It’s the ultimate ‘big question’. Why are we doing what we do every day? Parenting the way we parent? How will our children find meaning and purpose in their lives? Today I’m sharing a short piece by the poet John Burnside because it touched my heart and brought tears to my eyes, reminding me of exactly why I do what I do. All of my work is aimed at supporting parents and children to live more fully and authentically, and this piece offers an eloquent reminder of how we can make a difference as parents.
The quote comes from a recent edition of The Economist, which contained a section from their European sister magazine, Intelligent Life. In it, the poet John Burnside responded to the question “What’s the Point?”
As any teenager can tell you, it’s a short step from asking the question: “What does it all mean?” to arriving at the inevitable answer: “Nothing.” Meaning is constructed by each person after her own fashion, his own nature; there is no universal formula or divine plan – no “all” – that can make individual lives meaningful. At first, such a realization can lead to dismay; befuddled by the schemes and promises of our elders and betters we had trotted dutifully to school and kirk and community discos full of the blithe enthusiasm youth is cursed with, in the sure expectation that a worthwhile life would just fall into place, with a modicum of effort, so long as we did the right things. Maturity, love and marriage, job satisfaction, happiness – they were all out there, waiting to be achieved. So we thought, until this perennial teenager’s question cropped up, and we began to doubt.
Doubt is a good thing, most of the time. As is the shedding of illusions, however painful the process. For after dismay, after the insomniac nights and the hollow feeling in the pit of the mind, what follows (if our supposed betters can be persuaded to refrain from meddling) is the gradual understanding that, since meaning is neither fixed nor universal, it is determined, to a significant extent, by the power of the individual imagination. True, there is a world out there that would compel us to conform, to consume, to render unto Caesar. But we are, nevertheless, free to resist, free to imagine, free to furnish our lives, and the terrain we inhabit, with meanings that derive from our own nature, and from the nature of our home terrain.
Henry Miller remarked that “life has to be given a meaning because of the obvious fact that it has no meaning.” But he also said that “the aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” In a conformist society, the attainment of that joyous, drunken, serene awareness is both an act of resistance and a personal achievement, for it says to hell with Caesar and his tawdry coin, and leaves each of us to invest life with all the intangible and unaccountable forms of wealth that the imperial minions in their counting house can scarcely begin to imagine.
What I SO want for my children, your children and the children of the world, is to have the connectedness to themselves, the self-confidence and the courage to live life fully with “that joyous, drunken, serene awareness”—which I interpret as a connection to our bodies, our feelings—the ability to live spontaneously, mindfully—to be uninhibited by fear—and also to feel the full range of emotions from joy and to sadness and grief, and honor all of those. It reminds me of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work on full catastrophe living.
And I agree with Burnside, it is an act of resistance in our culture of conformity. It takes great self- knowing and courage to fully self-express creatively and use your unique gifts to make a meaningful contribution to the world, instead of worrying about what people think, or doing what we think we should.
But in a world where depression rates in young people are higher than ever, I believe that having a sense of purpose and meaning, and feeling more fully connected to our hearts and feelings, and feeling like you belong, are more important than ever, and are all antidotes to the potential for depression. We can more readily stay connected to our hearts and our inner selves when we feel as if we belong, and when we feel seen and heard for who we really are. And yes, people who are depressed often have physiological issues with serotonin and other neurotransmitters, and there will be children who need other professional and medical support as well. But for many kids who may have a tendency in that direction, having a sense of being needed for something in the world could go a long way towards making life seem worthwhile rather than hopeless.
I’m reminded of this quote from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning about how some prisoners of war who had lost the will to live found it again:
“I remember two cases of would-be suicide, which bore a striking similarity to each other. Both men had talked of their intentions to commit suicide. Both used the typical argument—they had nothing more to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them. We found, in fact, that for the one it was his child whom he adored and who was waiting for him in a foreign country. For the other it was a thing, not a person. This man was a scientist and had written a series of books which still needed to be finished. His work could not be done by anyone else, any more than another person could ever take the place of the father in his child’s affections.” p. 79
Having a purpose, recognizing our own uniqueness and that only we can give our gifts to the world connects us with spirit, inspires us to live fully and more fearlessly.
So, that’s a bit of a heavy topic for today, but don’t think that you have to take on the huge challenge of finding your child something meaningful to live for, or laying a heavy weight on them by telling them that life is expecting something from them. All of us already have our desires and unique gifts ‘built in’ from birth—and the intuitive knowing to follow our own journey. They will find their way.
What Can We Do?
To start with, each us is already doing one important thing to support our children. The fact that you are here now, reading this post, tells me that you seek out information about how to be authentic and heart-centered in your life and parenting practice—and so you are already role modelling that practice or habit. It doesn’t matter if you slip sometimes and don’t have the outcome you hope for—you’re showing up and doing your best.
A second strategy is to notice when your child’s passion or heart’s desire comes up against resistance, and reflect honestly on how you can support her. When your child is resisting something (maybe your request of her, or maybe something she’s supposed to do at school), stop and ask yourself ‘What’s the point here? And how important is this really, in the big picture? Is it essential, for sure, that she conforms?’ Sometimes it’s important and she needs support to stay in her personal power within limits, but many times we need to question conformity and the status quo ourselves—our own beliefs and expectations, or the expectations of school teachers.
We are being asked to tap into our imaginations (as Burnside suggests above) with our kids, connect with our hearts, and envision different ways.
I often say to my husband that “I want to notice what brings the fire to our son’s eyes. I don’t want him to do things simply to be a people-pleaser—and that includes doing things simply to please us!” While I support education and feel grateful for our children’s access to education, let’s face it—I have no idea of whether or not what my son learns in grade 8 science will ever be useful to him again, or whether teaching him to clean his room will help him stay authentic, but I know for sure that the fire in his eyes will lead him on a path of passion and connection to spirit. So…what brings fire to your child’s eyes? Take notice. Be curious.
When we remember that the point is more about connecting, loving, living full-on and finding meaning in life, and that our children have an inner guiding compass of their own leading them, it can help us let go of the smaller things that get in the way of trusting ourselves, trusting them, connecting and living authentically.
If you feel compelled to share, or have a question or comment, I’d love to hear from you below.
Burnside, John. What’s the Point? From the Intelligence: Intelligent Life section in The Economist, Vol. 412, No. 8906, September 27th, 2014, pp. 7-8. Washington, DC.
Frankl, Viktor E. (1959). Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press: Boston Massachussetts.
Feelings: A Key to Connecting Authentically with our Children
I have been invited to present this workshop at the South Vancouver Island Family Child Care Association on November 27th. This popular workshop was presented earlier this year in April at the Making Tomorrow Conference at the University of Victoria.
Non-members can drop in for $10.
Please drop in if the topic is of interest. I’d love to connect with you there! More details under Events.