I spent considerable brain power last year trying to find “THE MEANING OF LIFE”. Lofty, I know. I found no universal answer to share here, but I found an answer for myself, and thus emerged from a quarter life crisis which had stagnated my whole being in apathy for quite some time. At the end of the summer I read Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”. An insightful friend recommended I look into it after listening to me describe some of the things about life that left me feeling uninvolved with it, to put it mildly. A more descriptive account is that I was terrified that nothing meant anything, and it didn’t matter what I did or didn’t do, because the world would be the same regardless. I was accepting of being insignificant, but that acceptance became a larger belief that probably nothing else mattered either. Life would simply progress until it burned itself out, for me and for the rest of us.
As for the book, Frankl was a psychotherapist, and his book covers two main subjects- his experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, and the mode of therapy he subsequently developed upon his release, that sought to help patients find meaning in their lives. One poignant thing he points out about living in the camp is that it was evident when a fellow gave up trying to survive, and that the people who did make it typically had something to live for, to keep them interested in their own survival. That spoke to me- I wasn’t feeling meaning myself, purpose is another word that works, and I wasn’t super thrilled about spending more time living with the feeling I described above. So I realized that I had this problem, too, that I had lost a sense of purpose in my life and maybe finding one would pull me out of my angst and despondency.
I thought for a while that my ego was the problem, because maybe I was craving attention or recognition, some outward indication about the significance of my existence as I was not finding validation internally. However, my behaviors did not signal attention-seeking behavior. In the same span of time that I was pondering and self searching while trying to come up with a new life plan, I was deleting my Facebook account, posting less and less on Instagram, and letting the blog go. When I did post I’d leave off the slew of hashtags that used to accompany every picture. I didn’t care about the quantity of likes I received. I was beyond caring if people “liked” my life, because I certainly didn’t. The only approval I was looking for was self-approval. For my life, it is at least a boon to discover that I have finally shed the restriction of peer approval when it comes to my choosing my actions and behavior. I’m not looking to go full-tilt sociopath and turn away from all social signaling, but I can live a little more authentically because in most cases, my opinion is the one that is going to drive me.
So, looking for clues to what gives me a feeling of purpose, I examined some aspects of my life, including my hobbies and interests, my career past and present (right now I’m studying to be a personal trainer), how I spend my free time, and how I participate in relationships- family, friends, and romantic. I decided to put a particular focus on my running life, because it is such a big part of who I am and what I do, and of all the parts of my life, that held the most information over the longest period of time. When you land on the handle “shestherun” for social media, you might find yourself asking what else you are.
Even before reading Frankl’s book I had a sense that running made my life feel more substantial. I felt it before I ran, as in a general push from the universe to do it, while I was running, like I was exactly where I should be, and after the fact, as I looked to see where I had made progress and where I needed work. I didn’t know if running actually made me feel purposeful, but the fact that I kept at it and would come back to it after many set backs seemed significant. It showed I did have perseverance, even in the face of hardship or difficulty. What I found was just acknowledging that characteristic of perseverance, could energize me into creating a life more meaningful as a whole.
I think by now most of us recognize, either thorough experience or through some saccharine quote that makes its way onto our Facebook feeds, that the process of working towards a goal is rewarding in itself. I’ve experienced this in my running life, and not always because of some obvious accomplishments, as in finishing a marathon or placing in a race. Sometimes just showing up for a workout when I know I was on the verge of bailing makes me feel like a pretty super human being. The opportunity and ability to experience progress is what makes running so fulfilling to me, and I can absolutely apply that concept to other areas of my life to create more meaning.
What I took from realizing this is that there if I want to progress, I have to do the progressing. I think since running came so easily to me, I didn’t concern myself with much else. As I plateaued in athletic ability, and didn’t add some variety to the mix, either in the form of new challenges or new activities altogether, I became bored. Boredom turned into apathy, and apathy turned into depression. I DO NOT want to go back there. I also don’t want to pursue goals just because they make someone else’s life more exciting. I haven’t found that to be very fruitful. For example, I used to think I’d like to be a good cook, and now I realize that I am perfectly happy making simple meals for myself, and leaving the gourmet cooking to someone more passionate about it. I do want to write, not just this blog, but literature as well, but by the end of the 2016 I couldn’t bring myself to sit and do it for five minutes because of that “pointless” feeling. But the pointless feeling disappears when the goal becomes to challenge myself. If I say the goal is to get published, and I’m not even sitting down to make an outline, then progress in that scenario would be to sit and write for a period of time daily. I don’t know if anyone can identify with this, but I now believe what I thought was apathy was actually fear, that since other things weren’t coming to me as easily as running was, I wasn’t supposed to be doing them. If I tried, and failed, then I’d really be in a lurch because that fear would be founded, I would be as one-dimensional as I previously believed.
Running had such a central position in my life, which did serve a purpose and still does. When everything else seemed to be going awry, if it was going anywhere, here was this one thing, that no matter how difficult or arduous, that always revealed a reason why I had picked up my feet in the first place. Nothing else made sense, but running gave me the opportunity to experience progress, even when it was just in circles around the track. So now the challenge to myself in 2017 is to keep that idea of progress in mind, to find new ways to add layers to my life, because the meaning I was looking for seems to be just to create a better version of myself.