Meaning is the new luxury

By Senior Associate Sarah Cross

Before I became a facilitator of Turning Point, I was a participant. When the course finished, I felt so buoyed by the experience, so full of hope and determination. I felt empowered. But then daily life hit. Hope and buoyancy don’t create change. They can create the mindset for change but it is decision and action which make the change happen. We have to live the principles of Turning Point every day. There’s a wry saying, “The trouble with work is, it’s so daily.”  That’s a lot like change. As we are reminded during Turning Point, doing small things consistently is more powerful than any single effort could ever be.

I want to share a small yet important change I’ve made in my life recently.

I’ve been feeling a bit out of sorts: the feeling that something is missing but I can’t determine what. As a professional woman and a mother, I feel pulled in many directions – the struggle is to make these forces complementary rather than competitive. Going back to part time work after maternity leave, I found this was initially the case:  having social contact with other adults and intellectual stimulation made me a happier person, able to enjoy, value and appreciate time with my children more. As I work in the development of people, I found that what I was discovering at home I could apply at work and vice versa.

Lately, it seems that this interplay has become more of a negative factor in my life. I find myself,

during a lull at work, wishing I could hang out with my kids and then, unhelpfully, I’m at home wishing my children would leave me alone so I could get on with some work.

The other day it struck me that I needed to go back to one of the central tenets of Turning Point – be in the moment. Here I am, lucky to be able to divide my time between several things and people I love and am passionate about and I’m wishing large amounts of that time away?!

Here’s the story of how I came to be so struck: It’s mid-afternoon and I’ve spent the morning in paid work so now I’m working as a mum. I’m sitting in the big comfy chair with the sun streaming onto my face when my 4-year-old comes over and says, “I want some Mummy time.” Oh how sweet, I think.

... After 3 minutes I realise, this is not sweet, and I find myself saying “If you are going to bite, lick or spit on me, then Mummy time is over!” I decide that the two kids and I will go for a walk up the street for some fresh air.

15 metres into the walk, grumbling away to myself like Paul Henry at a diversity convention, I ask myself, what am I doing right now and why am I doing it? Well, the ‘why’ I’ve just described above. The ‘what’ is this: watching my 20-month-old doing his “Ministry of Funny Walks” – best described as a waddling duck meets Cossack dance meets highland fling – while cackling in pure delight at his own performance. What I was struck by was meaning.

I’ve always maintained that if I was stranded on a desert island and could only hear one sound for the rest of my life, it would be the sound of my children laughing. It was the unrestrained, unselfconscious, pure, joyful laughter of a toddler that made me confront the moment and the meaning in it. Which was: you will only have the privilege of witnessing this particular beauty for a very brief window. Live it.

The title of this piece is a quote from an article entitled Find What You Love and Let it Kill You by author and entrepreneur Mark Manson, which is itself a quote from curmudgeonly poet Charles Bukowski.

It seems like after the security-seeking post-war years, the social upheaval of the 60s and 70s, the hedonism of the 80s and early Noughties, more of us than ever are in pursuit of something intangible and difficult to obtain – meaning. Not “the meaning of life,” but meaning in life. And, perhaps because we are often told we can have it all, we want to find meaning in all aspects of our lives. I don’t see this as spiritual greed, I think it’s a worthy pursuit, but we need to acknowledge that it is difficult and ongoing.

I like the way Manson puts it, somewhat satirically, and I won’t insult him by trying to paraphrase. If meaning is the new luxury he writes, then:
Like any other luxury, we idealize meaning. People believe that all you have to do is find the thing that you are “meant” to do, and that will suddenly click everything into place. You’ll do it until the day you die and always feel fulfilled and happy and prance with unicorns and rainbows while making a million dollars in your pajamas.  But finding meaning and purpose is not a five-day spa retreat. It’s a hike through mud and filth with golf-ball-sized hail pelting you in the face. And you have to love it. You really have to love it.

So we have to love the search for meaning, not just the meaning? I didn’t understand what this meant at first, but by making an effort to be in the moment I’m beginning to get it. If you’ve recently become more self-aware, experienced personal growth or made some significant changes in your life, you’ll know that these things don’t lead to immediate and perpetual contentment. You probably haven’t had one day yet that involves lounging in your sleepwear while dancing with mythical creatures and accumulating vast amounts of wealth?

If you feel that quarrelsome little voice raising its head – the one that just doesn’t seem to want to let you be, the “grass-is-always-greener” guy –  then ask yourself those two important questions: “What am I doing and why am I doing it?” And if you can’t answer that second one or you don’t like the answer, then change what you’re doing. Whether it’s changing your activity or changing your job, that’s agency. It’s living a life of design, not accident. It’s giving yourself the chance to regret the things you did do rather than the things you didn’t. As the witty and mercurial Carrie Fisher wrote, “I’d rather lead a life than follow one around.”

I’ve been using this technique nearly every day since my quasi-epiphany. And I’ve found that Manson was onto something – it’s about loving the search for meaning, because making yourself more aware of your actions and looking for the meaning in daily activities forces you to live in the moment. And by really living each moment, we are really living, because what is life but a thousand million moments?

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