I began my search for life’s meaning when I was four years old and experienced two life-altering events: The first occurred while I was mountain hiking with my family. Our trail’s dry earth suddenly crumbled underneath my feet and broke off the cliff, taking me with it. I fell several feet, anxiously, instinctively, grabbing onto a piece of scrub brush jutting out of the mountainside. Ever since that narrow escape from a certain death in the rocky creek over a hundred feet below me, I have realized life could be taken away in an instant.
That same year I learnt about the creation of life. My father told me that billions of sperm compete with each other to join with an egg. All but one sperm lose the competition and are discarded. Every potential union between egg and sperm would have a different outcome and be a unique child. I was blown away, interpreting this as meaning my birth was a random event. The combination of almost dying, and then learning I almost never existed, threw me into an existential crisis at a young age.
Thinking that life has no inherent meaning, I concluded that it is up to each of us to make our lives meaningful. The most obvious way to me was to devote my life to reducing the suffering of others, which I have as a practicing psychiatrist for thirty years. I have heard stories from people around the world and all walks of life: from prisoners and homeless refugees to royalty and CEO’s, and ranging in age from elderly nursing home residents to children and adolescents. Those who have taught me the most are the survivors of torture, who were able to find meaning even after years of extreme and senseless suffering at the hands of others. Along the way I discovered that all life is inherently meaningful and our task is to learn that.
~Diane Powell, M.D. is an author, public speaker, researcher and practicing psychiatrist.
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