Life is full of meaning and emptiness. Acknowledging this paradox of the human experience and our experiences of it is necessary for living well. That’ was last week’s blog (https://www.thomasrowlandcounsellingservices.com/post/empty-and-full-living-with-the-human-condition).
But it begs the question: what do I do when I’m feeling empty? Or when an area of my life feels empty? In acknowledging the depths of our emptiness, we are led to wonder if it’s time for a change. If there’s something else we should be pursuing. Perhaps we’re desperate. Perhaps we’ve been stuck in meaninglessness and emptiness, if we’re honest, for a while now. And we can’t seem to dig ourselves out.
There is no simple formula for finding what is meaningful. I suggest because its so personal: what is meaningful for me to spend my life on will be vastly different than for you. Its shaped by our deepest values, most poignant experiences, as well as our current life circumstances. Moreover, it is ever changing. What is meaningful for me now may be different in a year, a month, even a day. As much as I am a subject in process, so will my experience of meaning be. Nevertheless, there are certain paths we can at least plot that I have found helpful in my quest for finding my meaning.
1. The path of values: tracking our energy.
What moves me? Most of us have been told what our values should be. To borrow the cadence of the classic Bear’ Hunt’s lesser-known sequel: 'You gotta be this. You gotta be that. You gotta be thissety that!'. These are often fixed, static values for everybody. But values don’t work like that. Being chased along by the fears of disapproval and the longing for approval end up in emptiness and exhaustion, and the inevitable question all of us face at some point, ‘What, on Earth, have I spent so much of my life on?’. More, what used to be of value for us can change. It’s like the energy dissipates in one area and moves onto something else.
So, this path incorporates our mind’s investigative capacities and our subjective feelings. Firstly, we can recognise our more long-lived personal values, and not just in one area, but our whole life: our values around family, relationships, friendships, connections; values around justice, equality, empowerment, community; values around compassion, kindness, self-giving and self-care. Our mind can, through tracking what energies or fills us or what we feel a sort of self-betrayal about, start to distinguish our personal values, as opposed to our society’s, culture’s or family’s values.
All of these personal values need to be taken into account as we seek meaning as, often, all of these will be affected by the decision (even if they are not the focus). A decision about careers will impact time or energy or mood with family. A decision about family or where we live will impact what career opportunities are available to us. If some of these end up being sabotaged - at least without us previously considering the cost, weighing it up and making the decision to sacrifice something - then part of us (or our valued relationships) is likely to feel some resentment, or the silenced part, the part that can no longer move so freely, will drain us.
Secondly, this path means asking the subjective question, ‘Where is our energy now?’. A pursuit or career or venture or commitment may be exactly fulfilling all of our known personal values, yet still we feel no energy for it. Maybe we used to, but we do not any more. Not because it is wrong or bad, but simply because our energy has gone elsewhere.
Many of our families, societies and cultures prefer the mind’s more predictable reasoning and so downplay, if not undermine through doubt and skepticism, our capacity to be in touch with our energy. We stop feeling it. If we feel it, we push it down. We’ve learned to experience it as dangerous or silly. Yet, our energy is directing us towards something. Its end is a goal that will maintain or develop us. Learning to listen to it is vital. It tells us what we might well be missing at the moment. And, almost always, there is a viable, acceptable, even reasonable, way to pursue what it is seeking. But we ignore it at our peril: it is our very spirit, blowing where it wishes. To quench it is to turn it inwards in self-hate, turn it outwards sideways in resentment and envy, or dissipate it in depression.
2. The path of strengths: standing in our power
The second path is to plot our strength. Values are one thing. But another consideration is 'What is mine to do?'', How can I make a difference where I am?'.
The answers to these will largely depend on our strengths, personality, skillset and experience. Here, comparison can thwart us. 'I gotta be this. I gotta be that. I gotta be thissety that!' is of little use: at the end of the day, you've only got you. We can - and others around us can - want whoever the hell we want, we’ll still only have us! And we’ll only ever be the most impactful when we are being ourselves.
Another way of saying this is, 'How can I stand in my power more?'. Am I in the right place, position, commitment, venture etc. where I am able to stand in my power. Or am I constantly squashing, antagonising, pushing against my own superpowers?
This, however, brings two conundrums. Firstly, it is the conundrum of recognising our superpowers. What are you strong at? What can you do that others find harder? What can you do and it gives you back energy? Many find this difficult, particularly as self-appreciation is rarely acceptable.
The second conundrum is around your situation. Our situation, our environment, will unleash our power or tie it down. So, it may be that our situation is simply not the best place to be. That somewhere doing something else would release our powers and enable us to have a far greater impact on the world. However, wherever we are, we will encounter people or problems that challenge us to step into new facets or degrees of our power. They will challenge us with the same old things that have always stopped us from standing more fully in our power. And if we can use these challenges to learn how to stand in our power more presently, we can the greater the difference we can make.
Some questions to ask ourselves
Next week, I’ll explore some further paths: the paths of time, opportunity and sacrifice. But, for now, it’s probably best to take a break and finish with some questions to ask ourselves about our values and strengths, energy and powers:
What are my most fundamental, energising values? When do I feel real anger, compassion or a real sense of self-betrayal? Are they different to what others expect of me? Can I connect these with what I spend most of my time and energy doing? Which values, areas of my life, or parts of my experience are being silenced? Can I afford to sacrifice these?
Where is my energy now? Perhaps I’ve lost it altogether. Perhaps it’s in the most surprising places that I don’t notice it. Perhaps it’s moving on to something else. Perhaps its exactly where it’s always been, I just need to accept it! And what’s it reaching for? How might I start to pursue that thing?
What are my superpowers? The skills or activities that nourish me and are probably also my biggest vulnerability. It might be linked to my most pervasive or poignant hurt or privilege. What can I do easily and well, almost naturally, that doesn’t seem to come naturally to others? How much of my time is spent doing this?
Is my situation stifling or nourishing the expression of my powers? Do I need a change? Do I need to notice how actually more of my power would be welcomed where I am? How can I test the waters?
How am I being challenged to step into my power more? Perhaps it’s in relational conflict, or work stress, or an experience of being misunderstood. What’s blocking me from stepping into a fuller expression of all my powers?
What is mine to do? What is not mine to do?