Our Time Here is Short. What Makes it Matter Most?
Sean Carroll*, a physicist who explores the universe said, “Life is not a substance, like water or rock; it’s a process, like fire or a wave crashing on the shore. It’s a process that begins, lasts for a while, and ultimately ends. Long or short, our moments are brief against the expanse of eternity.” How does this strike you? Does this view leave you feeling small or even frightened by our insignificance in the vastness of the universe? If our lives are just a fleeting process, how can we make the process as meaningful and fulfilling as possible? How can we make our mortal time here matter and make a lasting impact?
What My Clients Taught Me
Through decades of interactions with my different clients I have found clues to finding meaning and fulfillment amidst lives that fly by too quickly or remain too removed from what ultimately matters most. We come into the world, for however much time we have here, endowed with the necessary resources to derive meaning, purpose and reward from what life offers. Those resources can become distorted, overlooked or even remain undiscovered if we encounter various forms of trauma along the way. Of course, we also know we can't get through life without encountering at least a few traumas. When they occur, life’s traumas disconnect us from our core resources. On the other hand, hardship and suffering can also function as trampolines that propel is back into reconnection to life in a deeper and more enduring way.
What determines how we will respond? In my experience as a psychologist for more than three decades, I’ve learned from my clients that what determines how individuals respond to setbacks in their lives is whether and how they learn to adjust, to adapt and to grow. These three resources complement and strengthen each other.
Three Steps to Lasting Meaning
1. To ADJUST means to shift our direction, to make a course correction in our behavior or our destination in the face of what we encounter. I am often surprised by how tenaciously we cling to doing what we’ve done in the past even when time and again we encounter impenetrable obstacles (opportunities?) on our path. Adjusting is a necessary first step toward enlarging our lives.
2. To ADAPT means that we go beyond making a change in our external behavior. Adapting implies making an internal change, meaning we have begun to change who we are. Or, perhaps, we are finally becoming who we are meant to be all along! For example, a middle-aged man who scales back his work hours may just be adjusting to work stressors negatively affecting his health. But, he is adapting when in the process of scaling back work hours, he begins exploring the volunteer opportunities for the community organization whose work he has always valued or invests those same hours in drawing closer to his family.
3. To GROW means that the changes in external behavior begin to more deeply align with our heart-felt values and merge together to create a new and redefined sense of self. Growing means that our internal gyroscope defines our balance point differently and our internal compass orients us to new destinations on our journey to what reflects our unique life’s purpose.
Our Personal Challenge for Meaning-filled, Purposed-driven Life
Together, this trio of naturally endowed resources provides us the dynamic flexibility we need to make our relatively brief time on earth eternally rewarding. This perspective was driven home to me recently as I and my family unveiled the headstone on my father’s grave. As each of us stood and reflected on who he was and who each of his children have become (and are still becoming!), I was struck by the timeless quality of a life when it continues to inspire, guide and challenge the lives it created and then left behind even as each one pursues the unique trajectory that defines their life. Perhaps Dr. Carroll was right. Against the scale of the universe our time on earth really is a mere moment. But, against the scale of meaning and purpose, even a brief life can produce an eternal impact.
*Carroll, Sean. The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (Kindle Locations 119-120). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.