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John W. Travis, M.D. & Regina Sara Ryan
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Introduction - Finding Meaning

The great and glorious masterpiece of humanity is to know how to live with a purpose. - Montaigne

Generally, the meanings we assign to our lives flow out of our cultural heritage, together with our relationships with those close to us, the jobs we do, the roles we play, and our religious beliefs. When significant changes take place in our lives - graduation, breakup with a partner, retirement, divorce, the death of a loved one, the last child leaving home - we lose a piece of our identity. When our normal illusions of security are threatened - as in a national emergency, a war, or a natural disaster such as a serious earthquake or flood - we are shaken. We question, What does it mean?" We may actually feel that we have lost our foundation or our reason for being. Such periods of change are generally times of great stress, anxiety, and unhappiness, even if they are also characterized by acts of heroism and generosity.

A certain amount of worry and fear is built into the process of adjusting to change and working it all out. It is when we become stuck in delaying and evading tactics that problems arise. Some people are thrown into deep depression or beset with feelings of uselessness, emptiness, or boredom. Other people launch themselves on a series of feverish activities, anxiously keeping themselves occupied at all times. Others play Russian roulette, with high-risk behaviors such as overeating, drinking to excess, or taking drugs. And for some, the ultimate solution is suicide.

Finding meaning is probably the most personal and most challenging issue anyone can address, because it requires looking inward and self-searching, which some find a frightening prospect. And this is not something another person can do for you. Because finding meaning is a process, however, there are some helpful guidelines you can follow:

  • Learn to look within and begin to trust what you find there. Listen to your own inner voice, your own wisdom.
  • Focus on what is instead of living for future breaks or living in the past.
  • Strive for greater honesty and clarity in your relationships with yourself and with other people; be just who you are, not what you think you are supposed to be.
  • Make friends with loss, pain, and death, rather than running from them and awarding fear an unwarranted place in steering your life.

We wish you courage, strength, and joy in your exploration.

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