I think that everyone, in some way, is always searching or working towards giving their life meaning. Is a meaningful life one where you start a family? Have a successful job? Are physically fit? Make a difference in volunteering? Work with the less fortunate? Set goals and reach them? Are able to support and take care of yourself?
A meaningful life differs at every stage. When you're a child you rarely think about the meaning of it all, but most often it's about school and friends and having fun. For adults, meaningful existence fluctuates and differs from one person to another and from one part of life to another. Right now, I am measuring my success and meaning by my ability to live independently, my success in my job, and being healthy. Obviously, if I had a family or was still in school, my reference of meaning would probably be different.
But I think most people would agree that taking care of yourself is one of the main indicators of a successful life. Sitting on your couch all day, not being able to work and pay bills, and rarely interacting with people is not what most people would call a life. Yet, I think we rarely stop and think, what if that was all we could do? What, then, would be our meaning?
Part of my job is attending Child Study, IEP or Triennial meetings for students receiving special education services. My school has a fairly large MO/MIMD (Moderate or Mild Mental Disabilities) population, so I attend those meetings as well. This morning I was in a meeting about a student who cannot speak, walk, or use manly of her muscles freely- she communicates by using a technological device that has key words and phrases she has been taught to cue up when appropriate. Her life is confined to a chair with limited communication. I sat there and couldn't help but think that life and success is so much more than what meets the eye or what we normally think.
This student is a pleasant to be around. She smiles, is very social, has friends and delights everyone she meets. But by our standards of success and meaningfulness, she will never really have a life of either. She will always be in need of a caretaker, will never be able to live independently or "normally," will never have a job, and will constantly be functioning at a level years and even decades below her age. She will exist and breath and live, but yet her lifestyle will be what some consider not as worthy.
So what is a meaningful life then? Many would argue that she does not have one, but I see it differently. I see her as a reason that we all need to reevaluate about why we're here and what it means to live. It is not always based on tangential things. It is about relationships and happiness and what runs deeper inside ourselves. This student is happier that most people I know, yet is seen as less of a person by some people. Maybe happiness is what is most important regardless of any other life factors. So on days when I am stressing about work or money or my lifestyle or my looks or how far I ran that day, maybe I need to be reminded that meaningfulness is about so much more.
I think many people do.