Every Friday and Saturday morning, as my wife Diane and I arrive at our local homeless shelter, we are greeted with a warm welcome by one of our favorite people: Mama. Mama is an older black woman who, at first glance, appears thin and frail — but is so lively and radiates a contagious enthusiasm for life.
She reminds me of my own grandmother, and she is one of the many dear, sweet souls that my wife and I have fallen in love with since we’ve started working here at the shelter.
As soon as Mama sees us, her face lights up. Her eyes sparkle with joy as she eagerly rushes over, stretching out her arms for a warm embrace. Diane is the first to receive her affectionate squeeze. Then, it’s my turn. Mama’s grip is tight, as if she wants to cherish this moment for as long as possible.
Her warm hugs have been a daily ritual since we began working at the shelter. It became like clockwork.
That is, until about a month ago.
While walking through the courtyard, making our way toward the kitchen, we noticed her sitting on a bench. We paused, exchanged smiles, and relished in her loving embrace. That’s when she revealed that she was no longer a part of the kitchen staff.
A few weeks later, we saw her again, only this time, she was outside the facility, sleeping on the sidewalk, wrapped in a blanket. Still, we smiled, exchanged greetings, and warmly embraced one another.
Only last week, she was nowhere to be found.
My Search for Meaning
Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist, endured the horror of living through Auschwitz during World War II. It was within those walls that he bore witness to unspeakable horrors, including those that led to the loss of his beloved wife and parents.
However, before his nightmarish experiences during the Holocaust, Frankl had been devising a theory we now call Logotherapy. According to Frankl, the only way to truly fulfill our existence is by pursuing a life filled with meaning. He later explained how those who managed to survive the nightmare of Auschwitz were those who clung to hope and sought to find a purpose. In his own words, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
Over the past few years, I’ve been on my own journey in my search for meaning. A few years ago, I made the decision to quit drinking, and this month marks my fourth year of sobriety. I also quit smoking, prioritized fitness and healthy eating, began reading, and even returned to the pursuit of education.
During this time, I’ve discovered that I am most fulfilled when I follow Frankl’s seemingly simple principle: to search for meaning.
Erickson’s Psychosocial Development Model
According to Eric Erickson, a ground-breaking developmental Psychologistic, most of us go through eight major phases of personality development on our journey from birth to death. Each of these phases features a binary struggle between two opposing outcomes. For example, during adulthood, we experience the stage of intimacy vs isolation (young adult), generativity vs stagnation (middle age) and integrity vs despair (old age). By understanding and learning from these stages, we can gain a better sense of self-awareness and insight. We can also use this knowledge to help guide others in their journey towards successful self-actualization and understanding.
|Approximate Age||Psychosocial Crisis/Task||Virtue Developed|
|<18 months||Trust vs. Mistrust||Hope|
|18 months – 3 years||Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt||Will|
|3 – 5 years||Initiative vs. Guilt||Purpose|
|5 – 13 years||Industry vs. Inferiority||Competency|
|13 – 21 years||Identity vs. Confusion||Fidelity|
|21 – 39 years||Intimacy vs. Isolation||Love|
|40 – 65 years||Generativity vs. Stagnation||Care|
|65+||Integrity vs. Despair||Wisdom|
Currently , I am in the middle-aged phase of life. According to Erikson’s model, I’m forced to make a crucial decision: either to actively pursue generativity or give in to the pull of stagnation. Generativity is the desire to leave a lasting mark on the world by caring for others, which is a pursuit filled with meaning. Alternatively, stagnation lacks a sense of direction and meaning. There is a third option, though, commonly known as a midlife crisis. This is a period where we may feel a strong sense of doubt regarding what the future holds; it is a time for reflection and reevaluation of our lives.
Service and Empathy
I first considered volunteering at a shelter because I wanted to focus on and lean into a deeper understanding of the values of service and empathy. I seek to learn more about these two foundational pillars to help me on my quest to pursue a life of meaning and connection. Not only do I want to gain an understanding of what it means to serve, but I also want to cultivate a heartfelt connection to it. Can I be motivated to serve others fueled solely by a sense of compassion, empathy, and love? Through the act of serving, I hope to enhance my sense of empathy and vulnerability.
When I say that I want to explore and gain a deeper understanding of service, I mean this in a very specific sense. As a soldier, the phrase “serving one’s country” is commonly heard, but it fails to capture the deeper meaning of what it means to serve others. It fails to capture the essence of adopting a mindset of service towards the people we encounter each day.
In other words, during this chapter of my life, can I embrace the principle of generativity and avoid stagnation? Can I sincerely care for and serve others? Can I cultivate and exercise a greater level of understanding and empathy for those around me? Can my life hold some significance? Can I truly make a difference and leave the world a better place?
I confided in a close friend, someone whose opinion I deeply value, that I wanted to find a place in the community where I could begin serving. I was surprised by his response — while he appreciated my motives, he questioned the idea. He struggled to see the value of the impact it could have. Can serving a meal at a food kitchen genuinely bring about any meaningful change to those in poverty? Can a single person make any kind of real, tangible difference in this world? What’s the purpose of investing all of that effort if it makes no lasting change?
We sat in silence for a while as I reflected on his questions. At the time, I didn’t have a compelling answer. Perhaps I still don’t, but here is what I’ve learned so far.
First, perhaps one person can’t change the entire world — that is an unrealistic expectation. But rather than allowing it to paralyze me, which would mean succumbing to stagnation, I’ve decided to narrow the scope of my efforts. I may not be able to change the world, but I can make a positive impact, one life at a time, by sharing a heart full of love with whomever I encounter.
Second, while I may not be able to change the world, I find that every day that I serve, something inside me is changing. There are some days that I come away from the shelter with a feeling of euphoria; I feel deeply connected with this amazing community of people. I have the privilege to witness and share in the victories that these individuals accomplish on their journey. I’ve seen a number of people who have followed their case workers guidance very closely. They’ve submitted job applications, gained employment, saved and budgeted their money, found a home, and successfully transitioned back into society.
However, there are also days when I’ve left with a broken heart, driven by a desire to do more. I’ve seen people return to the streets, stepping back into the system. People like Mama.
These moments motivate me to search for additional ways I can serve to make a more lasting impact . This is the profound effect that serving others can have on us. Every day, I feel it changing me, transforming me. I am making the conscious decision to avoid stagnation by choosing to actively pursue meaning and purpose.
As individuals, we may not be able to change the world, but we do have the power to make a difference in the lives of others. I urge you not to succumb to stagnation; I urge you to follow the pursuit of meaning, to better yourself by helping another —to leave this world a better place.