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Asked for her definition of life, the famed anthropologist Margaret Mead simply said “Meaning-making activity.”
A life without some sense of greater meaning ultimately feels false and empty; while a life oriented toward meaning generates purpose, value and impact. When your life has meaning you have an authentic connection to something bigger than just yourself. When your life has meaning you can be true to yourself. When your life has meaning you can move past the time-consuming trivialities of existence and focus on the big picture and the big questions and the big ideas.
And when we point ourselves toward a larger and higher life purpose, when we have faith in something more than just a few individuals or the temporal, material things of the world, we generate improved psychological well-being, increased creativity and heightened concern for others.
Women make meaning particularly well. Women can create life, so meaning and higher purpose often come more naturally to them than they do to men. Women often discover deep meaning in their nurturance of other people, especially babies and children. Women produce meaning in their friendships, and in their faith in a spiritual existence that continues long after this physical one ends. As men, our search for meaning may be harder – but it is every bit as necessary.
When men look for meaning in life, it often comes from their work. Many men define themselves solely through their labor or their profession. And while the Baha’i teachings praise and exalt productive, well-done work to the level of worship; work does not define your entire existence. What actually makes a man is the meaning he can generate in his inner life:
Strive day and night and do whatever is possible that perchance you may awaken the heedless, give sight to the blind, bring life to the dead, refresh the weary, and bring those in despair and darkness to light and splendor. If the hope of man be limited to the material world, what ultimate result is he working for? A man with even a little understanding must realize that he should not emulate the worm that holds to the earth in which it is finally buried. How can man be satisfied with this low degree? How can he find happiness there? My hope is that you may become free from the material world and strive to understand the meaning of the heavenly world, the world of lasting qualities, the world of truth, the world of eternal kingliness, so that your life may not be barren of results, for the life of the material man has no fruit of reality. Lasting results are produced by reflecting the heavenly existence. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 56-57.
Men sometimes struggle to “become free from the material world”. Many men face this issue, working so long and so arduously that they lose sight of the needs of their own souls, and begin to somehow believe that providing for a family and just fighting the battle of daily existence constitutes their purpose and sole function in life. Most men soon learn that’s not true.
Without a sense of a higher purpose, a big-picture perspective, some meaning-making activity, life can turn into drudgery and stress, pain and pointlessness. We succumb to depression or risk-taking behavior to avoid depression; we subvert our own lives to subconsciously force changes in what has become routine and meaningless; we alienate those around us and develop anomie, anger and animosity. Sooner or later a man inevitably asks himself “What am I doing here?” and “Does all this have a purpose?”
Guys — we can learn a great deal from women right here at this intersection. Women pray and meditate more often, seeking a sense of connection with the mystical. Discovering a life of meaning means developing a lasting spiritual purpose, an inner goal, something eternal that truly sustains us, defines us and supports us through good times and bad. Finding, developing and practicing that spiritual purpose can suffuse our lives with deep meaning.
The Baha’i Faith asks us all, men and women, to reflect on that sense of purpose; to independently investigate and decide on the truth for ourselves, and then to apply our lives to doing good for all humanity:
All the divine Manifestations have proclaimed the oneness of God and the unity of mankind. They have taught that men should love and mutually help each other in order that they might progress. Now if this conception of religion be true, its essential principle is the oneness of humanity. The fundamental truth of the Manifestations is peace. This underlies all religion, all justice. The divine purpose is that men should live in unity, concord and agreement and should love one another. Consider the virtues of the human world and realize that the oneness of humanity is the primary foundation of them all. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith, p. 245.