What is the meaning of life?

what is the meaning of life

By Mark Schaefer

Nearly every day, I’m asked to contribute an idea to some post or periodical. The questions are somewhat predictable …

What is a business trend that excites you? What is on the horizon for social media? … and stuff like that.

But a magazine recently posed a question that made me pause: To you, what is the meaning of life?”

At first, I thought, “What a dumb question. Why would I answer that?” But then I realized that I didn’t have a ready answer. Shouldn’t I be able to articulate my own answer to this question? So I took it up as an intellectual challenge and answered it, and now I’ll answer it for you, too. An exercise in introspection!  : )

The cauldron

Twenty years ago, I read this little book — almost a pamphlet really — called Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. In this book, Frankl explores how concentration camp prisoners found meaning in their lives when everything — even their names and identities — had been stripped away. I have read the book many times since that first encounter as an inspiration and guide.

There is a line in the book that has stuck with me for years. Maybe even haunted me … “To be human is to suffer.”

As I have learned (the hard way), this is true. Maybe you have suffered, or maybe your time is yet to come, but at some point we all enter the cauldron.

And unavoidably, the suffering leaves a mark on us, defines us in some way forever. Time does not heal, it only numbs. The accumulated suffering in a lifetime inexorably becomes part of the fabric of our daily presence from that moment forward.

The meaning of life

I think the thing that distinguishes us ultimately, is how we handle our suffering. Perhaps this also provides the direction, the meaning of our lives.

As long as we dwell in the suffering, the fabric of our life is dark and bleak and unproductive. The trajectory of our life becomes a never-ending battle to be soothed, validated, and healed by some external source.

But if we learn to battle through our suffering and even develop this as a true life skill, we also discover a way to weave those dark threads into a more vibrant tapestry — the meaning of life and how we experience it can be rich and colorful. In fact, our lives can become even more amazing and wonderful than if we had never suffered at all.

Creating joy from suffering. That is a really, really difficult life journey. But our success or failure in that task ultimately determines the trajectory of our lives, doesn’t it? That’s the point the meaning of our life shifts from “I want that new car” to “I want to become something more.”

Finding joy

Many years ago, I had the wisest of teachers tell me that the overwhelming emotion he experienced every day was joy. You could certainly see this in his kind and twinkling blue eyes. This is a man who was known to walk into a restaurant and burst into song!

Feeling joy … I know it sounds sad, but at that time in my life, this was a startling revelation. In that year, my life was pretty shitty and I would have named anxiety, sadness, and concern as my dominant emotions. Joy was rarely on the radar. A life goal from that moment on was to discover and nurture joy in my life, even in the face of suffering. Really, what other goal can trump that?

I think over the course of a lifetime, the meaning of life is the individual, and difficult, personal process of transforming suffering into joy. Overcoming hardship tends to put a fine point on what comes next …

Finding your gift.

Finding a way to give your gift away.

Breaking through boundaries.

Helping others beat what tried to beat you.

Turning words into meaningful actions and love.

Learning to be alive in every way, every day.

Turning pain into purpose

For me, this is a work in progress. I have had to learn to forgive. I have had to stay centered on values ahead of profits and notoriety. I have learned that creating joy in others multiplies the joy in me. Being brave brings joy. Being kind brings joy. Making a difference through my work brings joy. The fine point of my trajectory is teaching and trying to lift people up and inspire them to reach their potential.

If you can become a person who exudes joy, it will certainly make every thing, every place, and every person around you more joyful, peaceful and happy, too. I think it even helps your business. Wouldn’t you prefer to do business with a joyful person?

Well, that’s what’s going on for me. Is the meaning of your life emerging as you convert suffering to joy?

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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