Political, philosophical and religious leaders throughout human history have been sharing their interpretations of what is the true “meaning of life.” We can trace most of our wars—local, regional and global—to disagreements on this subject. Often these conflicts are clothed in fiercely topical garb but if you dig deep enough, you will find at the root, different ideas having to do with the “true” meaning of life.
I can’t pretend to have the definitive answer to this age-old question, but in over eight decades I’ve learned to recognize and appreciate clues to the meaning of my life. It started pretty early, when I was about five or six. My father was an Episcopal priest, Headmaster of the Choir School of the Cathedral of Saint John the Devine in New York City. This was a boarding school for forty young boys whose voices had not yet changed. They supplied the treble part of the renown Cathedral choir. We lived in a small apartment in the school. My mother had died when I was four so my father became the prime authority in my life. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m learning a whole lot of good stuff here about the ‘meaning of life’ — the Episcopal Church’s version of Christianity — but what about all those other folks out on Amsterdam Avenue? I bet they don’t know about what’s happening here. Are they just plain wrong, lost souls, bad people? While I continued to wonder about this troubling question, there was no way I could pose it out loud to anyone, certainly not my father. It was over fifty years before I finally felt safe enough to articulate my concerns on this subject to others.
In the decades since then, I’ve come to understand that my early questioning of what I was told was “the truth” had to do with the purpose of my own individual life journey. As I began to explore a number of other belief systems — both religious and cultural — I recognized the wisdom of many of these different interpretations of “the meaning of life.” It occurred to me that all this controversy wasn’t about right/ wrong, but rather both/and. To further strengthen this reality, one day when I was in my early sixties, living alone in NYC, quite unexpectedly, my father’s spirit (he’d died over a decade before) came to me in my living room. His message was clear and simple. “I’m not as thick-headed as I was when I was alive in a body.” I couldn’t have been more surprised. This statement meant I no longer needed to continue with my internal rebellion; chaffing from my disagreement with my father’s definition of the “meaning of life.” Freedom at last! In the decades since, I’ve come to celebrate this new, very different, relationship with my father. No longer were our core beliefs at odds. Even though my father had died in the mid sixties, he had remained for me a powerful authority figure. With his statement: “I’m not as thick-headed as I was when I was alive in a body,” he became a true comrade.
Now I can look back over a number of events or more accurately, patterns in my life, that indicate a deep urge to explore certain directions in order to demonstrate what constitutes for me a fulfilling and authentic “meaning of life.” These opportunities date back to my first school — a private school for girls, k through 12 — where we were offered opportunities to depict ourselves nonverbally — silently acting out feelings and stories, as well as wordlessly enacting the narratives of classic epic poetry. The freedom of this form of self-expression was invaluable for a six year-old dyslexic who didn’t learn how to read until third grade. This passion for non verbal self expression developed into an obsession with wanting to study theatre, taking me through college and beyond.
Marriage and raising four children brought me very different kind of special rewards. One spring day a couple of months after my first child was born, I took him up the hill behind our house to the swing. As we sat there, gently swinging back and forth, gazing out over the corn field across the road, it came to me suddenly that not only did I now have the challenging job of raising this young soul (and presumably others to follow), but it would also allow me to actually experience what it meant to be “mothered.” Finally I would have what I had so sorely missed as a child — the experience of being cared for by a caring mother. This revelation continued to nourish me over the decades until all four children grew into adults. To this day, the comrade relationship with my father continues to generate a special form of gratitude.
One major awakening came in a startling and incredibly painful form. My husband and I were vacationing at his family place in France. This consisted of a large chateau, gardens, two farms and vineyards. My husband and his siblings had been born and raised there. We often went there for a few weeks in the autumn, filling the house with friends who helped pick the grapes, which would then be made into wine. This particular year, when I got into bed the first night, almost immediately there came a waking vision that I was lying in my own coffin and they were about to nail on the cover. Night after night for two weeks this same vision reappeared. Each night my anxiety escalated. Yet, with a houseful of guests, my role as hostess, chef and general manager, I had more than enough to occupy my waking hours.
By the time we got back to the USA, my attention was riveted in one direction: get to a lawyer as soon as possible. When I confronted my attorney with, “I need a divorce,” I saw all the color in his face drain away. Wordlessly he led me down the hall to a colleague who handled such cases. Thus began a two year process that was more painful than anything I could remember, save my mother’s death four decades earlier. Throughout this entire period, the waking vision from my recent time in France continued to stay with me, reminding me of the urgency of my life-changing mission. I have no idea how I managed to operate throughout that period and still relate normally (and I hope lovingly) to my four children. Along with a friend, I had a thriving business: Can Do. She and I used to joke that it was “social work” for the affluent.
Eventually, with my husband remaining hostile, we managed to achieve a separation agreement. The nightmare, however, was far from over. With the two youngest children still living at home, I moved out of our house, and after a couple of years, back to New York City, where I had started life. Emotionally it was still far from a peaceful time. On the surface I was doing what was needed to survive: underneath I was anything but serene. With time, however, I eventually found my way into exploring different belief systems which led to a deep and unexpected recognition of those long ago days of my childhood when I first questioned my father’s version of the true “the meaning of life.” The message that finally emerged was, “If you don’t follow your true path, you die.”
At the same time I was looking for a new way to establish my life direction, a quite different sort of message showed up in my consciousness craving my attention — white-water paddling. From my earliest childhood, I’d been exposed to sailboats. They were my father’s great love. Never had we been exposed, however, to the challenges and special thrills of paddling down rivers in canoes and kayaks. But seemingly out of nowhere came a yearning to learn this sport. It only took a few inquiries to hook up with the local chapter of the white-water paddling community. For the next five year or so I spent most spring, summer and fall weekends with paddling enthusiasts, learning the skills of this thrilling activity. Then, just as suddenly as it had arrived in my life, it was over. I reflected on what I had learned in the interim. Basically, the skilled white-water paddler pays close attention to what’s directly in their path, what’s in the middle distance and what’s farther down stream. This requires a careful and constant reading of the river, such as noticing hidden rocks, conflicting currents, unexpected eddies. Misreading any one of these conditions, plus a number of other hazards, could result in being out of your boat in a millisecond. It didn’t take long for me to realize that these activities could be readily extrapolated into metaphors for successful living. Seeing the universal in the particular, however, is only half the equation. To live a meaningful life, I would say it’s been my experience that it helps to appreciate and execute the correct strategy at the correct moment. And if you can manage that while practicing the Golden Rule, you’re doing pretty well.
So why couldn’t I grasp that bit of wisdom without spending all those years plunging down rivers, often on chilly days when the prospect of being thrown out of my boat and immersed in turbulent icy waters was ever present? Upon reflection, I’m taken back to my earlier days at my first school when I had happily engaged in non-verbally acting out stories and feelings: experiencing my interpretations of events. This was essentially the first time I had ever been invited by adults to explore and demonstrate the meaning of anything. Seeing the connection between these two very different experiences has been rewarding.
Another example of paying attention to powerful, non-verbal messages came the night before I graduated from the secondary boarding school I had attended for five years. I remember leaning out the window of my room high on a hill overlooking the Hudson River, and saying to myself, “I’m not going to do this any more.” Ever since fifth grade, when such honors were introduced, I had been elected class president by my classmates. There had been a couple of years when I wasn’t eligible because I was a “new girl” in a new school, but other than that, the pattern was consistent. During those long-ago days, I have no memory of having made any effort to be elected class president. It just seemed to happen repeatedly. I definitely enjoyed the various perks this role provided. These included such roles as leading the entire school down the hill to chapel on Sunday mornings, making announcements at the end of the school day before sports. There’s no doubt, it had all been a lot of fun. My determination to change this familiar pattern spoke to something deep down, below my conscious awareness. I just remember that I knew it was important to go off to college with a clean slate, with no expectations of repeating patterns from the past. The fact that Smith in those days was filled with young women who had also been leaders among their peers, didn’t occur to me. If I had wanted to take on a leadership position in college, I would have had to actively pursue such a role.
Actually, it was as though I was vowing to give up a life of misbehavior and wrong doing, rather than one of leadership where I was expected to go the “right” thing, to be an example for others. The promise I made to myself that long-ago June night felt like I was giving myself permission to branch out into new territory, to explore the unknown.
This I have managed to do over the decades, with the help of a number of other instances of “direction” from a higher consciousness. There are numerous ways people describe that sense of being guided by an invisible intelligence. For now I’m content to label it “higher consciousness.” So far, some chapters of my journey have appeared suddenly and unexpectedly while others have slid into place quietly and gently so that without my realizing it at first, I found myself headed in a new direction. While I have no idea how the final chapter of my life will play out and what new insights it will produce to enhance my understanding of the “meaning of life,” I remain eternally grateful for all the many nuggets of “truth” that I’ve been able to absorb so far. As one of my teachers was fond of saying, “Trust the process.”
~Jane Hughes Gignoux, author, presenter, storyteller. She offers workshops, courses and talks and hosts monthly Death Cafés in New York City
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