Searching for Significance and Meaning in an Ever-Changing World

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Some people find their meaning in creating and raising a family. For others it is the creation of a career and a hot pursuit to the top of the ladder. Still for others it may be the acquisition of material possessions, having all the right “things” and going to all the right places. For many others it may be achieving the highest possible reflection of physical beauty to be shown off in beauty pageants and modeling careers. Others aspired to and became a movie or rock star and enjoy the celebrity lifestyle of the rich and famous.

What is your search for significance and meaning? How is it working for you?

Not all events and purposes in life are what we think they are or what we think they ought to be. Many of us women in the 80’s and 90’s grew up believing that being married (or not), having children (or not), or having a career and all the right possession would make us whole thereby bringing us meaning and significance.

I am a product of that generation. I am a seeker of my own significance and meaning in life. The world has changed so much from when I was a child in the 70’s. Now, in 2011, I look at the world with a huge sense of disillusionment. I feel betrayed at times and downright lied to in other ways. I am a product of a generation sold out to self-gratification and indulging our children with possessions rather than the love, attention and care they so desperately needed. Women were encouraged to work and have careers while we sent our children to daycare. We could have it all; a family and a career! I found this to be too difficult and beyond my most well intentioned abilities. Nothing is perfect, we all did what we thought was best for ourselves and our children.

I had this idea of what life meant, of what my significance was in it and what I would be able to have. I went to college, got my degree, and sacrificed everything, only to be met now with a $104,000 bill for the student loans I can’t pay back, in debt to my eyeballs and unemployed due to my stubborn insistence of not wasting my time and talents at a stressed out, hectic, seemingly profitable job at the expense of my own sanity and morals. How could I not feel betrayed by this world? I believed that if you grew up, went to college and got a good job everything would be alright. Even though it is antiquated, I believed that my knight in shining armor would ride up and whisk me off to the suburbs where we would paint our picket fence white, plant flowers, have children and BBQ on the weekends. Instead I married a heroin addict that I had to divorce. I am too much of a product of that generation; I have come only remotely close to achieving any of those things. But, does that mean I have no significance or meaning? After many tears over loss, kicking and screaming while everything I had worked so hard for slipped through my fingers and sitting in sack cloth and ashes cursing the day I was born, I have come to accept many new beliefs about life, living and happiness.

I graduated in 1995 from college with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. The world was my oyster and I was ready to claim what was mine. I had worked hard to earn my degree and was so elated when I got my first ‘real’ job in a psychiatric hospital. That is when I fell in love with the mental health population. It was the most broken group of people I had ever laid eyes on and a group of people that lived without hope. I wanted to help them find hope, to cheer them on and watch them overcome all the odds. In many ways we were all the underdogs in life.

Our days there were filled with hourly events. Meal-times, medication times, group times and grooming were spaced at hourly intervals all of which were deadlines to meet. The lives of the residents were severely structured hoping to teach them, what? I am not sure as I look back. But, it was my life and theirs from 8am to 5pm Monday through Friday. I was a Mental Health Worker. I followed my group of residents each day, chatting with them, encouraging them, handing out their cigarettes and distributing the one dollar they earned for completing the list of to-dos from the day before. Then we walked to the corner store where they spent their money on their pleasure; it could be soda, chips, candy, or even an extra cigarette for the day. One day I saw a girl with a huge wad of one dollar bills. I asked her where she got all those from, she didn’t answer but my co-workers let me know that she had given sexual favors for those dollars.

This was the life of those that were severely mentally ill. It sickened me. I had so many feelings of sadness and despair for these wonderful, beautiful people who were imprisoned here due to the condition of their minds. I talked to residents as much as I could. I wanted to understand them, know them and try to figure out a way to help them. I was very good at that. I accomplished many career marking triumphs in those days. I could reach even seemingly the most lost among them.

Yet, I became horrified and disturbed as the months passed by. I saw the cycle of the system and the bondage they lived with. I strived to tell each and every one who could listen in even the slightest possible way, that they were loved, admired for their strength and valued just the way that they were. I succeeded. However, there was no sense of satisfaction with this job. I didn’t feel as though I was doing what I was destined to do or to become. The system had captured these lost souls in its net disguised as help. It seemed that no matter how hard I tried and despite all my efforts that the system could not be breached, they still remained in chains.

As time went on, I began to hate the system. People would become well enough to be released only to end up coming back within a few short months. I just couldn’t deal with it anymore. To me it was a person’s worst nightmare. The mental health system is touted by many as something so revolutionary and effective. I have a great deal of anger and disgust for those who perpetrate it and string it out like it is something worthy of praise. It enrages me that when people need help, if they cannot afford to see a private psychiatrist or therapist, they must turn to a county run system that is wrought with exploitation, greed and indifference. It is a trap, a vice and an imprisonment of the soul. That is the reality. Many would still argue against me. Due to a number of changes over the years, people are not housed in psychiatric hospitals as they once were; those times were worse, yes. Many people are now able to live within the community, but, they are still prisoners. They are just in their own homes, group homes, and in board and care facilities. Medication is great, when it is coupled with therapy and education. As a standalone, it is merely effective in allowing a person to not be hospitalized as much. The brokenness of many is reflected in the world and the way many people have experienced that world. The cycle remains.

The early pioneers of the field did their best I am sure. They came up with these elaborate and well thought out ‘paradigms’ that strived to scientifically explain human behavior. These paradigms were hailed as the newest and best in strategies to treat those with mental illness. Each major paradigm’s time came and went and there has always been a new brand name every few years to spice it up and make it sound appealing; otherwise known as a paradigm shift. But, at the same time, so few people are helped. Now, in 2011, it’s all about the newest medication. Maybe if people decided to treat one another with respect, dignity and be a little selfless fewer people may need all these medications or psychiatric treatment in general. I don’t know.
But, does feeling this way make me significant or provide meaning for my life? I am not sure.

I believe many young pioneers go into the mental health field because they want to make a difference. There was this moment when I walked across the stage to accept my diploma, I had no idea where I would go or what I would do, but I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. That moment in time was so surreal, as if in a dream. All this pomp and circumstance for this one moment that left me feeling a bit lost. One great achievement in life was ending and another getting ready to begin. I was full of hope and so happy when I got my first ‘Big Time” job as a social service worker in in child protection services. It went from hope to worse there.

I sat in this tiny cubicle with these huge files on my desk piled all around me, leering at me, looming over me like skyscrapers boxing me in, all the while screaming for my attention because there was an Employee Performance Review coming, a court report due or a child that needed attention. I had to develop a system of tracking the deadlines for the various reports and other monthly duties. These deadlines were serious; the reports had to be filed by a certain date or the county would get fined $250.00. I never had a late report, but I always wondered what was happening in the lives of the children. If something bad happened to them, would they be able to tell me?

Out of 60 some children on my caseload that had been in foster care for two years or more only a small handful of them were in good foster homes. I constantly worried about them. There were stories of children that were beaten, molested and even killed in foster homes. I saw faces on those files, lives that had been broken and forever shattered, innocence lost and hearts full of desperation to know a home and a family again.

The people I worked with would call these parents all kinds of filthy names. They were judgmental and harshly critical. There was always some stupid new “MEMO” about things like not spraying perfume at your cubicle. Another big event was on work place violence. This happened because a woman got pissed off at her supervisor and told the supervisor, “I have my weapon in the car” (or something of that nature) and went to her car to retrieve her Bible. Yes, it really happened.

Once again, disillusionment filled my mind as the staggering work load, the care and fret of the lives of the children and office politics sent me packing. It is a sad thing to see the worst in the people that you work with, those of us who are supposed to make a difference. Most of those I worked with thought the worst of those parents, but what did they think of themselves? I believe now that the ranting and raving of my co-workers spoke more of their inadequacy to handle the horrors of life; what can happen to some people and children. Maybe it was even their own fear of becoming horrible parents that was lingering behind every unkind judgment. I have always believed that you can’t judge a person unless you can walk a mile in the person’s shoes. If you don’t want to walk in their shoes, then know they lived through something that you never had to live through and you have the unique opportunity to choose not to, that person never had that choice.

I will never forget this one sweet child. I encountered her later on when I worked for mental health. She was all grown up and still a prisoner of the system. She had merely transferred from one horrible prison to the next. She had the sweetest face, such a beautiful smile and was really very intelligent. When she was a child in CPS she lived with her grandparents until her grandfather died and her grandmother was no longer able to care for her. Her mother died when she was 5 months old. The mother and father had both been arrested and taken to jail in a domestic dispute, while the child then went to live with the grandparents. The parents were both heroin users. The mother was found dead in her cell three days later having died during withdrawal from her substance abuse. That is where the story ended when I took over the case.

One of the tasks at hand each time a new court report was filed every six months was to try and locate any of the child’s relatives. I found this girl’s father alive and well living about 150 miles away. I was ecstatic. I thought, how wonderful that this father and daughter were to be re-united! I drove her to see her father for the first time. I was so happy and she was too; I thought to myself, “This child will not have to live in foster care anymore”. I believed I had done the greatest thing on Earth and this reunion was my Pulitzer Prize.

However, it quickly went from all that excitement to horror. The father, I believe, was unable to deal with the living example of his past mistakes that slapped him in the face when looked at his daughter. The child was born addicted to heroin and was a beautiful precious girl with many problems. She had behavioral problems, issues with authority and would even report seeing her dead mother and talking to her. I worked so hard for this little girl. I believe I saw something of myself in her. She deserved to have a good life just like anyone else. She was 11 years old at that time and the whole situation ended with her father’s rejection of her. It was a total rejection, he refused to speak to her or have anything to do with her at all. I was sick. I couldn’t believe that he had been so selfish. Now, she would be at the mercy of the system once more. I tried to understand where he was coming from and we both did our best to accept the final outcome. ‘

When I saw her years later she instantly recognized me and she ran up to me, hugging me tightly. Here she was now all grown up and taller than me! She was living in a board and care which is a bit like a psychiatric hospital without the locks. I absolutely adored the man that ran the place. But, it was far from perfect. She was still looking for kittens and puppies to love and take care of, the little girl I knew but in a grown up body, seemingly unaware of her surroundings. This is the stuff that grabs my gut. It makes me feel like crying because here she is an adult and her life, from my point of view, sucked. I vowed then that when I have my shelter, I am going to find her and bring her to live there. I plan on having a large group of animals for her to oversee, that was always her dream to be a zoo keeper I believe. Where is her search for significance? Where does she get meaning? Is she happy? I don’t know. I live with the hope that one day I can provide her with her childhood dreams, something no one else was willing or able to do, if that is what she wants. I would be more careful to ask her what she wanted instead of presuming that is what she would want.

I consider myself very fortunate because although I have lived with Depression and Anxiety for most of my life, I know what a failure the system is. My recent IQ test while trying to qualify for Social Security Disability is a good example. I worked for 24 years, so, I don’t know, I must not be completely incapacitated by my issues however, I am not exactly thriving either. So, what does an intelligence test have to do with any of that? It would be nice if I had someone I could talk to about the events I have been through in life. A better doctor would be a good start, but since I am in the lowest of standards of care, that is out of the questions. My saving grace is that I have the unique perspective that the system is not my answer. I can see that. I know what I am up against. I have the ability to think and reason. Many do not. They entrust themselves to this system because they have no other option. The system rapes and molests them for their medi-care and medi-cal payments for services rendered and only gives them medication for their time and trouble.

On paper everything looked great. We spent much time doing these assessments and plans of care. They even had a mission statement that read out fabulously on paper. I made my job more difficult than it should have been; I wanted to know the people and what they really wanted out of life. Many said they wanted “to be well”, “to go to school”, “to have a job” or “to get married”. These are wonderful goals for us anyone, however, they are not really measurable by mental health standards. The best that can be hoped for or achieved in this setting is a reduction in the frequency and intensity of symptoms. The goals had to measurable. If someone went to the hospital 6 times in the last 6 months, then you look to reduce that to 5 or less times in the next 6 months. It’s as simple as that for them. Lofty aspirations left me wading through red tape up to the top of my head and we all got lost in the system.
I finally got it and I finally got out.

I realized that I was kicking against the wrong brick wall to get to where I wanted to be and to move the clients toward what they wanted for their own lives. With out of control caseloads, not enough workers and set standards that are already in place, everything was being held together by a looming bureaucracy at helm and that boat is headed for troubled waters. There is no hope there, no light at the end of the tunnel and no real help. What does exist is a system that tracks and catalogs people and their troubles, provides a place for them to get medication and a way for the county to get paid for doing what it can for people. Now that I am out of the system I can see a ray of light in the sky. Actually on this side, the wall doesn’t look as tall or as thick as it seemed from the inside. I have moved on, it was the wrong wall all along. I cannot find my meaning or significance in giving my life to something that has no real value to me.

All of these situations, circumstances and very memorable events have shaped me over the years. My search for meaning and significance has led me down the road to having my own program where I call ALL the shots. I don’t ever want to see another beloved soul walking the halls of a mental institution trailing their fingers along the wall, checking the door handles and talking to people that I can neither see nor hear. Nor will I ever see another employee grab a resident by his throat and slam the resident to the ground for calling the employee the “N” word. That was horrifying. The man that called the worker the name was very, very ill. However, this is yet another problem in working with mentally ill people, the quality of the staff is just as important as the person being treated. Yesterday, I found the video of the woman that died in a waiting room in NY; it was on the news and on YouTube. Anyone who watched that video actually watched another human being die, she died right there in full view of the camera and the people that were standing or sitting around her. None of us that would have done something were there to help her. I was horrified and enraged.

This precious woman was first of all a human being! Second of all she was a mental health patient and most of all deserving of far more than she received there. What a sad testament to how our society has become so indifferent to human suffering. What a sad statement about how people with mental illness are devalued and mistreated not just in that situation but in many situations in life. If anything I hope that we could all learn something from that so that her death watched by over 3 million people as of yesterday would not be in vain.

My search for meaning and significance has turned, shifted and evolved from the starry-eyed dreams of a girl to the realistic outcomes of an adult perspective. If people are to be treated well, then someone has to make sure of it. If they are to realize whatever dreams they have in their hearts, they have to be given an opportunity to find the dream and live it out. If I am to realize my own dream, I have a lot of work ahead of me. I have some of my own struggles to overcome. With this shifting of my own dreams I have had to come to accept poverty for the time being. I am thankful that we have the money to pay the bills and buy food. My own soul must be the unleashed of frivolous pursuits. I have ceased to be what I am doing and I am learning to embrace who I am.

I would be lying if I said that I came up with all of this on my own. I was given a vision 13 years ago when I first became a Christian. At the time, still starry-eyed, I was so excited that God had given me such a worthy pursuit. I have been through many more situations that have challenged me and humbled me since then. I realize that it is perhaps the most difficult pursuit anyone could undertake. It requires extreme “GRIT” as I call it, fortitude from the not so faint at heart. I feel so incapable of doing this and so inadequate to handle the many challenges. But, that is exactly why I will do it and I won’t be able to take the credit. Everyone should know that it was only God in me that made it possible. Can you imagine? I think I am getting closer to my meaning and my significance.

My time is now. I have to stick to my guns and see this thing through. I beat myself up on the days I don’t write. The days I do write, like today, I am thinking I should be working on my book. However, I tell myself that being instead of doing is the bravest most meaningful part of the journey. I am not nearly as distracted as I would be if I were back working in one of those “dream” or “Big Time” jobs. As I search through the meaning of the past I find the future.

My search for meaning and significance is still en route. Each day as I continue my ‘think tank’ on the shelter and the book, I am growing as a person. I am learning to love and accept the being and not the doing. It is easy to get caught up in that. Having already lost what I had worked so hard for I no longer need to keep clamoring to maintain it. I live a sweet simple life. Not the one I had hoped to be living, but one of the hopes still in a better tomorrow, one of writing a book and seeing it on the shelves in the biggest book stores and on the best seller list. It is a life of the hope of taking the money from those book sales and buying the land and materials to build the shelter. It is a life of the hope in opening the doors and providing an opportunity to others to realize their hopes and dreams. This whole journey, thus far, is my search for meaning and significance.

In all that you do, ask yourself what you love most or what you really want to be doing, most of the time nothing goes according to plan. Millions of people did not plan to lose their homes when the deceit and greed of the last housing boom came crashing down around them. Most people did not plan on funding a war that went on for almost 10 years. No one figures in the loss of their job and sometimes their identity due to economic turn down. No mother planned to lose her son or daughter, no woman her husband, no man his wife, no father his children and no person their dreams. We must grow and evolve with our lives and the changing of the world around us. We must continue to fight “the good fight” in the face of a million naysayers. We must march forward without regret and even, at times, in solitude. We must never forget those events that shaped us and we must always be willing to take another chance to make our search for meaning and significance come true by realizing the dreams in our hearts.

Examine your life, figure out the meaning of it. Don’t let others tell you what that meaning is, know the meaning of your life is in your “being”. Don’t live a life of “quiet desperation”; never let anyone tell you what you should be doing or what your value is. “Doing” will not bring the satisfaction of knowing your meaning in life. Your significance is in the gifts you possess and your expression of those gifts in the lives of others, whether that is with your family (who could be more important?) or strangers. We are all a part of the family of human beings. Our lives have become lost in “doing”, achieving and striving. We become over run by our responsibilities and are drowning in the sea of what this world is trying to tell us to be and what we need to have in order to be significant.

Part of my dream is to see the return of community. I hope to inspire a whole generation to consider their fellow man, to move towards one another instead of away. So, that in the end, if a woman falls to the ground in an emergency room that someone would rush to her side and unleash a wrath of fury until someone paid attention. My hope is to give an entire population something that the world would not give them; the help they need to discover their purpose, to be loved for who they are and to respect them so that they can respect themselves. I want to teach them that their worth and value is not because of what they are “doing”, but because of who they are and the gifts that they hold inside them. All people are my brother or my sister and I am in essence their keeper. As a person who understands a couple of life’s mysteries I have the obligation to use what I have to make a difference in the lives of the people around me.

That is where my search has brought me so far. Where will your search begin and end? How much more time will you let pass you by before you realize that your meaning is in your “being” and not in your doing? Will you “go to your grave with your song still in you” or will you stop to hear the song inside you so that you can bring it to the world? Take some time to reflect. Change the things you can change now and know those things that you cannot change. Take courage to change what you can and find resolve within yourself when you find the wisdom to know the difference. Find out what your true meaning is, develop your significance in expressing your gifts to the world and don’t be afraid to change to adapt to the world around you.

You are indeed the captain of your own destiny. You are the great dreamer with the will and know how to achieve that dream. Believe in yourself for who you are. You are valuable, lovable and precious just the way you are today. There may be areas of your life that need adjustment, but you will get to those in time. This is the journey we are all on. Take time to enjoy your journey. Let your gifts loose on the world and find your peace in “being” who you are. Love yourself and care for yourself, so that you can love and care for others. If you don’t know how, you can figure it out. I have confidence in all of you. But, don’t be satisfied, if you really aren’t and don’t be content with doing something that doesn’t make you feel alive. Keep striving and keep fighting for the battle is worth the outcome. The outcome may just be the discovery of your true self, learning to embrace and express your gifts and living out your dreams.

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4 responses »

  1. Liz, It is ecstatic to know the purpose of your life,'making a difference in people's life.'Your crusade is hard, but very noble and precious. Empowering the vulnerable is a mindful dream and hats off to you for envisioning such a dream. In my view, your post resonates an important message-that life happens in possibilities and opportunities and I am so glad to meet you. I share your joy in spreading hope through your beautiful and serene thoughts. Following you on your blog. ThanksBarkha Dhar

  2. Thank-You Barkha. I appreciate you taking the time to read this and to respond. Life is not only full of possibilities and choices, it also requires making choices. That to me is the hardest part, to chose to do what is right for you and not allow others to persuade you otherwise. As I pursue my writing the world beckons me to rejoin the "rat race". The change from working and making a great deal of money to living a very simple life has been a hard transition. However, if I was go back to my profession my writing would go to the wayside as my life became busy and overwhelmed with working. I encourage everyone to enjoy the journey of discovery. Life can be rich and fascinating if we chose to see it that way. I hope you all will continue searching for what is right for you. Discover your gifts and chose to express them through living your dream. -Liz

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