I frequently talk and write about living a good life. I believe living a good life is done holistically, embracing every facet of the human person. That simply means you need to be mindful of the fact your human life is lived in a body, thought about with your mind, experienced with your emotions, shared in relationships, and given meaning transcendently. Good living is concerned with caring for your physical well-being through a proper diet and exercise program, keeping your mind sharp by learning new things, being mindful of your emotional responses, working hard to keep relationships good with others, and participating in activities requiring you to think of those things greater than yourself. In this post, I’m going to address that last aspect of living a good life. I want to discuss what it means to live transcendently.
Living well can’t simply be reduced to one of the five areas mentioned above nor can we eliminate one of them without impacting the others. You can’t say happiness is derived by simply thinking good thoughts. If you don’t care for your body you can’t think well because your physical wellbeing impacts your brain which in turn impacts your ability to think clearly. Studies show obese people experience some cognitive impairment and this impairment gets worse as they age. This is related to how the physiological response to obesity impacts brain functioning. Good relationships with other people seem to imply longer life and better physiological development. We are an interconnection of all five dimensions mentioned above and without one the others suffer. I find many people are concerned with their physical well-being, some work on maintaining their psychological well-being, and most are interested in maintaining good relationships. However, few people think about their transcendent self. They believe this area of life is nothing more than religious nonsense or unimportant philosophical idealism. That can be a real problem because if the good life depends on these five interacting dimensions of human living by ignoring one of them you impact the others.
When I talk about our transcendent nature, I’m talking about the human capacity to go beyond ourselves. We have this inherent need to reach beyond ourselves in a couple of ways. First, we need to make meaning of our lives and feel a sense of purpose for what we do. Meaning and purpose cause us to reach beyond our current situation and become part of something bigger. Viktor Frankl, a famous psychotherapist, and Holocaust survivor believes the human need for creating meaning and purpose is one of the most important things a person does, particularly when experiencing suffering. He believes we can discover meaning in life in three particular ways. First, through the creation of work and activity. Creating and doing cause us to ask questions about why we do what we do. In a person’s work, the individual can identify a purpose, even if that purpose is merely to provide for those he or she loves. The second way one discovers meaning is through encounters with other people. Other people challenge our understanding of ourselves as we engage them and lead us to know our purpose and meaning in ways we may not have appreciated before. And the third way is through suffering. Frankl has said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” Through suffering people come to understand the importance of their mental response to their conditions. So the first element of being transcendent has to do with our need to find, create, and experience meaning and purpose for our lives, relationships, work, and the suffering we endure.
The second way we experience transcendence is by connecting our lives to something that matters. Human beings need a mission. We need to be part of a quest that makes the world a better place. This need to be part of a mission is connected to our need to make meaning and purpose as outlined above but stands on its own as well because it’s concerned with how we end our life journey. We want to leave a legacy when we die. We want to know our lives mattered in some way to some people. Human beings are not just concerned with meaning in the immediate sense of their lives, they care about what their life meant when they’re gone. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the following: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” If we want to live transcendently we should begin to think about the things that matter.
Meaning and purpose, living toward a legacy and making our lives matter are ways we live transcendently. Without this transcendent element, we miss the opportunity to live life as fully as possible. In fact, when we ignore the transcendent aspect of who we are we struggle emotionally and psychologically which then causes us to struggle physically and relationally. Transcendent living gives us hope, provides us with aspirations, draws our lives toward something more than the “every day”, and alleviates existential angst. If you want to live a full, healthy, flourishing life commit to doing two things. First, find a way to make meaning and purpose in life. You can do that by spending some time thinking about what matters to you and how you can use that to help other people. Then, become an advocate for what matters in life. Make your life a quest to create a place in this difficult world where peace and prosperity can be experienced by those around you.