 ElaineDundon is author of The Seeds ofInnovation (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.