Short essays written for the La Jolla Veteran's Hospital newsletter in La Jolla, California
The question of life’s meaning has been asked by specialists: philosophers, psychologists, scientists, spiritual leaders, artists, writers, and those of the popular mind as well. One way of approaching the question is to consider that a personality disposition or trait can be nurtured to allow us to strive to make sense of the events that are occurring to us and in the world around us. One method for doing this is by way of the three ways to discover life’s meaning suggested by German psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl (1959, p. 133)i: “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering."
He (and I agree) state that finding meaning in “work or accomplishment,” as in the first way, is, on the face of it, “obvious.” Frankl likens the second way to experiencing “goodness, truth and beauty” in nature, culture or in another human being. In this regard, I am reminded of the beautiful verse from Psalm 18: 2: “The heavens shew forth the glory of God, and the firmament declareth the work of his hands.” Frankl found meaning in the loss of his family and in his personal suffering by choosing to focus on the everyday choices he did have during his internment in a concentration camp, such as being able to see the beauty in a sunrise despite being naked and out in freezing weather. A transition can be made from awareness of beauties in nature such as sunrises, sunsets, or starry nights to the intrinsic beauty that is God, their Creator. Among the Eastern Church Fathers, for example, it is said that “physical beauty is the epiphany of divine beauty.”ii
The connection between beauty and God occurs in more than just in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Hinduism, beauty is linked to Shiva, the Hindu God of Beauty, Goodness and Truth,iii and Lakshmi, the Goddess of Beautyiv. In Buddhism, beauty is seen as beyond the physical and resting on the psychological and spiritual. In the Dhammapada (Dhp.262-3), Buddha says: “If someone is jealous, selfish or dishonest, they are unattractive despite their eloquence or good features. But the person who is purged of such things and is free from hatred, it is he or she who is really beautiful.”v
Along with spiritual and psychological benefits, there are also physical gains to be derived from finding meaning in life. Medical and psychology researchers have found lower risk for dementia, lower levels of stress (stress hormones), and better cardiac health and immune systems.vi
Answering affirmatively to statements such as the following may help to clarify and reaffirm that one has a sense of the meaningfulness of life and thus that one’s life is purposeful: I understand my life’s meaning, I have discovered a satisfying life purpose, my life has a clear sense of purpose.vii The foundation for developing and fulfilling one’s purpose in life is building on the talents, the gifts given to us by God. We can begin each day as the start of a new life journey by not focusing on any haunting image of the past: on ‘what I could have been.’ It also means not looking at the talents others have been given, but accepting where we are at the present time and purposefully moving forward. In the endeavor to reach one’s life’s ultimate purpose it helps to reflect on St. Paul’s words to the pagan Athenians: “[God] hath made of one, all mankind, to dwell upon the whole face of the earth, determining appointed times, and the limits of their habitation. That they should seek God, if happily they may feel after Him or find Him, although He be not far from every one of us: For in Him we live, and move, and are; as some also of your own poets said: For we are also His offspring.” (Acts 17: 26-28)
i Frankl, V. (1959). Man’s search for meaning. New York: Washington Square Press.
ii Palmer, G.E.H.; Sherrard, P.; and Ware, K. (Trans.) (1971, 1981, 1988, 1990). Philokalia, I- IV. London: Faber and Faber.
vii Steger, M. F., & Shin, J. Y. (2010). “The relevance of the Meaning in Life Questionnaire to therapeutic practice: A look at the initial evidence.” International Forum on Logotherapy, 33, 95-104.
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V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.
Fr. Morelli is the Coordinator of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and Religion Coordinator (and Antiochian Archdiocesan Liaison) of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion.
Fr. Morelli is a Senior Fellow at the Sophia Institute, an independent Orthodox Advanced Research Association and Philanthropic Foundation housed at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York City that serves as a gathering force for contemporary Orthodox scholars, theologians, spiritual teachers, and ethicists.
Fr. Morelli serves on the Executive Board of the San Diego Cognitive Behavior Therapy Consortium (SDCBTC)
Fr. Morelli serves as Assistant Pastor of St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Church, San Diego, California.
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