In this month of giving thanks, I am grateful for the lessons of my life. Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned is that a meaningful life is about growing your soul, and it happens slowly, in the process of engaging life.
My own soul was battered early, when all the closest people in family died during my teenage years, and I was left alone, terrified, without money, education or an idea of what to do. I just stumbled through the days, months and years, too afraid to feel what I feared was inside me, grasping at the wrong lifelines, and clinging to the wrong people until, divorced, bereft, suicidal, and single, at age 27, I entered therapy and began to develop my soul is through exploring my feelings. It would save my life, and be the basis for a personal renaissance. As I searched for meaning and purpose, I began to understand I’d been put on Earth to learn and grow, and to use what I’d learned in the process of healing myself to help others. Now that I’m about to turn 63, I find that sense of purpose is still serving me well, and has been the source of many blessings.
As a child with no religious training, but growing up in the beautiful surroundings of the Catskill mountains, I sensed a Power behind the workings of the Universe, which has inspired me to yearn and aspire, comforted me in times of pain, and provided clarity and direction when I needed it. Human relationships bruise, batter and comfort me and teach resilience and humility. Love urges my soul to blossom and glow, compassion causes it to blur at the edges, and so I learn to accept others as they are.
Every day, I have the delight and privilege of loving Richard, my husband, a real, human, fallible man. We’re about the same age, he’s losing hair, I’ve gained weight. But, after 25 years, we have fused our hearts and souls, if not our personalities. He makes it clear that he loves me, though I often frustrate him, and I am grateful for his presence in my life on a daily basis. Our intimacy is lovely, thank you, even if it doesn’t match movie fantasies. We laugh together, we share the struggles of daily life together, and the thought that he might die before I do fills me with dread. It took me 37 years to find him, and no media beefcake image could replace my very own, live and kicking, formerly red-haired leprechaun. I am so grateful to share life with him.
My friends are equal blessing and challenge. We can be cranky, we occasionally carelessly hurt each others’ feelings, and we don’t always say the right thing. But, we are here for each other when we’re really needed, we do our best to be caring and kind, and we forgive each others’ imperfections. I give thanks for friends daily.
Soul growth often comes out of crisis. Most of my clients come to me, not focused on gratitude, but on some crisis in their lives: a relationship disaster, marriage or family problems, lack of direction and motivation, some huge loss for which they’re grieving, an emotional problem such as anxiety or depression, or perhaps even for help in recovering from an addiction. As we sort through the crisis, handle immediate problems, and get everything settled down, and then embark on an extended process of figuring out what happened and what must change, life gets easier.
Then, frequently, they ask: “Now that I'm in charge of myself, and have a lot of extra energy, because life is a lot easier and my relationships are working, it feels like I'm missing something—what am I doing here?”
This begins a spiritual search for meaning, which I've written about in The Real 13th Step, and The Ten Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make After Forty.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow explained in his “Hierarchy of Needs” that once the basics of life are established, people need a sense of meaning and a higher purpose than just survival. When self-confidence and self-esteem are in place, we need a challenge to feel satisfied, a way to express our uniqueness and individuality to ourselves, to friends, and to the world.
But if your life's purpose is not evident to you already, how do you find out what it is? Where does a sense of purpose come from? It comes from within, and cannot be not imposed or chosen from outside. Your purpose may be your livelihood, or it may have nothing to do with how you make a living. Your purpose may be a simple one, like making a good, healthy life for yourself and your children, or it may be more dramatic, and based on what you learned by healing your own childhood experience. Inner purpose has the power to transform anxiety, anger, fear and rage into powerful, life-affirming action. A life purpose gives you the means to control your destiny, no matter what the force of the hardships you have incurred.
Most of the world’s spiritual thinkers have said that the wisdom guiding each of us is available if we just listen and trust what we hear. Purpose may make itself clear in one instant flash, or gradually, by following clues, one at a time. Whether you get it all at once or a piece at a time, it will still take work and experience to bring it about. Inner wisdom is not rational or practical in nature, but more intuitive and spiritual. It can provide a way to see the big picture, or a more detached and objective viewpoint of the issues and problems of life. Each new idea must be tested through practical use, to see how it works. Step by step, using both intuitive wisdom and clear thinking, you can bring your inner motivation to the surface and use it to create what you want. A combination of inspiration expressed through action will develop the meaning of your own life.
Here’s how I expressed my own experience of it, in a poem called “Grace”
On a wheel
Formless base clay
Rising coaxed, caressed,
Coerced and beaten into shape
Tested in passion’s consuming fire
Until worthy to catch and hold
A bit of the liquid grace
Pouring unceasingly over us.
© 2006 Tina B. Tessina (adapted from It Ends With You and The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again)
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D.