We recently had old friends we hadn’t seen for a while over for dinner. The wife of the couple is newly retired from a high-profile, widely-respected job. I asked her how she was enjoying her retirement and how she was spending her time. She said she was still adjusting to her new freedom and that she was looking for something to do.
Before pouncing on her with the virtues of volunteering and recommending she contact RSVP, I asked her what she was looking for. After a moment’s reflection, all she could say was that she wanted to find something meaningful. The conversation then gave way to the more general conversational topics of children, politics and the surprising Mariners.
I think we can all agree that we want to spend our time doing something meaningful. After all, the root of existence is a lifelong search for meaning. However, the word meaningful is one of those slippery words – like love and virtue – that defy a practical definition. The dictionary defines meaningful as “having meaning or purpose.” Okay, but that’s more of a description and a concept than a definition. The definition of the word table, for example, clearly differentiates what is a table from what is a couch, but the definition of meaningful does not differentiate that which is meaningful from that which isn’t. The reason the word meaningful has no concrete definition is that meaningfulness is personal and an expression of your identity: What’s meaningful to you may not be meaningful to me and vice versa.
Some people – the lucky few – know what’s meaningful to them, and they slide right into it after retirement like a slender hand into a soft glove. The rest of us struggle. When I retired I struggled mightily (and still struggle) to find meaning in what I do. The problem with the search for meaning, I believe, is the word itself. To me, the word meaningful connotes something grand and significant, like creating a Gates Foundation or feeding starving children. As such, I find the quest for meaning intimidating to the point of paralysis. It’s like having an expensive bottle of wine and not being able to decide on an occasion auspicious enough to uncork it.
To eliminate paralysis, I have abandoned the word meaningful for the word useful. For me, useful is liberating whereas meaningful is restrictive. For example, I recently spent two volunteer hours registering people for a Solid Ground-sponsored Baby Boost information fair. I met a bunch of bright, dedicated staff and vendors, watched a successful social service program in action, and engaged with a vibrant community I wouldn’t encounter in the normal course of my life. Afterwards I found myself invigorated, not because I had done something grand, but because I had simply been useful. And who’s to say there’s no meaning in usefulness?
Years ago, I attended a daylong business management seminar. One segment focused on time management, and the instructor summed up time management as this: No one has enough time, but we all have all there is. Don’t make your time so precious that you don’t do anything; treat meaningful as a journey that can start with being useful.