Can we really live our lives with purpose and meaning?

Karim Wasfi plays cello at bomb site in BaghdadIt’s all very well talking about ‘purpose’ and ‘values’ but we all have bills to pay and deadlines to meet. Is it really realistic to try to live our lives with purpose and meaning? Do they really matter?

Here are two examples of why purpose, values, and meaning do matter and how there is always some sort of action we can take.

Viktor Frankl was a man who survived the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. When he reflected afterwards on what had enabled some people to survive, while others did not, he realised that people who lost their sense of purpose tended to get sick and die. But people who were able to find meaning, even in those appalling conditions, were somehow more likely to survive. People who felt that “life was still expecting something from them” were able to make meaning of their lives. And that gave them “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” For Frankl, this was the key that made the difference.

Consider now the story of Karim Wasfi, renowned director of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. When a car bomb exploded in the busy Mansour district of Baghdad, killing at least ten people and injuring 27, Wasfi asked himself what he could do. He stopped what he was doing, took his cello, and went to play at the site. When asked why, he responded:

“It’s partially the belief that civility and refinement should be the lifestyle that people should be consuming… It was an action to try to equalise things.”

So the act of playing the cello was the opposite to the act of detonating a bomb?

“Yes. Creating life, basically… Life [in Baghdad] is experienced on a daily basis, even though we don’t experience normalcy. When things are normal, I will have more responsibilities and obligations. But when things are insane and abnormal like that I have the obligation of inspiring people, sharing hope, perseverance, dedication, and preserving the momentum of life.”

Even in the most extreme circumstances there is always something we can do. And when we make the meaning of our own lives it gives us the freedom to choose how we respond.

The real question, then, is not “Can we live our lives with purpose and meaning?” but rather “How can we not?”

Do you know your purpose and values? How will you apply them today?


Adapted from Inner Leadership: tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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Photo credit: Amal al-Jabouri, for Al Jazeera

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