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How to Find Meaning in Life

"Life has meaning only if one barters it day by day for something other than itself." -Antoine de Saint Exupery, French aviator and writer (1900-1944)

How many of us complain that life has no meaning? When we first entered recovery, it may have seemed as if our lives were stretching out in front of us devoid of any measurable or discernible meaning. We were likely still too raw and vulnerable from rehab to feel much of anything other than relief that that part of getting clean and sober was over.

Now, as the old saying goes, the real hard work begins. And that, in and of itself, probably scares us more than we’d like to admit. None of us relishes the big unknown, especially if we’ve got a lot of atoning to do for all the bad things we’ve done that have brought harm to others as a result of our addiction.

But even if we are only recently in the ranks of the substance abusers, this doesn’t absolve us from our transgressions. We each have things in our past for which we need to take responsibility for, large or small, it doesn’t matter. Finding meaning when we feel saddled with so much guilt and shame over our past actions takes time and patience.

The two are not the same thing. First, let’s look at time and how that helps us in the search for meaning in recovery. To begin with, when we’re finished with rehab – meaning that we’ve completed it and not walked away from it before it was scheduled to conclude – we only have a rather basic idea of what recovery is all about. We’ve heard and read that it is what we make of it, that it will require certain things of us, and that we will get stronger and more self-confident over time, but we really have nothing to compare this with. Lacking experience being clean and sober and practicing a healthier lifestyle, we can only start at the beginning – filled with uncertainty and some amount of fear.

Over time, however, we begin to become accustomed to the facts of life as it pertains to living in recovery. We know what to expect each day when we create schedules and to-do lists, when we take proper care of our bodies, minds and hearts by eating right, getting enough sleep, participating in vigorous physical exercise, attend meetings, get a sponsor and begin working on the Twelve Steps, going back to work or getting a job, mending fractured or damaged relationships, and so on.

It isn’t necessarily easy, but life does become a little easier to manage. As long as we stick to the basics and do what we need to do for our recovery, we do get stronger and more self-confident over time. The fact that there’s no single set amount of time that we have to go through before this occurs is both unsettling and comforting. It may be unsettling because we crave the answer to the question of how long it will take before we’re okay. But it can be comforting because that means that we can heal quicker than we thought, that we’ll begin to see life as more promising and enjoyable than we first thought possible.

Patience, on the other hand, requires something inside us, something that we may find in short supply. Not many of us are known for being patient, right, especially when we first enter recovery after going through treatment for addiction or substance abuse, or process addiction, or mental health disorder, or any combination of these. We want results, and we want them right away. Patience — it’s not on our radar.

Patience is something that we learn, that we can teach ourselves to have. How can this be? Aren’t we either patient or impatient by nature? Considering that being raised with a set of instant expectations may contribute greatly to a rising sense of impatience, perhaps there is something to be said for being naturally impatient by nature. But, just as we learn how to be impatient, we can learn how to be patient.

Start by setting realistic goals and timetables for achieving those goals. Instead of insisting that we’ll be able to complete a task in a week, when all reliable indicators are that it will take a minimum of a month to finish, extend the projected completion date to accommodate realistic expectations. This is both an exercise in good planning and a lesson in learning patience. Naturally we want to succeed as quickly as possible. But we should never be in such a hurry that we compromise the learning process. Rushing through something just to check it off our to-do list won’t net us any long-lasting benefits. We’ll just wind up crossing off something we had to do without obtaining the maximum from the effort we put into it.

Okay, so time and patience will assist us in being better able to find meaning in life in recovery. Here’s another secret to being able to discover our personal meaning in life: Don’t rush it. Instead of focusing on what does life mean? How do I know if my life is meaningful? — concentrate on doing the best we can on whatever we’re doing right now. Try to find the joy in the little things – the beauty of a sunrise, the amazing welling-up of emotion we feel when we see our child smile at us, the sound of birds singing outside, the smells and sights and sounds of a Christmas feast with the entire family. This is where we’ll find the meaning of life. It’s not the big things that are meaningful, but the everyday things that we so often take for granted.

At the end of our lives, we won’t have any more second chances. But we do have a big one right now. The best way to live is as if each day may be the only day that we have. This isn’t meant to be cause for alarm, simply to reinforce the fact that we don’t live in the future just as we cannot live in the past. All we can do is live in the here and now. This is our greatest gift, that we’re alive and able to give the best of our efforts right now.

Posted on February 4th, 2013

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