Emily Esfahani Smith’s writing on culture, psychology, and relationships has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. Her most recent book is The Power of Meaning, and she joins Signature to talk about how a quote from George Eliot inspired her to rethink the power of meaning in our everyday lives.
In the final paragraph of Middlemarch, the novelist George Eliot pays a tribute to the people who keep the world moving forward in small yet indispensable ways:
“The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
In other words, there are millions of people out there who, though they may not be remembered or known by you and me, made a difference for the people they encountered in their daily lives.
I’ve thought about Eliot’s beautiful sentiment quite a bit over the last few years while researching and writing my new book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters.
Human beings are creatures that yearn for meaning. We want to know that our lives matter and have worth — that our lives amount to more than the sum of our experiences and made some sort of difference in the world. But how can we lead meaningful lives? The quest for meaning seems so grand and abstract. In many ways, we’ve put meaning up on a pedestal, believing that you can only lead a meaningful life if you’re doing something big, like finding a cure to a disease or governing a nation. Many people think that their lives will be meaningful only once they’ve discovered their one true Purpose or Passion in life.
But as I wrote my book, I discovered that these ideas about meaning are not quite true. Certainly, people driven by major goals like ending poverty are likely leading meaningful lives. But most people will spend their time engaged in more ordinary pursuits. The four most common occupations in America, for example, are retail salesperson, cashier, food preparer and server, and office clerk, low-paying and often rote jobs that don’t scream “meaning” — at least not on their face.
Yet, as Eliot implies in Middlemarch, the lives of each of these individuals is full of dignity and worth — their lives, in other words, are meaningful even though they won’t necessarily be immortalized in the history books.
One of the most inspiring and helpful lessons I learned while writing my book was that not all of us will find a calling in life—but that doesn’t mean we won’t find meaning in life. There are sources of meaning we can all tap into all around us all the time, no matter who we are or what we’ve accomplished.
I spoke to a janitor at a hospital, for example, who told me that her purpose was to heal children, and the way she accomplished that goal was by ensuring their environment was as clean as possible. Along the same lines, there’s a story told about the janitor John F. Kennedy ran into when he was visiting NASA in 1962. When the president asked him what he was doing, the janitor apparently responded saying that he was “helping put a man on the moon.” Adopting a meaning mindset works on a smaller scale, too: Researchers have found, for example, that teens who help their families with tasks like cleaning, cooking, and caring for siblings also feel a greater sense of purpose because they feel like they’re contributing to their families. The ability to find purpose in the day-to-day tasks of living and working goes a long way toward building meaning.
The world is full of people leading “hidden lives” and resting in “unvisited tombs.” It is full of retail clerks, accountants, and teenagers. It is full of government bureaucrats, highway flaggers, and bartenders. And it is full of nurses, teachers, and clergy who get bogged down in paperwork and other day-to-day tasks, and sometimes lose sight of their broader mission. Yet no matter what occupies our days, when we reframe our tasks as opportunities to contribute to something bigger, our lives and our work feel more significant.
Each of us has a circle of people—in our families, in our communities, and at work—whose lives we can improve. That’s a legacy everyone can leave behind.