Choices and Illusions: How Did I Get Where I Am, and How Do I Get Where I Want to Be?
The Real Meaning in Life
By Eldon Taylor
Years ago a young woman came to me for help. To maintain confidentiality, I will invent a name for her. I’ll call her Mary. This young woman in her late thirties had a history of self-mutilation and suicidal behavior. She came in for pastoral counseling, and I agreed to see her only if her psychiatrist agreed and was kept fully informed. That issue out of the way, her first appointment was made. My secretary brought me her file, including the pre-process forms I used. As I reviewed the information in the file, I was taken by the fact that one of her prior therapists was a famous psychiatrist. I thought to myself, “And what on earth am I to do if this person couldn’t help her?”
During her first session, the terms of our arrangement were agreed upon. I would see her for ten weeks, once a week, and my conditions and requirements had to be kept. She agreed, and the session began, or perhaps more appropriately, she began sobbing and wailing. An hour passed, and nothing but tears to show for it. Few words could I understand amidst the sobbing. “Until next week,” I said, and we parted.
I thought about her for the entire week and decided to try something totally new, at least for me and for that time (circa 1990). I theorized that all the excessive crying was simply her attention-seeking mechanism combined with true feelings of despair, but to get past that, we had to dispense with the wailing. I took a mirror that had been given me by a cosmetic surgeon friend, and which I had used for years to show, as he did, just how uneven the halves of our faces are (left versus right). Brain hemisphere dominance theories suggest a correspondence, so this was in keeping with my research and work.
When Mary visited in week two she again began crying. I placed the mirror in front of her, explained as nicely as I could that she had to maintain some composure for me to help, told her to look at herself while she cried, and to let me know when she stopped. I stepped out of the office. Soon she opened the door. As I began to sit down, she started weeping again, so once again I exited. After three or four repetitions that admittedly took more than half of our time together, she stopped the sobbing and began talking. Her story was a sad one about a child who was neglected in favor of a younger sibling who was smarter, prettier, and so forth. Her early relationships with men were equally sad but not out of the realm of what happens to psychologically well-balanced people.
When we were finished speaking for the day, it was clear that Mary had dwelled on all the bad, shared her negative stories all too willingly, each time probably exaggerating them, and otherwise remained almost fixated on the worst possible future—in her case, becoming a bag lady in Las Vegas.
I gave Mary her homework, as part of our agreed terms. She was to do one good turn for someone, anyone, every day. She was to record the good deed in her journal at bedtime, just before going to sleep, focus on how the deed made her feel, and imagine how it made the recipient feel. The deed could be anything as simple as holding a door for someone or as emotionally demanding as helping a colleague she didn’t like. She was to bring the journal with her each week when she visited me.
The following week we reviewed her journal entries and her thoughts and feeling regarding each. Admittedly, some of her first week’s good deeds were pretty weak, but a couple of them provided an opportunity to draw out the difference in how it made Mary feel as well as how she might have felt if she had been the recipient. Her homework for the remaining weeks was simple: two good deeds every day and recorded per the earlier instructions.
Mary’s perspective changed. Her focus moved from bad things to good things. It was that simple. There is nothing more eloquent than just saying it how it is. Armed with a positive outlook and an eye to opportunities to do good deeds, and supported with what I call a “warm fuzzy feeling” that comes from helping others, Mary began to reinforce her own worth and find joy in living. It wasn’t long before her medication was cut back and then eliminated. Mary found meaning in life.
The “warm fuzzy feeling” comes from helping others.
I suggest to you that the real meaning in life comes from what you give, not from what you take. As Wayne Dyer puts it in his book The Power of Intention, “purpose is not about vocation—it’s about service!” I believe that the ‘warm fuzzy feeling’ we derive from a true service experience—going to the aid of another in need—is the best feeling we can have when we put our head on the pillow each night. Gerald Jampolsky has observed in his attitudinal healing centers that when a person goes to the aid of another, even otherwise intractable pain disappears.”
The real meaning in life comes from
What you give, not from what you take.
As an aside, when the centenarian population was studied to determine the reason behind their long lives and health, everyone expected something like “clean living and self-denial.” It turned out that that wasn’t the case. Indeed, the comedian George Burns could characterize many of the centenarians. They lived life without fear, full of joy and humor. What they all shared was a sense of purpose or connectedness to a Higher Power. The value to this sense of connectedness and purpose cannot be overstated. For me the warm fuzzy feeling keeps me connected and provides purpose. It doesn’t really matter what we do for a living, provided we do it with integrity and for the good of others. A piece of Chinese antiquity I cherish is a book written on jade. The author, Su Dong-Puo, a very famous Chinese writer, says it this way: “We do not work or search for food but for truth.” As President Woodrow Wilson stated over a thousand years later: “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”