A friend of mine is dying and it’s been hard to get down to business this week. But it’s brought all aspects of my life and work into sharper focus, and despite the terrible loss ahead, I hope to be a better person because of it.
Last week, after ringing up the order of a previous customer, a cashier at our local Costco asked if he wanted to buy any stamps, food, or the secret to the meaning of life. The joke was utterly lost on the other customer but my daughter and I cracked up. I told the cashier that I didn’t know the meaning of life, but I did know the secret to happiness. It was told to me once by a blind friend, and she said the formula was quite simple: you just need someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to.
Some people say the meaning of life is just to be happy, so maybe it is the same as the secret to happiness. I don’t know. But as I thought about this, I was struck anew by the second element of the “secret”: something to do. That means work. Whether paid or unpaid, work is a very important part of our happiness.
What about work makes us happy? In my case, it’s having work that creates value for my family, my community, and sometimes even the world. It’s also having working conditions that I can generally control and being with people that I generally admire and/or learn from. The “and/or” is important here. You may not like or admire someone, but everyone is your teacher. That is a Buddhist principle I accept in all areas of my life. And it redeems even the most difficult projects or work environments–at least temporarily.
Work also defines who we are. Or maybe it’s the other way around, but our work and our identities are intertwined. As my friend lay in the hospital last week speaking to our minister about accepting hospice care and the reality of death, he told her simply, “I’m an engineer.” She said that was his way of indicating that “he’s hard-wired to face facts and accept them.”
This encounter with my dying friend brought me back to concept of “A” meaning to life. In this fragmented world, it’s hard to believe there is just one meaning, and impossible to believe that everyone would accept it. The only “one” meaning I would accept is to experience happiness, one’s own and that of others. Because no one can be happy if they don’t contribute to the happiness of the people around them.
But I think the better question is, what is the meaning of my life? Each life is so different, each can “mean” different things. I will be thinking a lot about what my friend’s life has meant, though I will never truly know the extent to which he has influenced the world, for he is greatly loved and admired. And then I’ll start some hard thinking about what my life has meant and could mean in the future.
Whatever you do the rest of the week, work-wise or other-wise, try to make it as meaningful as possible. But also be grateful for the small experiences and annoyances. No matter what happens, you are alive, learning, and contributing. And once again, let me say that I am so glad you are here.