by Jim Schnell, Ph.D
We live in a fast-paced, competitive society that constantly reinforces the importance of advancing and making progress. Such progress is often measured by money, the accumulation of material possessions, job titles, academic degrees, and similar types of credentials. Advance as we may, we never seem to achieve that top rung where we, and those around us, can proclaim we are fully satisfied with our advancement. There will always be another level to achieve, or a lost opportunity to lament. As such, the meaning of our life is constantly subject to reinterpretation.
My international travels have reinforced my perception of how lucky I am to live in a society where I can advance or fall back based on my aspirations, hard work and ability. The United States may not be “best” in all areas, and we can absolutely learn a great deal from other cultures, but we are the strongest with regard to possible advancement. When I’ve traveled in foreign countries and visited U.S. embassies abroad, I’ve always noticed the long lines of people seeking a U.S. visa to visit or emigrate to our country. I’ve never seen such lines at the embassies of foreign countries in the U.S.
The degree of freedom we have in the United States is liberating, but it is also constraining in that we can feel the need to excel (by a variety of standards) due to all the opportunities available. This can be discomforting in that we can be made to feel as though we’re losing ground even when we are stationary due to the advancement of those around us. The expectations of others, as stated directly and indirectly, can be disorienting and may blind us from what we really want to do, if we even have the presence of mind to understand.
Another factor in the equation of seeking to perceive meaning out of life is that there are people who will tell us what we cannot achieve. Some of these people will be family and friends who do seek only to be helpful. There will be some, however, who are not looking out for our best interests. Know that people who try to convince us of our limitations are most likely reflecting the self-imposed limitations they live with themselves. Wisdom in these matters is often exemplified when we are able to consume such advice and judge what is legitimate to consider and what is not.
If we are willing to relinquish the direction of our lives to the whims of others, the world is full of people who are willing to take control of our lives based on their perception of our limitations. It is easy to give up this control to others because that way we do not need to accept as much responsibility for our own lives. One can step out on the perceptual limb if the venture involves others who share their meanings in life and their perceptual frame of reference.
I know a family that started their own outdoor theatre in a field on their rural farm. They built a stage, put up a sign saying it was a theatre, produced plays using actors from among their family and friends, and commenced charging admission. I’m sure theatrical critics could level them with their observations of thespian shortcomings but this group of people shared a collective vision and proceeded to live it. The meaning of what they were doing was primarily a matter of their own perceptions. Who is to say that they cannot do this? When I have visited their outdoor theatre I have enjoyed the plays, but I’ve enjoyed watching them sell tickets, handle the parking, sell food and distribute programs.
I have concluded that we are the most important people to judge the meanings of our lives. Others will have their opinions, but we don’t need to be harnessed by those external opinions. We alone can influence who we are, what our potential is and what we will become in the future. It is a triumph of the human spirit to work toward a far-reaching goal and then achieve it, even if only on your own terms. If we embrace the legitimacy of the perceptions we have of ourselves, and our potential, we will experience a more meaningful life. It is up to you. It is your life.
Jim Schnell, Ph.D, is a Professor of Communication Processes at Ohio Dominican University. His teaching and research focuses on the relevance of vision with our realization of self-potential. He is a Fulbright Scholar and retired from the USAFR, at the rank of Colonel, after serving 30 years in the military intelligence community—with his final 14 years as an attaché in China. Connect at firstname.lastname@example.org.