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. Is it really possible to 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 had enabled some people to survive while others did not, he realised that the people who had lost their sense of purpose tended to get sick and die. 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, this ability to live our lives with purpose and meaning was what 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 in 2015, 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 we take brings alive some set of purpose and values in the world. So the real question isn’t whether it is possible to live our lives with purpose and meaning: the real question is whether we are doing what we can, no matter how small, to bring alive 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. Then, 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 meaning, purpose, and values? Do you want to change that?

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

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

Photo credit: Amal al-Jabouri for Al Jazeera

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