Most of us, whether conscious of it or not, want our lives to have meaning and purpose. We want who we are and what we do to matter, and we want it to be valuable. So much psychology speaks to this innate human desire that it’s not something we can ignore. Just read the work of any philosopher and psychologist and in some fashion, you’ll find they all believe human beings need to have meaning and purpose in their lives. Victor Frankl wrote his famous book “Man’s Search for Meaning” and in it demonstrates how survival in a Nazi concentration camp came from his ability to make meaning of the most tragic situation a human being can face. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson believes all human beings come to a point in life where they ask, “Did my life matter, did I contribute to the world somehow?” This need to have and create meaning and purpose is an essential element of the human experience. The question becomes, where do we get this sense of meaning and purpose?
Frankl believes it comes from several aspects of human living. The main areas Frankl mentions are purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty. These cover a significant amount of the stuff human life is made of and I agree it’s wise to think about these things from the perspective of how your life matters and has purpose. It’s exceptionally important you face difficulty with purpose. Why do you suffer? Why must you persevere through disease, disaster, and the loss of loved ones? For many people, it’s to pass on the story of their family, country, and community. Some persevere through disease to help others learn more about that type of suffering. Some through disaster and war so that the country and people they love can pass on their story and the principles they believe are important. Both take great courage and perseverance through any of them witnesses to the greatness of the human spirit. The third one, however, is somewhat interesting. Meaningful work is often misunderstood because its value is believed to only benefit the one doing the work. People think meaningful work is work that satisfies the person doing it but there’s so much more to meaningful work. Some people do meaningful work that no one ever notices or involves the most mundane tasks you can imagine. What makes it meaningful? The fact it serves something valued by the community in which it is exercised. It transcends the individual.
There’s a story about the janitor at a NASA facility in the 1960’s who found significant purpose and meaning in what he was doing. He believed by keeping the facility clean, by mopping, cleaning toilets, and emptying trash cans he was contributing to the effort to put a man on the moon. Do most people enjoy that kind of work? Certainly not, but for this man, it spoke to a greater purpose and served the community he valued. The key to doing meaningful work is to do that which you believe matters for the greater good. In short, it’s discovering how your life uniquely contributes to those around you. Anyone who finds work meaningful discovers very quickly that it’s not the glory of the tasks that make it meaningful, it’s fulfilling a personal mission to serve the community they value.
Most people in the United States have no idea who Christopher Wren is and perhaps a number of people in London don’t recognize his name as well. However, Christopher Wren is the architect that developed a significant number of buildings in London after the great fire of 1666. One of those buildings he helped rebuild was St Paul’s Cathedral, a beautiful and very famous church in England. It took 45 years to complete his renovations, the dome he designed extends 365 feet making it one of the tallest in the world. In the crypt at St Paul’s are monuments to many famous people who contributed to English society and culture. However, you will not find a monument to Christopher Wren. Instead, there is a plain marker on the crypt wall that reads:
“Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived beyond ninety years, nor for his own profit but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you.”
That’s a powerful testimony to a life that had meaning and purpose. You can have that as well, but you need to ask yourself how you can use the gifts and talents God has blessed you with to serve the community. It doesn’t have to be the world and you don’t even need to be recognized for it in any grand way. Simply love and serve your family, neighborhood, church, and community in a way that uniquely reflects what you are good at, no matter what that thing is. By doing this, the monument you create reflecting your contribution will be reflected in the many lives you touch. Who needs a marble statue when the positive impact you have on generations of people will always speak to that which mattered most, even if they can’t remember your name.