The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith. New York: Crown Publishing, 2017.
Summary: Explores the importance of meaning in one’s life, four pillars upon which meaning rests, and how we might cultivate cultures of meaning.
The question of what a life well-lived is one that philosophers and baristas, young and old alike have considered from the earliest records we have of human musings. Emily Esfahani Smith introduces us to the importance of this in describing the beauty of the Sufi community gatherings in which she grew up and the findings of positive psychologists Martin Seligman and Robert Nozick. At one time, it was at the heart of university education and considering the great ideas was to consider how people through history found meaning. No longer. And yet now as ever, people face a crisis of meaning as they try to answer the question of what they are living for.
Smith does not offer a single answer, recognizing that people have answered this in numerous ways in different religions, philosophies, or ways of living. What she does instead is draw upon contemporary research and a wide range of writers and extra-ordinary people who have grappled with questions of meaning to identify four pillars or necessary elements upon which a meaningful live is built or as she puts it, “crafted.”
- Belonging. She writes of the close knit community of the Tangier Island watermen and the Society for Creative Anachronism as two examples of communities that foster a high sense of belonging and thus meaning for their participants. From infants to old people, isolation is deadly to health and one’s sense of well-being.
- Purpose. We meet a young zoo-keeper and an ex-con who launched a fitness enterprise after helping first himself and other prisoners get fit. And she gives the example of the NASA janitor who told President Kennedy that it was his purpose to “help put a man on the moon.” Whoever we are, we need some big goal around which we organize our lives.
- Storytelling. This caught me by surprise at first. Yet we all need to be able to see the course of our lives as a coherent narrative that makes sense of the world. She tells the stories of The Moth and the Story Corp projects and how significant the telling of stories are for both storytellers and their audiences.
- Transcendence. She describes the “Overview Effect,” the experience of astronauts having scene the planet as a whole and not being able to ever approach life the same way again. For many, transcendence comes through some form of religious experience, but whatever it is, it is this sense of being part of something vastly greater than oneself.
Her concluding two chapters are on “Growth” and “Cultures of Meaning.” She writes of how often the discovery of meaning comes through adversity, using the examples of the Dinner Party, a gathering for those who have lost loved ones who are trying to find meaning in the midst of their grief, and Dryhootch, a coffee house for veterans suffering from PTSD founded by a vet whose struggles with PTSD led to a drunk driving accident where he killed another man. In “Cultures of Meaning” Smith describes how people have found meaning in communities emphasizing each of the pillars, ranging from a church to an apparel company.
Emily Esfahani Smith’s approach, as you may be able to tell is to mix a bit of research, insights from thoughtful writers like Viktor Frankl, and real life stories. It makes for a highly readable account. She honors both those whose sources of meaning are found in religious faith, and those for whom it is not. While some who are committed to a particular way of defining meaning might find this to “relativistic,” I would contend it is a great way to discover the ways people find meaning besides one’s own way. I could see the book being used for discussions where the object is learning about how others find meaning by exploring where each of us finds belonging, what gives each of us purpose, how each of us would narrate the story of our lives, and where we have experienced transcendence.
It raises good questions, particularly for those in religious traditions, about how one might go deeper in those traditions. We may embrace certain formal beliefs and practices, yet for our faith to be something alive both for us and others, the elements of belonging, purpose, story, and transcendence are indeed essential to living out lives that matter. To whom we belong and who we love, how we translate what we believe about God or whatever Ultimate we affirm into purposeful action, how we make sense of our story as part of a larger Story, and how we cultivate an attentiveness to God or the Ultimate are the things that bring beliefs to life. Ultimately, the “four pillars” must rest on some foundation and not thin air, but a foundation alone does not make a house to live in, but only something on which to build the meaningful life. This book may help us reflect on how well we are building.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.