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 the answer to this is most definitely 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 it was that 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. But the people who were 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 even 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 ability to live our lives with purpose and meaning 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 [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.

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

And so the real question is not “Can we live our lives with purpose and meaning?” but rather “How can we not?”

Every action we take is upholding some sort of purpose, and values. The question is whether those are a purpose and values we have chosen for ourselves. And whether we want to change that.

What values are you upholding through the actions you take? Are you living your life with the purpose and meaning you have chosen? 

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 by reading about swimming, you also need to practice.)

Photo credit: Amal al-Jabouri, for Al Jazeera

Leave a Reply