What’s Worth Living For?

Lenny writes in with a fairly distressing email:

All of your articles assume a few things, and one of the big ones is hope for the future. Most of what you talk about is useless if you don’t have anything to live for.

My first reaction to this was to send Lenny a private email suggesting that he may be depressed and encouraging him to talk to his doctor about taking some steps to improve his situation, which is what I usually do when I receive emails from people who seem to be depressed (I seem to get a lot of them, actually).

The more I thought about Lenny’s comment, though, the more I realized that he was right in some ways. Many of the posts on The Simple Dollar do assume that you have something to live for.

I often leave that “something to live for” completely unstated because, for me, I don’t have to look around at the world too much to find things that are worth living for. My wife and my kids are the first obvious answers, but there are many more than that: the charities and groups that I try to help, the Simple Dollar readers that I know I’m helping, the well-being of my community as a whole, social concerns I’m involved with, and so on. Even if I were to lose my wife and children at this point, I think that, after I reeled from the blow for a while, I would have enough things that are worth living for that I would eventually pick myself up and move on.

If that type of answer doesn’t come easily for you, the easy answer is to simply say you’re depressed. After further thought, however, I don’t think depression is the only answer here. It can easily be a matter of simply not yet finding something in your life that lights your fire.

If you’re involved in that type of struggle, where the underlying motivation to improve your situation at all is a struggle, here are a few suggestions for you.

Find ways to be more social. For some (including myself), it can be a real challenge to interact successfully with other people in face-to-face environments. I’ll be the first to admit that I have to really work at this to make it happen, as my own self-consciousness tends to undermine me every time.

However, making that effort offers tremendous rewards beyond the simple joy of companionship. I get a unique opportunity to learn more about the world and about the people around me. I get the chance to see the world through the eyes of others. I get to see that the experience of happiness and joy and sadness are all not just unique to me. Almost always, I’m left with a desire to make the world a better place somehow.

Look into the situations of people with fewer advantages than you. If you’re reading this, you have more advantages than a lot of people in this world. There are people without food to eat. There are people without clean water. There are people without basic education. There are people without basic skills. Often, this isn’t a matter of self-sufficiency or lack thereof.

I’m often particularly affected by the plight of children, which is why I often mention Jump for Joel, and the plight of the developmentally disabled, which is why I often mention L’arche Tahoma Hope.

Explore the varieties of religious experience. An exploration of one’s spiritual side often brings into light the nature of life. I don’t just mean go to church. I mean exploring the practices of a lot of different faiths. Try different methods of prayer and of meditation. Visit houses of worship of vastly different religions than your own.

This isn’t a push to abandon your own beliefs. It’s encouragement to find new ways to connect to your spiritual side and to dig deep into your own connections to the world and to what lies beyond, whether you’re a Christian or a Muslim or an atheist.

Read philosophy. The works of great philosophers often hold incredible value for helping us understand the world. For example, the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson have had a huge impact on my life over the past year or so, shaking some of the fundamental ways in which I view the world.

Each time I notice myself growing and changing, I find that my connection to the world is stronger and my purpose in life is greater than it was before.

Explore the world around you. Go on a walk in the woods or a stroll through a park. Walk around the block. Stroll through what you consider to be a different neighborhood than your own. Look around and watch and listen.

What do you see that you like? What do you see that bothers you and makes you uncomfortable? Why do you feel this way about these things? Are they based on real things that you can work to change, or are they based on your own preconceptions? Just wandering around can open lots of purposeful doors for us.

Rather than thinking about what you can’t do, think about what you can do. Many people, particularly those who are ill or disabled, tend to focus on the things that they can’t do. They can’t get around too well. They get tired easily. They’re in pretty constant pain from their knees.

What they forget to see is the abundance of things they can do. A low-energy person can still rock a baby to sleep and bring that baby comfort. A person who can’t get around very well can still read stories at the library or read aloud from novels at a retirement home.

If you focus on the abundance of things you can do rather than dwell on the things you can’t do, you can always find yourself to be very helpful to those who need you.