The Meaning of Life — Mastering Balance, Making Connections
July 19, 2016
Years ago as a child at the circus, I watched as a man kept one, then two, then three, four and five spinning plates aloft on sticks. As fascinated as I was by the spinning of the spinning plates, I was mesmerized by the calm of the man keeping them aloft. There was no tension or struggle in his features, no worry in his expression. No strain; he seemed to barely exert himself.
Calm and balanced.
It is not surprising that that image returns to me whenever I consider the meaning of life. As a psychiatrist, I have had a front row seat to the spectrum of abuse visited upon the human psyche; I have sat too close to the naked horror of the trauma and neglect of children; sat too close to the hopelessness and despair in those who embrace suicide as the only relief for their suffering; sat too close to the grief of families struggling to make sense of a child’s suicide, drug overdose, or cancer diagnosis.
In other words, I have sat too close to patients who are anything but calm, who find themselves overwhelmed by the effort to merely keep themselves upright much less while they try to balance all the spinning variables in their lives.
My role is to help ease my patients’ suffering. To fulfill my role, I have learned that easing suffering cannot be an isolated goal. It must be accomplished within a larger context and meaning, a “meaning of life” which rests upon two pillars – balance and connection.
Like that man keeping the spinning plates spinning, the components that we must keep in balance are Hope, Forgiveness and Gratitude. The meaning of life is not found in any one of these, or even the sum of all three. Rather, it is found in the constant endeavor to keep all three in balance. While each demands greater or lesser attention at any given moment, all must be in balance for meaning and joy to be present in our lives.
Our thoughts and emotions are constantly engaged in a dynamic relationship with our past, present and future. Together and in balance, these three components keep us rooted in time. Hope allows us to look forward to the future. Forgiveness allows us to maintain our connection to the present and Gratitude gives us the ability to appreciate the experiences and memories of our past. By balancing Hope, Forgiveness and Gratitude, we can engage our lives with meaning and joy.
The tendency toward balance is our natural state. Our brains are hardwired to find meaning in the world around us. Our brains constantly try to make sense of the world and impose order and understanding upon it. And yet, constantly in flux and dynamic, our world often feels desperate, cruel and unfair.
To make “sense” and find balance in an ever-changing world – physical and emotional – we create an ordered system of belief to provide an explanation for suffering and loss, a system which may or may not include a religion or faith, but is a logic that can guide us in how we choose to go about our lives.
No true system of belief or logic can be successful unless it relies on and engages others. Donne wrote, “No man is an island” and he was right. Balance allows us to embrace our competence and appreciate the competence in others. We are each unique and each dependent upon the uniqueness of others. Science defines our biomedical uniqueness, our individuality. Spirituality defines the moment we step back from that science and realize that perfection is a myth and that in order to survive and to find joy, we must embrace ourselves and others; we must accept that while there is no perfection there is engagement. There is community.
When we realize that we are hardwired to seek engagement and that we must be social creatures, we are more apt to embrace our individuality and the individuality of others. We are more apt to forgive and, in our forgiveness, find gratitude and hope.
No man is an island. Our brains need other brains. Our nervous systems need other nervous systems. We need to engage and be involved in community.
It is there that meaning and balance are found.