Our Ongoing Search for Meaning

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“He reminds me of a character from a TV show.” So began a conversation with Sally as we watched a fellow traveler leave the elevator on our way back to our room. Staying on a glitzy stretch of Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, amid the Art Deco hotels, the Atlantic Coastline, perfect weather, an energetic night life, the Lamborghinis, the Ferraris, an area called “Muscle Beach,” and an equally exotic cast of characters, we found ourselves repeating that opening line repeatedly.

Exaggerated Features

Everything was exaggerated. Exaggerated wealth. Exaggerated self-expression. Exaggerated physiques. Exaggerated glitz. Exaggerated costs. Exaggerated art, design, culture, and entertainment. What an interesting place to visit! The vibe was uptempo and the vibrant mix of Latino foundations with lots of international influences gave the area a very unique flavor but, entertaining as it was, I couldn’t get away from the sense of exaggerated proportions.

A curious thing about exaggeration is how it makes some things easier to see. It magnifies. Many of our exaggerated behaviors are merely magnified reflections of things within us. Some of them are things we see, some of them are things we would like to see, and some may remain unseen. A place like Miami Beach concentrates the dramatic in ways that create caricatures of smaller features, many of which might go unnoticed in other places.

The Miami Beaches of the world are magnetic. They draw us in with a tantalizing sense of the extreme in an almost “anything goes” kind of ethos. That is part of the beauty of travel, getting to places that are beautiful, exotic, and different from what we know in our everyday existence. They create their own center of gravity, pulling us in with excitement and curiosity, perhaps even a bit of danger in their unknowns. They are intoxicating in their otherworldliness.

Lost in Self-Regard

Of course, we don’t live in such places. Well, most of us don’t. For every glitzy stretch of road, there is the real world behind it, supporting it, working in it, and keeping it alive with the hard work necessary to sustain such mirages. Watching the many characters gracing the scene of this place, I was struck by one common theme: self-regard. On the streets. In the restaurants. Along the beach. At the exercise equipment permanently stationed in the middle of the park by the beach. All of it screamed: LOOK AT ME!

Beautiful people. Beautiful beaches. Beautiful cars, hotels, and landscaping. The feast for the eyes went on and on. This is why we go, right? We want to experience the fantasy of such a place. But it is a reflection of something more, something deeper. The mirrored surface hides much of what is broken within us as individuals and within our society. The darker side remains present, reflected in the less glitzy characters who slept on side streets, in the park areas, or who came out after dark begging or peddling.

Self-regard of the Miami Beach flavor might be confused with simple vanity. To be sure, vanity is present but, much like the glossy surface of many beautiful things, it is really only skin deep. The more dangerous self-regard runs to the deeper depths of pride, and reflects our attempts to fill our own empty places with more self. On the surface, we want to be seen, to be heard, to be known. But the deeper reality is that we want to be relevant. We want to matter. It is here that we come face to face with our own sense of meaning.

You Don’t Matter

Amid another week of headlines highlighting layoffs, the message continues to be “You Don’t Matter.” Consider the steady stream of layoffs we’ve seen over the last few months. Thousands of people at a time. Thousands. There is no clearer way to say “you don’t matter” than to herd a bunch of people together and serve them their walking papers amid the faceless bureaucratic-speak of financial necessity and expressions like “your job has been eliminated.” Could it be more impersonal?

Without even the effort of arguing that you didn’t perform, aren’t a cultural fit, don’t seem to be engaged, or anything that might suggest some personal connection to anything remotely human – we watch these organizations pull massive levers kicking thousands to the employment curb. Execs own it by saying “I made a bad decision” or “I’ll eliminate my salary for a year” as if those feeble expressions of responsibility do anything to assuage the moral failure demonstrated in these decisions. These aren’t organization in dire financial straits or facing existential crises; we’re talking about the human politics of shareholders, power, and wealth.

Such events in our lives, elicit a crisis of meaning. And, there are many such events. We attach meaning to our jobs, our roles, our relationships, and our association with anything creating a sense of purpose or belonging. Along the way, we lose all of the above in some way or another…often feeling like it was taken from us. Here come the empty places. Those parts of us that used to hold meaning.

You Do Matter, but Your Life is Not About You

In the face of loss of meaning, we grasp for something solid to attach ourselves too. Often, our grip falls on what we feel we can control. The more things swirl around us, the more we try to stabilize ourselves with our self. This is why we frequently fill the empty places with stuff, habits, and entertainment. We have figured out how to numb emptiness quite well. At least for a time. Here, our self-regard becomes very dangerous. Those things that helped to fill our emptiness for a time turn into addictions. The world tells us we don’t matter, and soon, we begin to believe it. In the worst cases, we cease to matter to ourselves.

In the movie “Rise of the Guardians,” a philosophical North asks a lost and wandering Jack Frost, “What is your center?” Where we place our center makes all of the difference. As human beings, we are endowed with a worth, a dignity, by virtue of our humanity. We matter. However, when we put ourselves at the center, we fall into the trap of self-regard, the pride of thinking our life is all about us. Here, meaning slips away amid the unfulfilling experience of a self-serving existence. We do matter, but our life is not about us.

Love, Hope, and Meaning

Parenthood has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. It has also been one of the greatest challenges. Most of the best things I’ve experienced can be described in the same way. The gifts seem to hide amid the struggles. The lessons of the long game come through the peaks and the valleys. Marriage. Career. Faith. Over time, each of these journeys reinforces the basic notion: your life is not ultimately about you. Children help us realize that we are not the center. Jobs remind us. Marriages, successfully navigated, demand that we remove ourselves from the center, frequently. Almost all faiths, fully lived, will push us from our own self-regard in the acknowledgment of something more.

Last night, my family surrounded me to celebrate my 54th birthday. Watching my children and grandchildren through the evening, reminded me that it was my birthday, but it wasn’t about me. This life that is ours together. These moments that we share. The love that we give and accept from one another. We all exist as individuals within a great universe of togetherness. Yes, we all have self-interest. Yes, we all struggle in our own ways, sometimes together, and sometimes alone. However, the meaning in all of it hides within the surrender of self. A surrender with which we will often fail, but beyond which lies the meaning we crave.

All of us are given opportunities to put our self outside of the center in service of greater purpose. Family and children provide obvious and demanding opportunities to do so but are only one of many paths. Meaning hides in the call to selflessness. Freedom lies in surrender to that which is greater than self while the self-regard that plagues much of our society is a mirage of joy, a trap in the narrow confines of the small, cramped, space where we turn inwardly upon ourselves.

What is your center? Things? Pleasure? Self? Spend some time this week imagining what your life might look like with your self a bit outside of center. There is great hope in purpose, and the meaning of your life might be far greater than you ever imagined.

  • Trish+Berry

    Beautifully written and so true! Self has to move over to totally feel the love and joy given to you through others. That is my happy place.

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