My favorite line in the ancient Chinese wisdom text, The Tao te Ching, always makes me smile. The first time I read it, I laughed out loud at its insight. It says:
"Accept being unimportant."
The New York Times today ran an amazing essay on big dreams, fame, and meaning. Author Emily Smith reflects on George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, where a character has to give up her big dreams and find her meaning in the small details of a faithful life, raising a family. She will never be famous, or celebrated, Eliot says, and points out to us all:
“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Yes. It's worth reading that again, and slowly. Smith goes on to say, and I'll quote her liberally here:
<<It’s one of the most beautiful passages in literature, and it encapsulates what a meaningful life is about: connecting and contributing to something beyond the self, in whatever humble form that may take.
Most young adults won’t achieve the idealistic goals they’ve set for themselves. They won’t become the next Mark Zuckerberg. They won’t have obituaries that run in newspapers like this one. But that doesn’t mean their lives will lack significance and worth. We all have a circle of people whose lives we can touch and improve — and we can find our meaning in that.
A new and growing body of research within psychology about meaningfulness confirms the wisdom of Eliot’s novel — that meaning is found not in success and glamour but in the mundane. One research study showed that adolescents who did household chores felt a stronger sense of purpose. Why? The researchers believe it’s because they’re contributing to something bigger: their family. Another study found that cheering up a friend was an activity that created meaning in a young adult’s life. People who see their occupations as an opportunity to serve their immediate community find more meaning in their work, whether it’s an accountant helping his client or a factory worker supporting her family with a paycheck.
As students head to school this year, they should consider this: You don’t have to change the world or find your one true purpose to lead a meaningful like. A good life is a life of goodness — and that’s something anyone can aspire to, no matter their dreams or circumstances.>>
The author, Emily Esfahani Smith, is an editor at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and is the author of The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness.