Yesterday was Labor Day in the U.S., a holiday we ironically enjoy as a day off work. It’s traditionally our end-of-summer celebration, a day we join family and friends for a trip to the lake or the park and eat barbecue and drink beer. It’s a day most of us spend as little time as we can thinking about what we would be doing any other Monday.
The purpose of the holiday, of course, is slightly different. It’s a day set aside to honor those who make our society run: those who build, assemble, patrol, teach, maintain, design, and repair. It’s a day we recognize, consciously or not, the importance of meaningful work to all of us.
But for most of us, meaningful work is something other people do. Our own work, the effort we spend so many of our waking hours pursuing, is nothing more than how we earn the money that allows us to go to the lake on Labor Day. For most of us, the best case is that we can occasionally see something important that would not exist if we had not worked so hard; the worst case is that we go to work day after day and never have any idea how our efforts contributed to anyone else’s life.
Because all of us, to one degree or another, want to know we have made an impact in others’ lives. Whether it’s our parents or our children, those we love or strangers, we want to know somebody noticed what we did for them, noticed we were here. We look for meaning everywhere, wonder how to find it, how to be noticed. We watch the people we call successful, read their blogs, watch their movies, read their books and listen to their interviews, follow their beauty tips and workout plans, all in the hope they’ll let something slip that helps us understand the secret of life.
What if there’s no secret?
What if meaning is not something you seek in your life, but something you assign to it? What if nobody can tell you what your life means, but you can show them by how you live it?
That makes things harder in some ways, easier in others. For one, now we’re responsible for deciding the meaning of our own lives. Much easier to let somebody else tell us what our meaning is–that way it’s not our fault if our lives turn out wrong, and we can blame our meaningless lives on the ones who gave us bad advice.
But it also means we don’t have to look to others for meaning any more. It means we don’t have to copy others–because whatever meaning they have found, it may or may not apply to us. It means we get to fill in our own answers to our own lives.
I like the idea of filling in my own answers, being in control of my own meaning. It’s difficult, and frightening, and rewarding beyond measure when I get it right. Because it means my triumphs and my messes, my victories and my failures are all mine. It means I can ask for all the help I need, but the final result is my responsibility. Because the final result is my life, and nobody else can live it for me.