As a psychoanalyst, I spend most of the hours of my work-day sitting in a comfortable chair, listening and trying to understand the struggles and longings of the people who come to me for help. At first, they come to me because they want to feel better; they want relief from pain, distress, and upset. I might call this Phase I: helping people to feel better.
Over time, if they stick with the growthful process of psychoanalysis, these folks come to not only want to feel better but to do better; they want their lives to work. This desire ushers in the long middle period of an analysis, as we sort through the complex nature of their difficulties, the unique strengths they bring to the work of life, and the hang-ups that keep them stuck. They practice new ways of being—both with me in the laboratory of each session and out there in the field work of life. They have experiences and hopefully learn from them. We might call this Phase II: helping people do better.
With hard work in analysis, people come to both feel better and do better. They become more competent in life–and the distress that brought them to analysis feels like something from the distant past. There is a period of stability that we all enjoy. A sense of satisfaction that the analysis has been helpful, that real transformation has occurred and taken root inside the psyche. But if the analysis keeps on—and keeps on effectively–this stability begins to slowly unravel, as deeper questions emerge.
What is the meaning of it all? Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? What does it mean not only to feel well and do well but to be well. Ah, Phase III. Put your seatbelts on; it’s going to be a bumpy ride!
In the fast-paced, dog eat dog, consumer-driven society of ours, many people never settle down to ask these deeper questions. But if we make progress in developing a more balanced, healthy, mature mind, these are the questions that emerge out of the quiet hum of life.
Many philosophers, psychologists, and religious leaders have set their minds to framing and answering these questions. From Plato to Aristotle, from Buddha to Jesus, from Marx to Freud, phenomenally wise people have tried to help us understand what life is all about. My challenge for the morning is to keep the answer simple—blog-style. To offer my two cents for a million dollar question.
Here goes. The purpose of life is to enjoy it. That’s why we’re here. We are here to receive this gift of life with gratitude, and to really enjoy it.
Let me say it again, slowly. The purpose of life is to receive it as a gift, with gratitude, and really enjoy it. I have chosen my words carefully. This three-ingredient recipe is for the dish that psychoanalyst Melanie Klein called “inner harmony.”
First things first. It takes a lot of growth and maturity to view life as a gift. For a long while, we may experience life as a burden, a curse, a real pain in the butt. We don’t like so many aspects of it. We don’t like that it isn’t just what we asked for. We don’t like that it isn’t perfect. We don’t like that it requires so much work. If it is a gift, we want to return it and exchange it for something we imagine we would like better.
But as we grow in maturity, we come to recognize that life is a gift—and an essentially good gift at that. We count our blessings rather than our troubles. We come to realize that the good—at least for most of us—far outweighs the bad. We come to realize that a good life is not something we deserve or are entitled to or, in many ways, have even earned. Yes, perhaps we have done well by investing what we have been given. But we didn’t create ourselves. Our life was given to us. A gift from mom and dad, a gift from God, a gift from the universe. However you want to think about it. We received it; we did not create it.
If we view life as a gift—an essentially good gift—then our natural response is gratitude. We are grateful for the good that we have received. And gratitude is a safeguard against all sorts of other very human, natural responses to life that tend to undermine inner harmony.
Gratitude is an antidote to greed. If we are grateful for the good life we have been given, then we can enjoy it but also be satisfied by it. Greed cannot say, “I have enough,” but gratitude can.
Gratitude is also a safeguard against selfishness—and selfishness, like greed, is another real spoiler of inner harmony. With gratitude comes the wish to share the good we have received; there is an urge to give some of it away so that others might enjoy it, too.
And finally, gratitude protects us from wastefulness and the guilt that comes with it. If we treasure the good we have, we treat it as something valuable which we want to protect, cherish, and manage responsibly. These kinds of attitudes are the bedrock of inner harmony.
Enjoyment that springs from gratitude facilitates a meaningful life in which there is a balance between receiving and giving, between savoring and sharing, between love of self and love of other. This kind of inner harmony is not static but dynamic. It is not something we achieve once-and-for-all, but a state which we seek to sustain through the ups and downs of our inner and outer lives.
Feeling better, doing better, and being better. The triple crown of a meaningful life. Enjoy!