What does it mean to bring meaning to your life?
My daughter studied abroad for a semester recently, and when she returned she told me after seeing the Sistine Chapel it is a little hard to take college fraternity parties seriously.
I had a similar feeling a few weeks ago, when I saw the movie American Sniper. At the end of that movie the audience was completely silent. Even while walking out of the theater, the crowd did not make a sound. I never witnessed anything like it at a theater. No talking, no whispering. Nothing. Sure, I have watched “tear jerkers,” where large audiences would be sobbing or crying by the end. This was different. I heard nothing. There was stone-cold silence.
About one week later I realized why, and it was because of something similar to the sentiment expressed by my daughter. It was Super Bowl weekend. I am not a big football fan, except when Penn State, my alma mater, is having a good season, but I enjoy Super Bowl Sunday as much as the next person. This Super Bowl, which was admittedly a great game, when Seattle snatched defeat from the arms of New England, in the final seconds, was completely meaningless. It was meaningless not because I was not a fan of either team. It was meaningless, because, compared to the war our young men and women were fighting, and the story of all of those young heroes, including the extraordinarily heroic Christopher Kyle, it was meaningless. And all of the power and meaning in the lives of those soldiers, particularly Christopher Kyle’s, stared right into my eyes, asking me the question, “What is meaningful in my life?” The others in the theater must have felt the same way, because they too were turned inward, pondering the power and meaning of what they saw, and seeing how they measure up in comparison.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying playing football is meaningless. Competitive sports can be a mother lode of life lessons, teaching us teamwork, dedication, loyalty and perseverance, fitness and mental endurance. Playing in the Super Bowl is meaningful; watching the Super Bowl is just fun and meaningless entertainment. It might serve the purpose of enabling us to relax or enjoy the afternoon, but it is certainly not meaningful, especially as compared to the life of Christopher Kyle and his brothers-in-arms.
Living a meaningful life can come in many forms. It does not have to be a military career, or playing in the Super Bowl, or painting the Sistine Chapel. The point is make your life meaningful in some way. In the words of Mr. Keating in The Dead Poets Society, “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys, seize the day.”
I thought the meaningfulness in my life would have come from doing extraordinary things in the context of the law—becoming a Supreme Court Justice or legal scholar whose writings would turn American jurisprudence into the last great bastion of justice in the world. I thought it might come from some tremendous charitable work I would undertake and change the fate of millions of the poor and downtrodden. None of that happened. Yet, my life, I feel, has been filled with meaning.
I have a lovely wife, who has been my genuine partner through the ups and downs of life. I have three wonderful children, who are trying to find their own path to a meaningful life. At work these days, I try to have a positive impact on those around me, particularly those who are younger and searching for meaning in their own lives. If I can impart some positive wisdom to help them along their way, I had a meaningful day.
I am not a Supreme Court Justice, and chances are neither are you, but if you can leave the world in a little bit better shape than when you found it, by leaving a positive mark on someone or something that might not otherwise have had that benefit, your life had meaning. Do not waste the opportunity to make the world a better place, however slight that impact might be. When Mother Teresa was asked how she possibly could help all of the lepers before her she was ambitiously trying to care for, she answered, I am going to start with this one right here. In other words, we do it all one at a time.