If I had to sum up what I see as the meaning of life, it would be to be in service to others. After all, this is what the great spiritual traditions tell us. I think this lovely poem by Thomas Stanley expresses this point of view
To leave the world a little bit better,
whether by a healthy child, a garden patch,
or a redeemed social condition;
To know that even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived:
This is to have succeeded.
When we think of service to humanity, we often think of towering figures such as Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Albert Schweitzer, etc. But as Mr. Stanley tells us, regular people can be of service, such as those in the “helping professions,” (nurses, teachers, doctors, ministers, etc.) or in any line of work.
Often times serving others can occur in more subtle ways. I recently attended a memorial service for a man named David, who was the brother of a good friend. As far as I could tell, David had lived a reclusive life. He never married, had no children, lived alone, didn’t got to work (where most of us are of service), and declined all of his brother’s invitations to attend family dinners.
Yet after his death, I learned that for the past twenty years David had visited a local pool hall-restaurant three to four times a day. There he would have a cup of coffee and share his favorite jokes with the employees and customers alike. He loved music, and when he learned that a customer liked a particular musical artist, he would burn a CD of the musician’s music for the customer.
The memorial service was held at this restaurant, which is how I learned about David’s connection to the small, yet intimate community. One by one the owner, waiters, waitresses, bartenders and customers stood up and shared how much they enjoyed David’s company and how much they would miss him.
Another example of how one person’s life can impact those around him comes from my favorite film—“It’s A Wonderful Life.” There, George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) gets to experience what life would have been like if he had never been born. In so doing he learns the many ways in which he has literally changed people’s lives.
In the same way, each of us a George Bailey. We make a difference in the world, often in ways we are not aware of.
I believe that the motivation behind serving others is the feeling of being interconnected with our fellow human beings (and the planet). Albert Einstein once said that seeing ourselves to be separate from others and the world is “an optical delusion” and that our task is “to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” This sentiment was captured by a Jesuit priest who said, “Don’t you think that the reason that God put us on this earth is so that we can learn to love one another.” When we feel love and connection to our fellow human beings (and other sentient beings), how can we not serve them?
As a lover of quotations, I would like to close this essay as I opened it—with a quotation that illustrates what I see as the meaning of life.
I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see.
I sought my God, but my God eluded me.
I sought my brother and I found all three.
~Douglas Bloch is an author, teacher and counselor who writes and speaks on the topics of psychology, healing and spirituality. He earned his B.A. in Psychology from New York University and an M.A. in Counseling from the University of Oregon.
He is the author of ten books, including Words That Heal: Affirmations and Meditations for Daily Living, Healing From Depression: A Body, Mind and Spirit Recovery Program and Words That Heal the Blues.
Douglas lives in Portland, Oregon with his partner Joan, where he facilitates healing from depression support groups. You can learn more about his work through visiting his website, www.HealingFromDepression.com or his YouTube channel.
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