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 deadlines to meet, bills to pay, and coronavirus to avoid. Can we really live our lives with ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’?

Two examples show why the answer to this is an emphatic yes! 

Even in the most extreme circumstances 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 lost their sense of purpose tended to get sick and die. But the people who were still able to find meaning, even in those appalling conditions, became more likely to survive.

Even in those camps, the people who felt that “life was still expecting something from them” were able to take small actions in line with their 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 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, killing at least ten people and injuring 27, Wasfi asked himself what he could do.

The answer he found was to take his cello and go to play at the site.

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 [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.”

Even in the most extreme circumstances there is always something we can do.

And when we choose to make the meaning of our own lives it gives us the freedom to choose how we respond.

This means the real question is not “How can we live our lives with purpose and meaning?” but rather, “How can we not?”

What are the purpose and meaning that the actions you take today will give your life? 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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Photo credit: Amal al-Jabouri, for Al Jazeera

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