Excellence Reporter: Cara, what is the meaning of life?
Cara Lopez Lee: Describing the meaning of life feels like trying to describe an orgasm. It can’t mean much to someone else until they’ve experienced it themselves, at which point they’ll likely lose interest in reading someone else’s account of it. My meaning is not your meaning, is not his or her meaning, is not their meaning. Yet I believe meaning is imperative, because to live without purpose is to not live fully.
At 35, I had not yet married, had no children, no house, no pets. I had hit a ceiling in my professional life. After breaking up with my last boyfriend, I’d spent some time crying on the bathroom floor. Then it hit me: I was tied to nothing, which meant I was free to explore anything. I had been saving for several years for a trip around the world, hoping someone special would share that dream. Instead, I spent most of the next year trekking around the world alone.
For several weeks, I traveled the Pacific Coast from Alaska to California. Then I spent eight months backpacking through Asia and Europe. After that, I spent a few days in New York and a few months in the Desert Southwest. Here’s what I discovered along my path: In a world with more than seven billion people, love is not scarce. If we let go of the desperation to escape loneliness in favor of the opportunity to pursue self-realization, we begin to see that love is not something to search for, but rather, a place to come from.
Throughout my global trek, I prayed in sacred places: Buddhist Shrines, Hindu Mani Walls, Orthodox Churches, Catholic Cathedrals, an eternal flame in the Himalayas, the Cliffs of Dingle in Ireland. My prayer was always some version of: “God, please show me the purpose of my life and help me fulfill it.”
Here’s the only answer that felt clear to me by the end of that journey: The purpose of my life is not “to get what I want” but “to become who I am.”
I once shared that thought with a skeptic, who replied, “You’re telling me you’d be happy even if you never got anything you wanted?”
I said, “I’m telling you I’ll never be happy if getting what I want means giving up who I am.”
Why do we so often value one emotion over another? In my deepest moments of loneliness and sorrow I’ve found profound beauty, as satisfying and healing as my greatest moments of love and joy. I spent too much of my youth worshiping in the “American Cult of Happiness.” That only led me to an inauthentic life.
I’m not one of those lucky people who feels comfortable wherever I go. However, I no longer mind feeling uncomfortable. That has freed me to express myself fully, to explore my potential to make a difference. My life is not about finding something but about becoming something.
Still, a sense of purpose does call me to action. There are only two things I believe are imperative in choosing a purpose: that it be rooted in self-awareness, and that it lead to compassion. The only thing in this life that has eternal meaning beyond death is what we share with others, and the only thing that remains ours when we leave this life is who we’ve become along the way.
I have three primary values: curiosity, creativity, communication. Here’s what I’ve chosen to do with them: to use my curiosity to unearth experience, to use my creativity to craft experience into story, and to use my communication skills to share my stories with an audience. Through both written and oral storytelling, I find meaning in the tapestry of human experience and then share my discoveries with others in the hope of providing illumination.
What do I illuminate? My stories revolve around the simple themes that drive me: home and belonging. For me, that means telling stories in which women discover their hidden strengths, in which social justice commands attention, in which caring for the environment that sustains us serves as a natural backdrop.
Storytelling is my gift, and it provides my life with meaning. Other people have other gifts, and therefore life means something different to them. Life asks each of us to discover our gifts, cultivate them, and share them.
In the task of daily living, my watchword is, “Do your dharma.” Put simply, from moment to moment, I focus on doing the next right thing, then the next. It’s not easy. The answers are not always apparent. But I believe asking questions is more important than knowing answers. So long as I seek the truth, I believe there are no right or wrong choices, only the choices I make and whatever comes after.
When I ask myself, “What’s the next right thing?” my best guesses often send me over a cliff into the unknowns of a new story. No problem. It turns out, we’re each the hero of our own story, and in a story anything can happen. So it is that we find we have the power to grow wings and, instead of falling from that cliff, we take flight.
~Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands: Love, Travel, and the Power of Running Away. Cara has collaborated on more than 20 books. Her writing has appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and 50-Word Stories. She’s a winner of The Moth StorySlam and performs for many L.A. storytelling shows, including Unheard L.A., Two Truths and a Lie, Write Club, and Tell It! She has taught for Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a TV anchor/reporter, and a writer/producer for HGTV and Food Network. Cara and her husband live in Ventura, California.
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