Ah, life. We can pour energy into our work, our sport, the last shiny object to catch our eye, the loudest demand for our time. Then someone dies or gets sick or ups and leaves for some reason, and we wonder what life’s all about anyway. It’s a worthwhile ponder that connects us to a lineage of humans who gazed at stars and asked themselves the same questions.
Some say having kids gives life meaning, and I imagine that’s so. But growing numbers of us don’t have them and define our lives on different terms. Even when kids are in the mix, they grow up and leave the family nest empty, offering new opportunities to reexamine life’s meaning and priorities.
When we notice we’ve lost our inner compass, we can consciously explore new routes to purpose and meaning. The quest can be life-long and satisfying.
1. Seek widely and taste freely
Buffets are profitable because the less expensive, filling food is offered at the line’s beginning, luring us to load up our plates before getting to the pricier, more complex dishes. In life, choices abound, and the most insistent can command our time and attention without satisfying our appetites or soulful intentions.
Before committing to any shift in direction, give yourself license to try a variety of inquiries. Choose options completely out of character. Go for contrast—cerebral to silly, really hard to super simple. It’s okay to make some mistakes.
Marcia and Albert retired early and decided to travel. Possessions had become weighty nuisances, so they whittled down their stuff to what fit in eight storage boxes. The rest they sold or gave away and took off for southeast Asia, living life on the road unencumbered.
Emails they wrote along the way captured not only what they did but how they reacted to new stimuli as they changed geographic locations, sought comprehension in languages unknown, and described each other’s reactions to different modes of travel.
After many months overseas, they found they missed home life and returned to rent a house near family and friends. Each new possession they now acquire is made with appreciation for its utility and a clear sense of purpose.
2. Reflect on past satisfiers
When I had a flexible schedule, at least once a week I read with first graders. I don’t have children of my own, and working with kids struggling to make sounds into words was a source of great joy. Then my work schedule became more structured, and I bade farewell to the kids. It took me a while to notice, but I miss them and can now carve out time for them.
Examine commitments you’ve made and why you were attracted to them in the first place. Is serving on that non-profit board still a source of satisfaction or has it shifted to weighty drudgery? You could be occupying the very role someone else would embrace with verve. Letting go frees you up to try other endeavors and see what speaks to your heart.
If you have old journals, connect with your younger self. Sometimes you’ll find nuggets of wisdom that made it to paper before you were ready to follow your own sage advice. Reviewing how we’ve evolved might also resurface areas of interest cut short by other life demands.
3. Seek out the seekers
Look to the way finders—those who dedicate their lives to searching out meaning and purpose. There are lessons to be learned from different perspectives, even if you find you don’t agree with paths others follow. If you have kids, ask those of us who don’t what gives our lives meaning. Attend a different faith’s religious service. If you typically lead with your head, spend a little time with those who lead from the heart. Be open and curious.
Ascetics, nuns, and many yogis devote themselves to the spiritual realm. Learning how they found clarity can open new doors or suggest different areas of exploration. I once met a Buddhist woman on the cusp of taking vows to become a nun. She realized her true work lay in teaching beginning meditators, not separating herself from secular life. She doesn’t regret the years devoted to personal spiritual practice, rather she directs her care to those seeking to quiet their beginners’ minds.
Elders can offer interesting perspectives for our futures. Often the very questions we’re asking now are those seniors we know already resolved in ways we might never consider.
Recently a childfree professor in her eighties joined a circle of women spanning 4 decades of age. Her advice about long-range life planning was provocative. “Look to the distant future if you want,” she said, “but recognize you haven’t yet become the person you’ll be five or ten years from now. That’s whose guidance will propel you forward with more clarity than who you are today.”
Whether these psychic nudges about life’s meaning come from deep within or in response to shifts in life circumstances, we can always consciously rejuvenate our sense of purpose and place in the world.