During undergrad and grad school I volunteered at a hospice company called Silverado Hospice. In addition to offering support and care to those who needed it, one of the great byproducts of this experience was getting to hear peoples thoughts, feelings, and stories at the end of life. What did people tend to think about as they approached their final days? Was it the money they had accrued? Their success and accomplishments? What was left in retirement? Experiences travelling? The degrees they had earned? Their hobbies? Not at all. It was all about relationships. Every. Single. Person. The relationships they had neglected, left un-repaired, were too scared to allow, the love they never pursued. Many regretted not having done therapy sooner so they could have enjoyed the people in their lives more or had healthier relationships along the way. What they didn’t talk about were the big family trips. They didn’t anticipate missing Disneyworld in Florida or the Maldives. They anticipated missing the little things. One man teared up knowing there was a last time that he would watch his wife pluck flowers out of the yard and make the bouquets she likes to do on Sundays that hovered over their evening meal together. A woman I remember talked at length about missing how her son snorted when he laughed. There was going to be a last time she would hear that too. Many I sat with were going to miss themselves. The unique aspects of themselves they had come to enjoy. My grandmother, before she passed away, said in a joking manner “Man, I don’t want to die. I’m going to miss me.” Believe it or not, it’s the exact life you are living today, the little moments of your average Tuesday’s that you are going to miss the most. Wherever you are right now in your life, this is it, this is your story, it isn’t later, you are busy creating it, in this very moment you are reading this. These will be those precious moments for you.
I started this post intentionally by sharing my memories as a hospice volunteer because somewhere in there seems to capture an antidote to today’s cultural myths. We are all in such a rush getting somewhere. Our lives have become anchored in feverishly chasing the highs in life. We have all come to believe that more is better and that our happiness is just at the end of our fingertips. If only we could have/get ____________ then it would be alright in the world. Then, and only then, can I relax and turn to my attention lovingly to the present moment. Then! I can enjoy my life! The cultural mythology says something like, “The greatest life is one in which had the greatest number of euphoric moments, the best things, and could put them on display for others.” Look at the cultural heroes we have selected – the Kardashians, the housewives, Jeff Bezos, Drake, A-Rod, The Rock, influencers and influencer culture. We settled into accepting that we can live off bites of excitement – the next night out, the next promotion, the next match on our dating apps, the next romance, the next degree, a family, a kid, a …..anywhere but here. We decide we will be happy when we are no longer anxious, depressed, when I’m “whole”, happy being alone, when my walk with god is good, when I am spiritual, when I can love myself, when my retirement account is full, when I get a certain amount of followers, when I get that relationship. And while we are not feverishly working towards some imagined solution, when there is a break in the action, we want to be checked-out of the moment. Into our phones, the television, video games, our addictions. We have lost the ability to tolerate boredom, or worse, we can’t stand being in our own skin, in our have-notness, alone with our minds and feelings.
Is there another way to go? Yes, but you first have to detox from the framework of living life for the highs. This means majorly re-orienting to the way you see your existence, seeing this “being human thing” as one patient said. Next you need to scrape away the debris that has blocked you from pursuing a more meaningful existence. You have to admit to yourself that the life of highs isn’t working. It isn’t sustainable over the course of a full human life. It will break down. You have to give up the belief that the highs are all there is to live for. In scraping away the debris with the help of a good therapist you can start to discover, grieve and surrender the psychological gunk (trauma, existential crises, pain, resentments, relationship patterns) that have blocked you from finding a sustainable source of meaning in living. It is a process of uncovering, not necessarily finding. The highs come with a continual crash, but meaning is like a well-polished stock, dips only symbolize health and continued growth, not the end of the party. This makes them not only tolerable but expected. A life of highs tries to be happy constantly, a meaningful life takes its aim towards satisfaction. A meaningful life is all inclusive. It gives space for everything we feel and experience, all of it being acceptance and welcomed; the life of highs says we have failed when we haven’t captured euphoria. Meaning is the alternative way of living.
Meaning is both invented and discovered – invented in that we all must embark on a search and identify what seems close to the heart for each of us and discovered in the sense that we must come to believe that this is the only pursuit worth our attention. My experience is that we all have something to connect with and it isn’t a matter of “finding it” but allowing ourselves to become healthy enough (through psychotherapy often) for this to emerge. It comes to the surface when we get to know ourselves. I have watched this happen over and over again in therapy. Meaning makes room for suffering, the life of highs does not. The question of meaning asks, “What is so important to me in this life that I am actually willing to struggle or suffer for it at times?” Your personal source of meaning must be anchored in something sustainable. It has to be something that feels higher ordered or transcendent, yet feasible. Good meaning typically has to do with others. This is a controversial statement these days, but I do believe there are values that rank higher than others. As a simple example, think of going to the gym. The pain or discomfort you feel as you tack on an extra few reps in your set are embedded in meaning. If you are a gym junkie this feeling isn’t pain, in fact, it might even be pleasure, its synonymous with looking the way you want, competing against yourself, bettering your strength or taking care of your health. This is what it metaphorically feels like to pursue meaning.
One might discover, “I want to communicate my love to others through my passion for the art of food.” Unfortunately, this question can’t be answered too vaguely. THEN, and this is so important, you must forget getting anywhere. If you are the Chef, you forget your graduation, the Michelin stars, you don’t let the idea of fame or anything else pervert your efforts, you single mindedly pursue your craft because you are in love with the process and connected to your active intention to bring others the same joy. Meaning is the ability to lose yourself in the process. This is what it means to live a full, satisfying life. I often think of the process as a metaphor- of being on a submarine. You peak up every so often to make sure your course is correct (being in touch with your own values and authentic pursuit), and then diving back down into the ocean to continue your journey (living mindfully in the present moment) all the while accepting and enjoying that your ship will never reach its destination.
The meaningful life is exciting in a different way than the life of highs. The life of highs offers peaks and valleys of happiness, that all come out to a wash in the end, the meaningful life has an ongoing and continual return on the investment. In other words, the highest of highs may be less but your joy will be significant and continual. We are in this together, and we can help you get there. Please give us a call if this spoke to you. We believe you deserve a meaningful life.
Oh – And the answer to this question for me in this practice. I built it with soul and love. As a life missions to reduce suffering in the world and to leave this life one day having left positive ripples into the lives of others (and hopefully into the lives connected to them and on and on). My mission is to become the best psychologist I possibly can with others who share this mission. That is the ethos of this group.
Keil Psych Group