Gregory K. Popcak, Ph.D.
Allison, a widow with two children at 45, was devastated when her husband died of an aggressive type of cancer last year. “I’ve tried to be faithful, and I thought I knew where my life was going. Now, I don’t have any idea where to go next. I just feel like it’s enough to get through the day. I know God must have some kind of plan for me. I just can’t begin to figure out what it is, or where to start.”
Robert was recently let go from the company where he worked for 10 years. With a wife and a new baby (their third child) on the way, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do. “There just aren’t a whole lot of jobs in my industry right now. I don’t know whether I’m supposed to just hold out or start thinking about my other options, or…what? Where do I go from here?”
It’s a universal question. The graduate entering the workforce for the first time; the adult at middle-age contemplating his or her life; the person recovering from a significant life-trauma, all struggle with the same concern. Why am I here and what does God want from me? The short answer is that we were made for abundance. Jesus tells us that he came that we might have life and have it more abundantly (Jn 10:10). When we pursue abundance in Christ, the answers to “the big questions” often snap into focus but we often struggle to understand what that means. The struggle can be especially difficult when our lives take a turn for the worse. Unfortunately, people mistake the idea of living an abundant life with living a life that is painless, profitable, and perfect. But all one has to do is consider the life of Christ and the saints, to see that this clearly this isn’t the case. How can we pursue abundance in the face of confusion, doubt, or failure?
The Search for Meaning
Victor Frankl was a Jewish psychoanalyst who was arrested and imprisoned during the Nazi persecution of the Jews. His reflections on suffering in his books, Man’s Search for Meaning, and later, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning give us a hint at how to discover God’s plan for our lives even in extreme hardship. Frankl discovered that many people, when confronted by doubts or problems ask, “Why me?” but those who survived hardship were those who confronted whatever life threw at them with the question, “What can I make of this?” Frankl’s question challenges us to face life with courage and to discover purpose and meaning in even the most painful or absurd events. It challenges us to seek abundance even in the face of hardship and doubt.
In my book, Life Shouldn’t Look Like This: Dealing with Disappointment in the Light of Faith, I draw from both psychological research and Catholic teaching to argue that living an abundant life, at least on this side of Heaven, means being able to answer Frankl’s question in a manner that leads to a greater experience of three qualities; meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue. Meaningfulness refers to our ability to use whatever gifts, talents, and resources we have to make choices and find solutions to life’s problems that not only benefit us, but also make the lives of those around us better even in some small way. Intimacy is the quality that challenges me to use the circumstances of my life–good or ill–to draw closer to the people whom I love and by whom I am loved. Finally, virtue is the power to see everything that happens to me as an opportunity to grow into a better, stronger, godlier person.
In the last decade, psychologists have worked hard to understand what makes happy people tick. What they’ve found mirrors what Christian theologians and teachers have always taught; that the secret to what these positive psychologists call, “authentic happiness” is not the pursuit of mere pleasure or the relief of pain and suffering, but rather, the active struggle to find out how to use whatever you have been given to make a difference in the world, the commitment to building strong relationships, and the ability see every opportunity as an opportunity for growth. In other words, the secret to living an abundant life and to know God’s plan for you in every circumstance, is to seek to live meaningfully, intimately, and virtuously in ever circumstance. Here are some ways that you can begin to develop each of these qualities in your own life.
Meredith is 73 years old. Her husband passed away 5 years ago, and her social security benefit doesn’t stretch very far. But she has her health, and she says that’s enough. She wants to use what she has to help others. Five days a week, she volunteers as a teacher’s aide at a local preschool, and on the weekends, she visits “the old people” as she calls them, at the local nursing home where she calls bingo and plays piano for the sing-a-long. “I could sit around like a lot of my friends and watch TV all day, but life’s too short.” She says it makes her feel good to be able to make a difference in people’s lives,even in small ways.
Meaning fullness contributes to abundance by helping us see, in real and concrete ways, that God created each one of us to be his gift to the world! Psychologists know that one of the most important building blocks of self-esteem is confidence on your power to make a positive different in your world. Pursuing meaningfulness means first having a clear sense of the gifts and talents as well as the spiritual, psychological, and temporal resources God has given you. Second, it requires a desire and willingness to use those gifts in a way that doesn’t just benefit you, but also enriches the life of those around you.
For instance, if you have talents as an organizer, you could use them to get your house in order, which would be good, but in addition to taking care of your own things, an even more meaningful use of your gift would be helping the elderly widow down the street clean out her garage, or the parish get their storage room in order. If you are a musician or artist, using those gifts for your own pleasure or enrichment is fine, but volunteering to teach an art class at the local Catholic school or to lead a sing-a-long at the local nursing home would give you a greater sense of meaningfulness. Likewise, a recent study from the University of British Columbia shows that those who are generous with their wealth and use is to make other’s lives better are happier than those who simply accumulate it.
Similarly, meaningfulness relates to the way we deal with life’s challenges. If you are having a marital problem, then ignoring the issue might be fine for you, but using your gifts and talents to do the hard work together with your mate to resolve the conflict in a mutually satisfying way would be a more meaningful response. When we fail to pursue meaningfulness in our lives, we are consumed by its opposite, a feeling of powerlessness that effects both our general outlook and our specific ability to respond to problems.
Monica was ashamed when she found out her husband had cheated on her. At first, she felt she needed to keep the terribly painful incident to herself, but as time went by–and on the advice of their marriage counselor–she decided to open up to a sister and two friends she trusted implicitly. Later, she said that the support she received from these people was almost as important as the counseling she received for getting her life back on track and saving her marriage.
Intimacy contributes to an abundant life by enabling us to participate in a loving community of supportive others to whom we can also offer support. Research shows that people who invest both in making good relationships stronger and setting boundaries that make bad relationships safer experience greater physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Pursuing intimacy means being willing to take risks to open your heart a little more with the people to whom you are committed. It also means having the courage to set appropriate limits in those relationships that feel unsafe (thus leading to the possibility that those problems can be resolved). Examples of pursuing intimacy include sharing your hopes, dreams, or fears with the people you love (or listen to theirs), praying together, working alongside of the people you care about, or participating in rituals (fun times, meals, significant activities and celebrations) that bind you closer together as a loving community. Failing to pursue intimacy in life undermines abundance because it leads to estrangement, a sense of alienation from others that can lead to feelings of despair and isolation, especially in times of trial.
When Alan lost his wife, Tiffany, after a terrible car accident, he found himself a 37 year old widower with two children under 7. “I’m ashamed to admit it, but there were days I resented my wife for leaving me with all this responsibility. Sometimes I was jealous that she was dead. It was terrible.” After he stopped going to Church, his pastor just dropped by one day to offer what support he could. “He listened to me rant, and then he just said, ‘Alan, I can see how angry you are, but you only have two choices. You can let this kill you, or you can make something out of it.’” Alan didn’t understand exactly what that meant at first, but he decided that trying to figure it out would be better than the road he was headed down. “After a lot of thinking and praying, I realized that I used to keep her and the kids at arms length. I had to learn how to be there for them. I’m not a real affectionate or warm guy by nature, but I just had to put my energy toward learning how to kick open those doors. I’m so glad I did. My kids really gained a dad through all this. I don’t think that Tiff had to die to open me up. But I like to think that she’s been praying for me and coaching me to rise to the challenges I had to face because of her death.”
Virtue contributes to abundance by helping us see everything that life throws at us–good and bad–as an opportunity to grow and become stronger. St Paul tells us that “to those who love God all things work for the good” (Rom 8:28) and that life in Christ empowers us to be “more than overcomers” (Rom 8:37). In other words the pursuit of abundance challenges us to not merely survive the ups and downs of life but to thrive in the face of those ups and down. We can do this when we prayerfully confront each day–especially those challenging days–with the question, “What are the qualities (virtues) that I would need to exhibit in order to not only survive this challenge, but respond to it and resolve it in a manner that would bring peace to me and glory to God?” Once we’ve identified those virtues of courage, or generosity, or patience, or fortitude, or other qualities we can then ask how those virtues would require us to respond differently than we currently do in the face of the problem we are facing and we can begin to make the plans and get the accountability and support we need to make those plans a reality.
Confronting life with this attitude allows us to see the promise of Rom 8:28, “that all things work for the good for those who love God” fulfilled in our lives, and to see how exactly God can be glorified in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9). While virtue takes work, the only alternative is to undermine abundance by giving into senses of self-pity and self-indulgence, which we run to in order to anesthetize ourselves from the powerless and isolation we feel but end up only making us feel wore about both ourselves and our life.
Abundance: A Personal Challenge
The mission then for every human person, in good times and in bad, is to allow God’s particular plan to unfold in our lives by seeking the abundance that result from pursuing ever greater degrees of meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue. The specific ways a person will use these qualities to find the answers to his particular questions will vary widely from person to person, but the process is the same regardless of whether an individual is seeking God’s solution to a crisis or simply God’s plan for one’s life. By making a commitment to living as meaningfully, intimately, and virtuously as we can in every circumstance, we place ourselves on the path that leads to us becoming the people God created us to be.