What Life Expects From Us

May 23, 2010

Dear Friends,

Expanding spiritual capacity requires subordinating our own needs to something beyond our self-interest. Because we often perceive our own needs as urgent, shifting attention away from them can prompt very primitive survival fears. If I truly focus my attention on others, we worry, who is going to look out for me? It is a mark of courage to set aside self-interest in order to be of service to others or to a cause. The irony is that self-absorption ultimately drains energy and impedes performance. The more preoccupied we are with our own fears and concerns, the less energy we have available to take positive action.

Subordinating our self-interest to something beyond ourselves may feel threatening at first, but as I discovered, it can also be immensely rewarding—a means by which to experience a deeper sense of meaning and great self worth. The commitment to live according to our deepest values not only creates a more stable center in our lives but also helps us to better navigate the challengers we face along the way.

Viktor Frankl has written movingly about the power of spiritual capacity to transform even the most horrifying circumstances. Frankl was the psychologist who survived the Nazi concentration camps and went on to write the classic Man’s Search for meaning. In it he quotes Nietzsche’s famous words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” Frankl goes on to describe the way this insight helped to save his own life, even as others were dying around him:

Woe to him who saw no more sense in life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. What was needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—hourly and daily. Our answer must consist not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and to fulfill the task which it constantly sets for each individual.

As Frankl saw it, we must make our own meaning—actively build spiritual capacity. Doing so necessarily involves discomfort. “Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, “he wrote, “the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become…What man actually needs is not a tensionless state, but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

Lance Armstrong offers a particularly inspiring example. In the early 1990’s, Armstrong was a top American cyclist and by his own description, highly self-absorbed. In 1996, at the age of twenty-five, he was diagnosed with a virulent form of testicular cancer. In a short time, it spread to his lungs, and then to his brain. His odds of survival were put at less than 3 percent. Somehow Armstrong survived and, equally miraculously, he returned to cycling. In 1999, three years after his original cancer diagnosis, he won the Tour de France, the most challenging bicycle race in the world—and he went on to win it the next three years as well. As Armstrong saw it, surviving cancer was a far greater and more significant achievement—in large part because it pushed him beyond his own narrow ambitions:

The truth is that if you ask me to choose between winning the Tour de France and cancer, I would choose cancer. Odd as it sounds, I would rather have the title of cancer survivor than winner of the tour, because what it has done for me as a human being, a man, a husband, a son, and a father…The one thing the illness has convinced me beyond all doubt—more than any experience I’ve had as an athlete—is that we are much better than we know. We have unrealized capacities that sometimes only emerge in crisis. So if there is a purpose to the suffering that is cancer, I think it must be this: it’s meant to improve us.

With Appreciation

Jim White, PhD

Author, What’s My Purpose, A Journey of Personal and Professional Growth

Creator What’s My Purpose Life Mastery Course

Founder & CEO, JL White International, Inc.

PS

We are starting another 12-week class on September 6, 2010…

www.whatsmypurpose.com

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7 Responses to “What Life Expects From Us”

  1. Don Huntington Says:

    Magnificent!

  2. Terry Matthews Says:

    Hi Jim

    Good to hear from you! This article comes at a time when I have been pondering the whole energy of
    service. When we move through our negative mindsets,attitudes, ego and attachments, I think we have the key to a magnificent courage. Thank you for highlighting this!

  3. Carol Says:

    Isn’t every challenge in life an opportunity to become who we really are. Surviving cancer is certainly all about improving Self. It takes tremendous courage and faith of believing in Self and in a greater power to continuously improve and expand. Life is a journey filled with opportunities. Stepping up to the opportunities and beyond our comfort is what brings us greatness within so that it can shine without.

  4. Denise Says:

    Hi Jim,

    So good to see your cheery face again. Thank you from the bottom of my hear for this………it is beautiful! Much success to you and all of us……..thank you for bringing us all together.

    Love,
    Denise

  5. Anna Paradox Says:

    Hi, Jim,

    I think of survival and service as levels. It would be a poor thing to survive, and then not look around to see how we could be of service. There’s more to life than taking care of ourselves!

    It’s interesting that Frankl and Armstrong both had their great insights while in life-threatening situations! What a gift to gain those wider perspectives!

    Best wishes,
    Anna

  6. Dan Martin Says:

    I agree without reservation, Jim. The life lived beyond oneself is the only one worth living.

    The only thing I might add is this: we best identify–and can strive for–that purpose beyond ourselves, when we are in community. Not necessarily with others who all see things are way; in fact, it’s better if we’re stretched by some healthy disagreement, some “iron sharpening iron.” Community exposes us to the breadth of that into which we can invest, provides a framework in which the efforts of each are potentiated by the others, and provides some of that safety we otherwise “lose” in turning away from our self-seeking habits.

    Thanks for the insightful challenge!

    Dan

  7. Michele Says:

    Jim, it’s so great to hear from you again. What a powerful sharing and so inspiring to read “you”. Thanks

 

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