To me, meaning does not feel like joy or even pleasure. I’ve had plenty of bad days in the midst of experiencing meaning. Meaning is better than that.
Meaning feels like purpose.
When I experience meaning, my life feels as though it is playing an important role in an important story. I have never been able to prove that sense of purpose is justified, but it hardly matters.
When I am experiencing meaning, it feels as though my life is a story that is interesting to myself and also good for the world. I have plenty of friends who espouse religious or philosophical ideas in an attempt to prove life has meaning; yet they do not experience meaning in their lives because they have not set out on a story.
How many people sit in church pews hearing lectures about God only to return home and feel restless? And why? Perhaps it is because we do not experience meaning by studying meaning. Rather, we experience meaning by taking action. Even Jesus said follow Me rather than figure Me out. What if the experience of meaning requires action? Additionally, it’s my belief that meaning is philosophically and theologically agnostic. You can be an atheist, a Christian, a Muslim, or anything else and experience meaning, just as you can be an atheist, a Christian, or a Muslim and experience joy and love.
Meaning is not an idea to be agreed with. It is a feeling you get when you live as a hero on a mission. And it cannot be experienced without taking action and living into a story. In the years after I learned how to make meaning, it was fun to meet others who were experiencing meaning too. I could recognize them immediately. They were building a family or a company. They were leading a team. They were trying to write a book or record an album or create enough art for a gallery showing. They were in motion. They were building something. Not only this, but they also combined their ambition with an appreciation for challenge. They were not victims. They knew that pain was part of life, and they knew they could use pain to help them transform into better versions of themselves.
After all, we are all going to experience pain — why not allow it to improve our character and our outlook on life? Finally, they were not self-absorbed. Instead, they were fascinated by the world, by art and music and nature. They were focused on their projects too; on the beauty they believed they were bringing into the world. And because they were characters inside a story about building something and being useful, they experienced meaning as well as transformation. I have found that “my people” — the people I click most with in this world — are not people who agree with my religious ideas or even my political ideas, but rather people who are living as characters inside a story of their own making.
So how do we live a life of meaning?
Again: First we define an ambition. We choose something we want to bring into the world, or we join a community or movement that is bringing something into the world. Second, we share our experience with others, and we allow ourselves to become interested in the people and beauty that exist outside ourselves. And third, we accept challenges and even tragedies as a fact. Of course we try to prevent them, but we do not wallow in pity when they occur.
Challenges are painful, but they can serve a purpose if we allow them to.
I’ve come to think of this lifestyle as living as a hero on a mission. I fear even as I type that phrase and use it as the title for this book, it rings of arrogance, as though somehow those of us who live this way are heroes and others are not. But it bears repeating: heroes are not perfect creatures. Often, in fact, they are weak, unwilling to act, afraid, and in desperate need of help. The single characteristic that sets heroes apart, however, is that they are willing to accept a challenge that will ultimately transform them.
Heroes take action, which is why they are so good at experiencing meaning. Every hero in every story you have ever loved wanted something specific and was willing to sacrifice to get it. Every hero in every story you have ever loved experienced pain and setbacks but found a perspective that allowed them to keep going. And every hero in every story you have ever loved wanted to serve a purpose larger than themselves. And because they stepped into a story, they experienced a transformation. At the end of the story, they were a better person than they were at the beginning. I have experienced transformation, and I’m hoping an ongoing transformation continues to define my life. Amidst the false starts, the fear, and the need for help, I know if a person keeps moving into new and exciting stories, they will change for the better. Healthy people grow. Healthy people transform.
Excerpted with permission from Hero on a Mission by Donald Miller, copyright Donald Miller.
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