When I was considerably younger, I had a circle of friends who would get together once a month, and discuss items relevant to our lives at the time. Each meeting would start off with a question – “How do you justify your life?” We would then go round robin around the table, giving our answers, and receiving comments and questions in return. We were all survivors of some calamity or tragedy, be it war, physical trauma, a major illness – a happenstance from which not all walked away. This exercise proved to be not only useful, but life altering for many of us. It gave us a chance to acknowledge our good fortune, remind ourselves that our survival was not necessarily due to our skills and preparation for life events, but more to random chance (or to a few in the group, Fate, or God’s will; I was never quite sure which was the more terrible.) What we all shared was a sense of obligation to ourselves, and the rest of the world, to give something back for our good fortune, to give meaning to being survivors.
This by no means is a new theme. It has been addressed by many over the years, notably by Victor Frankl in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” It’s part of the essence of being human that we seek to find a narrative that makes sense of the randomness of life. For those of us who sat around that table, the answers were all different, but all contained a common theme – one of service to others. Some of us chose to provide service through our choice of professions; doctor, teacher, policeman, butcher (dispensing philosophy with his cuts of meat.) Others chose to serve through family, church, or community; lifetime care of a brother with Down’s syndrome, Kiwani’s, Lion’s, foreign missions. What we all shared was a sense that we had been given a gift, and we had the need to give back.
Sadly, our group has long separated, scattered around the country and the globe. Some of us never returned from serving our country; others have fallen to the ravages of disease and time. Still, the question we used to ask of each other, I continue to ask of myself – “How do you justify your life?” You need not share the answer with anyone other than yourself. However, it is a useful exercise to remind ourselves of all that we have to be grateful for, what we choose as our expression of gratitude, and the ways in which we are all connected to each other.
The essay you just finished reading I wrote ten years ago. As I now approach the age when retirement is starting to loom on the horizon, I still find myself asking this same question. Many, including those close to me, say, “Relax. You’ve done enough. You no longer have to justify your life.” In most respects, these statements are true. However, at least for me, the need for meaning doesn’t go away when I stop practicing my profession. Lot of retired people continue to find meaning in their lives by volunteering for charitable organizations, by writing their memoirs, by spending more time with grandchildren, by traveling more, by going back to school and studying something new, and sometimes even starting new careers and professions. I’ve considered all these possibilities, and will likely choose several to pursue in the future. I would love to hear from those of you out there who have faced the similar question as to what answers you have found for yourself. One can never examine too many options before settling on the choices that best fit one’s temperament, interests and talents.