Since Socrates’ inscription on the Apollo at Delphi: Know Thyself, man’s search for meaning has been explored, pondarded, and all too often ignored. knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Since humans have evolved beyond survival, the creation of “Free time” to consider existential questions such as, Who am I ? and What is the meaning of my life? has called from within. We now have the possibility of engagement with these question. Yet, as I look around at the attitudes and behaviors of our nation’s leaders I struggle to use the word evolved- I digress.
Part of the issue lies in making an important distinction, are we searching for happiness or meaning? The Declaration of Independence states that all citizens have the right to; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I have lived most of my life with this aspiration of happiness.
As a boy, I naively looked around at the window dressing of my friend’s lives, watched movies and TV, and read magazines, and it was clear to me that everyone was happy, outside of me and my family. As I became a young man, especially when I started participating in men’s work, I began to see the inaccuracy of this limited perception. The challenges of being human are universal, and as Buddhism teaches, life is suffering, and all suffering is due to our attachments. However, I did, until recently, continue to hold the goal of happiness as a central aim in my life, often falling short.
Author and Jungian analyst, James Hollis, makes a significant distinction; “It is not happiness that we seek, rather it’s meaning.” When happiness is the goal, there is often a false belief that things or situations will provide happiness. This materialistic view is at the very core of our society leading many to strive for a false idol. We are constantly bombarded with messages , from every media source , buy this and you’ll be happy. The notion is, If you have the right job, and the right house-with picket fence, the right wife, in the right neighborhood, and the right “toys” … you will be successful which equates to happiness. However, the research reveals that depression and anxiety are the most common maladies experienced by people in our country today. Money, toys, things…can’t buy you love, they are distractions from our true quest-To find meaning in our lives.
As I have transitioned from having and accomplishing- divorcing, selling the family home, retiring, to following a calling to travel the country in my RV, the questions , what meaning can I find in every situation, and how do I create personal significance without the roles of career, husband, father, are my daily companions.
When your actions align with your true vision, meaning creates a deep satisfaction, I dare say, happiness. As Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl said, “There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is meaning in one's life.”
So, what does it mean to know thyself? And what does it take to answer such a question? I will not attempt to answer these questions here as they require a lifelong inquiry, rather, I intend to open these questions for you to explore further. My experience has been that whenever I engage in such an exploration, understanding the origins of my beliefs, behaviors, and resistances are a valuable first step in leading me home to a deeper understanding of myself.
I have come to honor my resistance as part of the process. Resistance most often protects a wound that also holds the very gold of my goodness. Where a wound is, look there, as likely you will also find some gift you have long buried.
Counterintuitively, that which is denied and repressed creates the very suffering one tries to avoid. A common mandate from our culture and families is to “be successful” which often carries a hidden message, deny your true callings, or as author Gregg Levoy says, our heart’s deep desires. I equate callings with meaning. Over the last 30 years, countless men have shared with me in workshops and during counseling sessions, what they did or didn’t do in their lives because of internal pressures to be the provider or expectations from others, not what their hearts wanted. The suffering this caused and the cost to men's souls and aliveness is enormous.
How many of us have traded our authenticity for survival or to please some outsider’s expectation, terrified to swap security for our true calling? According to Levoy, “People won’t pursue their callings until the fear of doing so is exceed by the pain of not doing so, but it’s appalling how high a threshold people have of this quality of pain.” This rings true for me. Beyond my calling to be a conscious father, the calling that remains the most challenging and rewarding has been the call to be a teacher, guide, and mentor for men.
What is available when committed to such an exploration, living your life of meaning? Joseph Campbell called this, “The rapture of being alive.” What brings meaning to your life? Does what you do, align with your heart’s calling? What meaningful action have you avoided? This calling for a meaningful life is captured beautifully in the Howard Thurman quote. "Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."