Three Ingredients for a Meaningful Life

“I wanted my life to count for more. I wanted deeper relationships. I wanted to touch the hearts of others. And so I began my search for a meaningful life. These three things are helping me find my dream and live a more meaningful life.”

*this post is part of my #write31days series Dare to Dream: Finding Your Dream Again

Many years ago we had moved to a new town and were getting settled with our two young boys, then ages 2 and 6 months, and I was lonesome. I was a young mom and we had finally found a home church, but I was so unsure of myself. I was 26-year-old stay at home mom, and I had no idea who I was or who I was supposed to be. It seemed that all the other moms had it all together – always dressed to the nines, hair perfectly in place, kids sitting quietly at the pew. In the meantime, I had one kid is screaming in the nursery, and the other one yelling “My penis itches!” in the middle of prayer. So much for having it together.

To be truthful, I really didn’t want to be friends with the women who had it all together (at least I thought they had it all together). People who smile too much make me suspicious (you know, those people who smile even when they’re angry? I don’t trust them). I knew I could never measure up, and it would be too much pressure. But my heart longed for a friend, for grown-up conversation, for someone to share my heart with in these early days of mommyhood.


During those early days, I attended a funeral for a woman from church. I didn’t know her, but I was helping serve the meal afterwards, so I came early and attended the funeral. As I listened to family and friends review her life, I was struck not by what she had done or even who she was, but how she loved. I heard story after story about how she had loved her friends, shown up in times of need, and given of herself for others. Not for a salary, not for recognition, but just because of who she was. I thought long and hard after that funeral – what kind of friend am I? What will people say about me after I’m gone? Am I making an impact on the lives I touch, or am I just existing and surviving? I knew that I was just surviving. That I was waiting for life to come to me, I was waiting for people to invite me into their lives, but I wasn’t making an effort to love others. I wasn’t reaching out. And that day, I determined that

I wanted my life to count for more. I wanted deeper relationships. I wanted to touch the hearts of others.

That was almost thirty years ago, and I’m still learning every day what it means to love others.

If you have read any of my essays, you know I am a fan of author Donald Miller, who wrote Blue Like Jazz and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. And subsequently, I have fallen in love with Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. From his experiences living and observing others in Nazi concentration camps in WWII, Viktor Frankl developed many theories on man’s motivation to live a meaningful life. As he developed a framework of existential therapy called logotherapy, he theorizes that there are three “main avenues” which one must take to find meaning in life.

“The first is by creating a work or doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in work but also in love  . . . Most important, however, is the third avenue to meaning in life; even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by doing so change himself. He can turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, Postscript 1984, Viktor Frankl)

Donald Miller has utilized these lessons in his Storyline ministry, helping people live more meaningful lives, and more practically, developing a life plan. He applies Frankl’s work and explains it a little further, giving practical steps to finding your dream and living a meaningful life.

The three crucial ingredients in finding a meaningful life:

  1. Meaningful work or a project. Working towards something that is bigger than yourself that brings meaning not just to your life, but to your world. This is something that is unique to each individual. It may be what you do as a career, or it may be something apart from your regular job. Often this is something that only you can do, based on your unique life experience and your own special gifts and talents.
  2. A loving community. I am not talking about your 400 Facebook friends. These are friends that you live life with, who love you unconditionally. We were made to live in community. We need to surround ourselves with friends with whom we can share our heart on a regular basis. Friends who ‘get’ us. To live a meaningful life, we need to walk alongside friends who love us as we are but also encourage us to grow beyond who we are. These are the friends who will be gathered around your deathbed.
  3. Our suffering redeemed. Frankl states that we need a change in perspective on the suffering or tragedies that have occurred in our lives. Turning tragedies into triumphs is the key is survival and also learning from that pain, and using it for a greater purpose. To build a meaningful life, we can take those difficult times and not let them destroy us, but use them as a tool to build a better life.

The Next Step (in Attaching Meaning to Our Suffering)

What would the world be missing if you did not tell your beautiful story?

This is part two of exploring the importance attaching meaning to our suffering. In Attaching Meaning to Our Suffering – the Most Important Step, I described a process that I went through in leadership training in which we looked at the significant events and experiences in our lives, positive and negative, and then thought about the lessons which learned from these events. We shared our stories with one another, and learned there is power in sharing your story.

The last part of the exercise was the most important. We were asked to look again at the quilt that represented the story of our lives . We were then given more squares of all colors. Drawing from the story of our lives, we were asked to take the lessons we learned from each event and circumstance, whether we considered it positive or negative. We considered those lessons and what they might mean in the overall purpose for our lives. We took those last quilt squares and brainstormed what interests, projects, careers, or ministries might be born from the story of our lives so far. We were asked to fill up the last few rows of the quilt.

Some examples from my quilt:

  • I suffered multiple miscarriages early in our marriage. That gave me a heart for women who have had miscarriages and are dealing with infertility. In general, it also gave me a heart for people who are hurting. This translated into working with our support group for moms at church and eventually into my job as a hospice nurse.
  • We had some serious struggles early in our marriage and came very close to divorcing. As a result, we have shared our story numerous times in public and in private, so that couples going through difficult times would know they are not alone, and also to help them have hope that marriages can be healed even when it seems like things are hopeless.
  • My younger sister died in a car accident when I was newly married. She was 19 years old, four years younger than myself. As an adult, I missed having a sister to share my life with, to be an aunt to my children. I think that this made me much more purposeful in my friendships with other women, and I gathered a circle of women friends who were like sisters. Once again, this loss of life also prepared me for becoming a hospice nurse.
  • Maybe you experienced some sort of abuse as a child. That experience might move you to learn how to be a better parent and do things differently. Or you may be the person who can easily pick out hurting kids, and you make it a point come alongside them to provide encouragement and a safe place. You may choose a career such as nursing, counseling, or social work, to help others who have been abused to find hope and healing.

Those are just a few examples of how reframing those negative events helps to give those moments or seasons of suffering meaning and purpose. This does not mean denying the pain or hurt that resulted from negative events or circumstances. It simply involves searching out a reason for the suffering and gleaning any lessons that might be learned. Redeeming our suffering by attaching meaning to it is a crucial step in finding your dream (again).

It becomes increasingly clear that events and circumstances in our lives are connected, even though it might not be obvious at first. This exercise helps to put all of the pieces together to tell the story of our lives – where you have been and, more importantly, where you are going.

What would the world be missing if you did not tell your beautiful story?

Ali Eminov "Girls of Sudam" The Quilted Conscience Project

Ali Eminov “Girls of Sudam” The Quilted Conscience Project


Attaching Meaning to Our Suffering – the Most Important Step

Sometimes we can be so overwhelmed by the negative turns in our lives, we become blind to the purpose they serve.

Every life is characterized by a series of events and circumstances. We might label some as ‘good’ or ‘positive’, while others might be labeled at ‘bad’ or ‘negative’.

Years ago I participated in a group exercise for a leadership team – each individual in the group made a timeline of all of the major events of our lives whether we consider them good or bad.

After we did this we were given small squares of construction paper. On each square we wrote some words or drew a picture that characterized that particular event in our lives. We were then given a large piece of paper and many colored squares. We then took our squares of life events, and, intermingling those with colorful squares, created a paper quilt. We were also asked to leave the last few rows of our quilt blank. After our quilt was done, we used our quilt to tell the rest of the group the story of our lives – the positive and negative things that happened.

I don’t want to just skip past the most significant part of this exercise. We ‘read’ our quilts to the rest of our group. We told them our story.

There was power in telling our stories out loud.

Some of the group had never fully shared their stories.
The key was this: As we told about the events or circumstances that we considered negative, we were asked to also share what we learned from each of those events, and how that affected the rest of our ‘story’.

Sometimes we can become so overwhelmed by the negative turns in our lives that we are blinded to the purpose they serve.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl states

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

Author Donald Miller explains it like this

“The process of redeeming your negative turns comes from Dr. Viktor Frankl, who believed one way a person gains the existential experience of meaning is by taking each bit of suffering they’ve experienced and finding a redemptive perspective toward it. His exact thought was this: Once we find a redemptive perspective on our suffering, it ceases to be suffering.”

Once you have looked at your story and taken steps to redeem your suffering, what’s next? How does this help one find their dream (again?)

Read more at The Next Step (in Attaching Meaning to Our Suffering)



Digging Down Deep to Discover Your Dream

If you have forgotten how to dream, HOW do you start again?

We started this journey by asking ourselves “What would you do if money were no object?”

Then we went a step further, and looked at what gives our life meaning. We thought about our passions, and what sparks our heart to life, or ‘puts a fire in your belly’?

We talked about picturing your life as a story, and asked the question, “How can I live a better story?”

It’s easy to get stuck on those questions, especially if you haven’t thought about such things for a while. Next we looked at what might hinder us from finding our dream, or our passion.

Here are some questions that can help open your heart and mind and start you dreaming again. Once again, if you journal the answers to these questions, it might be easier to process through them. You also might not be able to answer the all of the questions right now – think about them for a while, and then come back. Once you start opening the door to dreaming again, you will be surprised at the thoughts that start to flow and the feelings that begin to bubble up to the surface.

  1. Write a list of things you LOVE. Not things you love, but things you LOVE, in all caps. Don’t think too much about it or analyze each item, just write things down as you think of them.
  2. When you were a child of about age 8-10, what did you love to do?  What did you spend most of your time doing? Before age 10, we usually aren’t distracted by hormones, and social and economic class didn’t mean that much to most of us. We were just carefree kids, our essence of self just forming, untainted by society and social norms.
  3. What energizes you? Is there an activity, project, ministry, artistic endeavor, type of relationship that really gets you jazzed? When do you feel most alive?
  4. What are your hobbies?
  5. What type of people are you drawn to?
  6. What times in your life were you most happy?
  7. What do you think about on your down time? (Like at night just before bed?                                                            *** Side note: if you are the type of person who is never without your phone or computer, you may not be allowing yourself any down time. If you have a habit of picking up your phone to check social media first thing in the morning and you are on social media until you fall asleep, you may not be giving yourself down time. TRY THIS: When you go to bed tonight, put your phone where it is not within arms reach. As you are falling asleep, give yourself time without any distractions – no phone, computer, television, earphones. Just you and the quiet. When you awake in the morning, give yourself at least 5 minutes of time without distractions. You can use this time to think, pray, meditate, or just be still. You might be surprised what happens after just a few days. Start with 5 minutes of quiet at night and 5 minutes before you get out of bed in the morning.
  8. What do you dream about? And this time I am talking about the kind of dreams that you have when you’re asleep at night. When we are asleep, our brain is still working, still processing in our subconscious. Write down your dreams for one month, and see if there is a common theme.
  9. What do you like to read about, or what kind of information are you drawn to? History? Fiction? Self-help?
  10. What do you like to do for artist expression or creativity? Write? Draw? Sing?

These questions may not give you a definite answer, but each is a piece of the puzzle.

photo cred Mats Hagwall flickr

photo cred Mats Hagwall flickr

Pleasant dreams . . .

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll share the ONE thing that is the secret of life.