Is it really possible to live our lives with purpose and meaning?

Karim Wasfi plays cello at bomb site in Baghdad

It’s all very well talking about ‘purpose’ and ‘values’ — but we all have bills to pay and deadlines to meet. Can we really live our lives with purpose and meaning?

Two examples show why, even in the most extreme circumstances, the answer to this question is always yes. There is always something we can do.

As a first example, Viktor Frankl survived the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. When he reflected afterwards on what it was that enabled some people to survive while others did not, he realised that it was the people who had lost their sense of purpose who tended to get sick and die. But the people who were still able to find meaning, even in those appalling conditions, were more likely to survive.

Even in the concentration camps, he said, people who felt that “life was still expecting something from them” were able to take small actions in line with their own values. That gave them “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

For Viktor Frankl, it was this ability to live our lives with purpose and meaning that made the difference between life and death.


Now consider the story of Karim Wasfi, renowned director of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra.

When a car bomb exploded in the busy Mansour district of Baghdad, killing at least ten people and injuring 27, he asked himself what he could do.

His answer was to take his cello and play it at the site of the bombing.

When asked why, he responded:

“It’s partially the belief that civility and refinement should be the lifestyle that people should be consuming… It was an action to try to equalise things.”

So the act of playing the cello was the opposite to the act of detonating a bomb?

“Yes. Creating life, basically… Life [here in Baghdad] is experienced on a daily basis, even though we don’t experience normalcy. When things are normal, I will have more responsibilities and obligations. But when things are insane and abnormal like that I have the obligation of inspiring people, sharing hope, perseverance, dedication, and preserving the momentum of life.”

Every action that we take supports some set of values and purpose. It brings those values alive in the world. If we take action then we take a step to creating the world we want. If we do nothing then we allow other values to grow. 

So the real question isn’t whether it is possible to live our lives with purpose and meaning: the real question is whether the actions we take uphold the purpose and meaning that matter most to us. 

And in the moment when we decide to make the meaning of our own lives we give ourselves the freedom to choose how we respond, to choose our own destiny. And even in the most extreme circumstances there is always something we can do.

What values are you upholding through the actions you take? Are you living your life in line with your own purpose and meaning? Do you want to change that?

Adapted from Inner Leadership: a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.

You can sign up to daily posts here.

You can buy the book here and the workbook here.

(And remember: you don’t learn to swim just by reading about swimming, you also need to do the practice.)

Photo credit: Amal al-Jabouri for Al Jazeera

Leave a Reply