The most important book I have read in recent times is The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith. Smith’s thesis is this: if you spend your life chasing happiness you may get it but happiness is often short lived and ephemeral. But if you spend your life pursuing meaning, you will find that though you may or may not be happy in your pursuit, meaning brings with it a deeper and more long-lasting sense of wellbeing. Her extensive studies show that there are four key things that bring a sense of meaning to life.
As I conducted my research for this book, those four themes came up again and again in my conversations with people living meaningful lives and those still searching for meaning. Those categories were also present in the definitions of a meaningful life offered by both Aristotle and the psychologists mentioned in the introduction [of her book] — who argued, in different ways, that meaning arises from our relationships to other, having a mission tied to contributing to society, making sense of our experiences and who we are through narrative, and connecting to something bigger than the self. . . .They are the four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. (Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning, [New York, NY: Crown, 2017], 41)
I do not know if Smith comes from any faith tradition, but she is not writing from a faith tradition. She writes from her training in psychology and philosophy. But any follower of Christ will immediately see how her four pillars of meaning are deeply embedded in the Christian narrative.
Belonging — we are called to be part of 1 Corinthian 13 communities and are explicitly commanded to love one another (John 15:12).
Purpose — while we all have different gifts and are in different stations in life, we are sent forth into the world as God’s ambassadors to mediate His love through word and deed.
Storytelling — as followers of Christ our story becomes connected to God’s redemptive story, the God of Romans 8:28.
Transcendence — to be connected to Christ is to be connected to God since Jesus is God (Titus 2:13).
I celebrated my 63rd birthday a few days ago and looked at my life afresh through the grid of Smith’s four pillars of meaning and realised I was very blessed. I have friends and family who love me, I wake up each morning and know I have important work to do, and in some incredible miracle, the Creator of the universe calls me son and friend.
But as I grow older I am more and more appreciative of the fact that I am part of a story where, in spite of my mistakes and failures, I follow a gracious God who holds my hand and who will make things right in the end.
Growing older, you have more evidence of your stupidity and sin, and the fact that you fall so far short of what you should be in Christ. Growing older means fewer days to get your act together and that it really is time to grow up. But growing older also means greater appreciation of the fact that with God, from the beginning to the end, in this life and the life to come, I am carried in the everlasting arms of grace (Deuteronomy 33:27).