Should we live a life with meaning? Yes, of course. What a silly question, you may think.
But, what is a meaningful life? Is it feeling happy and being successful? Is it feeling good every day? Is it doing good things for others?
Perhaps the better question is: do we make room for a meaningful life?
We can live life every day in a meaningful way, doing our responsibilities and carrying out our promises. But, I wonder if it is possible for these activities to be carried out without a sense of meaning. You may think, “So what, who cares if there is meaning?” While such a bold statement may rarely be said aloud, it is often common among those who are overworked. Opening a discussion on having a meaningful life may bring attention to the reality that each of us deserves to live a meaningful life.
Meaning in life entails widening one’s consciousness. While we are sitting in lecture, studying, standing in rounds, writing notes and reading the news, we are part of a bigger world, part of a universe, if you will. We are connected to each other and to all of life. When you see yourself as part of a common theme in history, in biology, in physics, you open your world. This opening allows one to see patterns in medicine more clearly: the pathology of each tissue type follows patterns, and the personality of patients follow patterns based on their illness and background.
What is the point, though? Why care about meaning? Or more specifically, “I know I have meaning in my life. Why are you asking?” I pose these questions after hearing my fellow classmates in undergrad and in medical school focus on a few common themes: studying, resume building, relationships and materialism. These are topics commonly discussed by young professionals like ourselves, but I challenge our generation to see the bigger world. Not necessarily by reading the news, going to Africa or making friends with new people. While these are all great things, seeing a bigger world may be as easy as seeing your life with a new perspective.
For example, work to change your emotions about how you study or how you feel about taking exams. For instance, if studying is a painful process that you must endure with chains tied to their feet, change your perspective to thinking of studying as a gift and a fun thing to do every day. If we were suddenly in a war, studying may be the first thing we would love to do under the constant threat of possibly dying today. While such a dramatic comparison is unfair to make and I hope that no war ever happens, this experience is a reality for certain medical students in countries abroad. There are medical students who are battling to maintain their studies amid explosions, losing family members and outsmarting their aggressors.
What this small example aims to show is that your sense of reality can change based on your perspective. When you realize that you have the power over your thoughts and your decisions, you gain a higher level of freedom. You become part of a bigger world, and the burdens of your responsibilities become lighter.
Meaning in life is asking oneself, “Why am I doing this?” When you ask yourself why, the answers may at times be empty, or may be something like “because I have to.” Challenge yourself to expect more from yourself. Demand yourself to have an answer to this question that is powerful. You are doing this because it makes you a stronger person, because you will one day teach others this, because one day you will save a life. You are doing this because this very thing is amazing.
For example, studying microbiology calls for memorization, as many topics in medical school call for. The challenge here is to realize that while the memorization will occur, the sense of meaning may come from that fact that there are people right now in the world dying of that microbe. That over 137 million people died of the plague or that your own body has not gotten sick despite the millions of potential microbial threats it encounters every day. Life is amazing and it surrounds us and is inside of us every minute we breathe. Not one second goes by that the miracle of life is not working inside us.
It seems exhausting to think of life with meaning all the time. How is one to feel normal when life seems so overwhelmingly amazing? Perhaps the main point is to push yourself to see more in your life. Realize that your existence rests beyond the reality that television, the news and culture casts upon you. You are and have always been a unique, one-of-a-kind living entity. You are exposed to social and culture entities that shape your reality. We are part of a bigger system of existence, filled with light, matter and forces that shape us. Happy journeys in life and may meaning be found in your heart and mind.