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  • Writer's pictureJoan Fernandez

How to live a meaningful life

“Rules for happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.  -Immanuel Kant”

So simple! I found the German philosopher Kant (1724 - 1804) and his quote after I turned to my iPhone and asked Siri, "What's the meaning of life?"  Her answer came in a second. "I Kant tell you - ha!" (thanks, Siri)

The reason I asked Siri? It was inspired by a friend I've never met.

Let me explain: I have a separate gmail account to subscribe to blogs and e-newsletters. Maybe you’ve already done this, or have another system for catching content you like that doesn’t have to be read right away. It keeps them from clogging up my other email account. My collection is skewed to writers and marketers. As though they're sitting on bleachers, the group hangs out on the sidelines, friendly, talking among themselves, no pressure -- “read me when you have time!” — it’s an eclectic mix, women and men, and because their names have grown familiar, it's as though if we were ever at the same party, I just know we’d all be friends.

One of these friends is Alison. Last year she caught my attention when I read in a blog about how she packed up her life (and her 90-year-old mom) and moved to Italy. Just up and moved from Arkansas to Europe to pursue writing after spending nearly her entire life in the Midwest. Had never traveled overseas. Doesn’t speak Italian. Every few weeks she sends out a newsletter/journal entry, promoting her Arkansas writing school programs, sharing what her Mom is saying, and the exploits of her tiny poodle, Prose (the section's called "a dash of Prose" - ha!)

Recently, she wrote about ideas I want to piggyback on today. They come from the book, The Power of Meaning, Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness by Emily Esfahani Smith. To be clear, I haven’t read it, but my friend Alison has and assures me there’s a ton of research behind its identification of the four pillars to a meaningful life. Let's see what you think of them. As Alison observes, you’d probably guess the first three. The last pillar could surprise you. 

  1. Belonging and Connection. This is an intuitive pillar. We've probably all felt the pain of not belonging, not sensing connection, and the loneliness of not feeling accepted. I’ve found that the less sure I am of belonging, of course the less I reach out for connection, and the isolation perpetuates itself. Touch, the nerve receptors under our skin, fires instantly when coming into contact with something. The absence of connection heightens this sensitivity. There's research about how infants that are held and touched do better -- physically, emotionally and more -- than those who are touched less. This pillar makes me think of two things: Rebuke isolating self-hate self-talk and reach out, reach out, reach out, even if there's no immediate return. 

  2. Purpose. “It’s not always easy to find our purpose, but it’s a product of our unique talents, background and interests.” -- so says Alison. The tailwind behind my decision to become a full-time writer came from a potent, nagging mix of restlessness and anxiety, as though I was running out of time, as though I'd overstayed an old purpose and a new one insisted on being found. I believe that we have more than one purpose (even as I nod to Joseph Campbell who said “follow your bliss," perhaps he should have said bliss-es). Sometimes we are called to be there for another — that’s purpose. Sometimes we are called to get through very tough things (betrayal, loneliness, fear) obstructing our purpose. Sometimes purpose can be simple - celebrate a wedding, a graduation, appreciate another. It's the reason we are here. My protagonist Jo struggles with purpose.  “Purpose,” though is not within demographic identifiers - job title, age, wealth, social status. Those labels are impostors to purpose, and like barnacles sail along unseen on the bow of your life until you realize they’re slowing you down. 

  3. Transcendence. Oh, an elusive, favorite pillar for me. Not religion, per se, or doctrine or ritual or culture. Rather moments that crack open a brief awareness of the grand magnificence of existence. For instance, I’ve had moments of transcendence watching my son run in a race of raw heartbreaking dominion. Slow down enough and nature can turn the key to a transcendent opening. I remember one night a few years ago, on a girlfriend getaway to Santa Fe, that we four women piled into a car and drove out of town, far away from the city’s lights. After driving up a climbing country road, tall corn stalks on either side marking a long corridor, we pulled over, turned off the car and got out. It was quiet, a light breeze ruffling corn tassels. Looking up, we drew in our breath. The sky was jammed with light — packed with pinpricks of stars, a beautiful tapestry of glittering incandescence — the Big Dipper difficult to find with all the crowded blinking around it. We stared upward. Under such immensity how small, infinitesimally small, our troubles were...then, a stirring in the corn stalks. Another, a few feet away...a chain-saw toting murderer? We jumped in the car. Peeled away. We city girls can’t be too careful.

  4. Storytelling. Surprise! Think of it - storytelling is a pillar of a meaningful life. It’s literally a way to make sense of what you've experienced. It’s the means to determine what’s important to you, what your values are, how you went astray and how to find your way forward. Why you’re here. Around the holidays I went to an open house at my financial adviser's office. I met a woman there named Rita. I ended up becoming completely absorbed by her story — her husband’s death, her taking up marathon running, an interest in racquetball, a new companion in her life. I was drawn in, an instant connection. Then about a month later I was helping out at a Christmas charity event, wrapping presents of clothes and toys donated to kids. Over a table of wrapping paper scraps and scissors, Rita and I looked at each other. “How do I know you?” It took a minute to know when we'd made a connection, but not whether we had one. Telling her story had done it, as well as my listening to it. 

I’ve come to realize that in writing my book, while I’m writing Jo’s story, of course, I’m also trying to make sense of my own. Speaking of which... here's the book update:

How I’m Writing the Book

Weekly Page Submission. After taking the holidays off I’m back on the treadmill of submitting weekly pages to my book coach. My deadline is on Wednesday so each week on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday a healthy deadline panic typically sets in. My goal is to try to finish the first draft before Cristina and Jay's wedding.

Movie about a Strong Woman. My friend (in person, not just inbox) Joyce and I saw On the Basis of Sex, a drama telling the true story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the case that overturned the first of hundreds of laws that discriminated between men and women based on gender. Interestingly, it was a case that discriminated against a male. Pair this with the documentary, RBG. Justice Ginsburg is an inspiring example of a purposeful life.

On my refrigerator.

 The wedding is 40 days and counting down! I got my first facial peel last week (recommended 6 weeks out before the wedding). A little stinging, not really painful, but what I didn’t realize is that the banana-yellow peel (think Jim Carrey in The Mask) needed to stay on my face for 3-4 hours after it was put on. And I already had booked a hard-to-get appointment with a tailor to alter my Mother-of-the-Bride dress just a few hours after the peel! I called the tailor to explain my face. She said, “No problem.” When I arrived at her work-from-home location, there were four cars in her driveway. Oh dear. I kept my head ducked getting out of the car, skulked up the driveway and rang the doorbell, standing a little off to the side. The door swings open. A woman with straight pins in her headband gazes at me. A few seconds tick by... “You might glow in the dark, honey.” On that note, I think I need to become philosophical again with another quote from Kant: 

“Look closely. The beautiful may be small.”

Be well.

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