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How to Have a Meaningful Life

September 24, 2015 | by Rabbi Shalom Denbo

It starts by getting five-finger clarity.

Adapted from: "7 Traits: How to Change Your World"

"Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt." - William Shakespeare

How many fingers do you have on your hand? Five.

Knowing an answer to any question as clear as that is called "five-finger clarity." That's the kind of clarity we need when tackling a task as great as changing the world. It requires a clear vision of what it is that we want to accomplish and why. It also requires a road map for how to get there.

On the surface, this may seem obvious. However, gaining clarity is often easier said than done. To demonstrate, let's try a second question:

Off the top of your head, what are the three most important lessons you have learned about life? By the time we reach adulthood, most of us should be able to answer this question without too much difficulty.

If the answer did not come so easily, lack of clarity is the reason.

America's Founding Fathers had clarity. In 1775, Patrick Henry, declared: "Give me liberty or give me death!" That is a tremendous statement of clarity and conviction.

Rabbi Noah Weinberg zt"l, my teacher and founder of Aish HaTorah, borrowed from that quote to declare: "Give me clarity or give me death."

Without clarity we cannot possibly hope to achieve the most life has to offer. Imagine the frustration of trying to put together a 500-piece puzzle without a picture on the cover. Without that image, the pieces of the puzzle are a jumbled chaos.

Full Potential

We live in a time when one distraction after another prevents us from gaining clarity. Our senses are bombarded from every side, without rest. We rarely have a moment to stop and think. From the moment we open our eyes until our heads hit the pillow at night, we move from one thing to the next. Day after day we repeat the same routine.

Rare is the moment when we allow ourselves the simple luxury of thought and contemplation. Everywhere we turn, we are able to entertain ourselves into oblivion – the radio in the car, the TV or internet at home, the smart phone in the elevator and everywhere else. This trend does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

Studies show that while being tech-savvy gives a greater ability to multi-task, the quality of each task we perform is diminishing. The consequence of all this additional stimuli is that we focus less and less on setting aside undisturbed time just to think.

Not only is there a lack of clarity and often confusion, but we are consumed by a constant nagging sense of doubt. We suffer from both internal and external doubt. Internally, we struggle with an existential angst and anxiety that results from our innate desire for greatness. We know that we possess the intellectual and emotional capacities to grow and accomplish great things in this world.

Awareness that our talents are not being used to fullest capacity generates a deep emptiness.

On one hand, this immense potential is the source of our happiness and fulfillment. On the other hand, the awareness that our talents and gifts are not being used to their fullest capacity generates an emptiness that we feel in the marrow of our bones.

This awareness can overwhelm us with the thought that perhaps we will never reach our full potential. This fear, together with an unpredictable future, creates a constant sense of emotional turmoil.

Although we might not always be consciously aware of this internal fear, it resides within us and eats away at our self-confidence. We fill ourselves with negative thoughts and dismiss any notion of accomplishing anything with statements such as "it can't be done," "it won't work," or "someone already tried that and failed."

Externally, fear and doubt afflict us when we are confronted with the pessimism so prevalent in society today. There is no shortage of cynics who try to convince us that we cannot accomplish anything meaningful. They dismiss our dreams as outlandish or simply the folly of youth, and we allow ourselves to believe they are right.

This uncertainty and insecurity has spawned an attitude of pessimism that is so pervasive that the world has come to call it simply being "realistic."

We Need Purpose

With so much doubt, no wonder we lack clarity in the most crucial areas of life. So let's start with the basics: One of the most basic needs of every human being is to know that life has purpose and meaning. We see this from the Torah's written account of the story of creation:

The placement of Adam in the Garden of Eden is repeated twice. In the original Hebrew, two different words are used to describe each time Adam was placed in the garden. In the first version (Genesis 2:8), the Hebrew implies a casual and temporary placement. The second version (Genesis 2:15) gives Adam his purpose and thus his permanence. Without that sense of purpose, man was not at rest in the garden, and it was as if he did not belong there.

Without meaning and purpose in our life, we feel lost, as if we are wandering aimlessly through existence. Tragically, one of the most common questions asked by people contemplating suicide is why they should bother going on living. The need for meaning and purpose in life is so great that without it the pain of life is almost too great to bear. Friedrich Nietzsche said, "He who has a why to live, can bear almost any how."

It is so crucial to have meaning that we often create arbitrary sources of that meaning. That is why Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzatto (18th century Italy) wrote in his classical philosophical treatise, Path of the Just, that "the foundation of life is for a person to have clarity as to what he is living for."

What am I Living For?

The most powerful question we can ask ourselves is, "What am I living for?" This is arguably the most crucial question a person can ask. Even though our priorities may change as we go through life, being able to answer to this question is the foundation of our life and should remain a constant.

A powerful exercise in building clarity is to list our values. Make a list of values you hold to be true. After making this list go through each one and analyze why you believe that value to be true. To borrow from our previous illustration, do you know it to be true the way you know you have five fingers? How did you come to this knowledge? Do you simply desire it to be true and therefore have faith that it is so? Or perhaps society has influenced you to adopt this conviction?

Once you have clarity on your core values, you can then begin to create your life's mission statement. Just as having a mission statement is crucial for a company's success, each person must have a mission statement that guides the path to his own success. Each one of us should have a mission statement in the form of a clear, concise, articulate statement that sums up our life's purpose.

What is Worth Dying For?

If we really wish to understand who we are and what our life's purpose is, we need to know what we are living for. To truly understand what we are living for, all we need to do is ask ourselves another simple, yet very profound question: What am I willing to die for?

If there is one thing our parents taught us, even if by default, it is that there is something worth dying for. Every one of us knows full well that if we bring a child into the world that child will one day die. Hopefully, that will be after a long life, but death is an inevitable consequence of life and yet our parents still chose to bring us into the world. It must be because something about life is worth dying for.

True "living" means to actively choose meaning and greatness.

Now that we have been given life we must actually choose to live it. There is an old adage: "Everybody dies but not everybody lives." In order to live we must be able to determine the difference between simply existing and truly living. To simply exist means going through the motions of life with the intention of maximizing our comfort and maintaining complacency. Usually this comes at the expense of meaning and greatness. On the other hand, truly living means actively deciding to choose meaning and greatness. This, too, comes with a price – the price is foregoing comfort and complacency.

Why not just exist? If only it were that easy! The purpose of human life is not merely to exist. Everyone understands that it is better to die fighting for a worthy cause than to live for nothing, frittering away the years.

When the forefather of the Jewish People and the father of monotheism, Abraham, realized that the pagan understanding of the world was worthless, he attempted to enlighten those around him. At the time, the leader of the "civilized world" was the evil King Nimrod. Fearing Abraham's radical views could lead to revolution, Nimrod sought to crush Abraham and his ideas before they could take root. Nimrod arrested Abraham and presented him with an ultimatum: Either bow down to the "god of fire" or be thrown into a fiery pit. Abraham unsuccessfully attempted to convince Nimrod to abandon his views, and chose not to bow down.

Bowing down would mean admitting defeat and be tantamount to accepting the notion of a world with many gods. Abraham refused to bow down. Nimrod threw Abraham into the furnace and a miracle took place, saving him from the flames. Abraham had made a choice, though, that it would be better to die standing up for his values than to live a lie.

Figure out what you are willing to die for. That in and of itself is a profound awareness. But don't stop there. Once you understand what you are willing to die for, figure out how to live for it. The very values you deem worthy of dying for should be the focus and purpose of why you are living. That is your mission statement.

Tools for Five Finger Clarity

  • Make a list of the three most important lessons you have learned about life.
  • Make a list of values that are an integral part of your life and define them.
  • Write out your life's mission statement by asking yourself, "What am I willing to die for?"
  • Map out life goals for the next year, 5 years, 10 years.
  • Ask yourself every day the following three questions:
    1. 1. What did I do today that got me closer to my life's mission?
    2. 2. What did I do today that moved me further away from that mission?
    3. 3. What am I going to do tomorrow that will ensure I continue doing those things that get me closer, and prevent me from doing those things that move me away?

Adapted from: "7 Traits: How to Change Your World"

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