The question of what makes a meaningful life is often the most fulfilling, joyous, and challenging endeavor one encounters in life. Many people carry on with their daily life, without giving further consideration to whether they are on the path toward a fulfilling existence. It is often only during times of intense conflict or through momentous occasions where these introspections take hold.
A third example, for which I have great reverence for, is individuals living with disabilities and their families. It is as if the pursuit of a meaningful life for the individual with disabilities is at the forefront of every thought, effort, and action taken. I have had the pleasure of observing individuals struggling with Autism, Depression, Anxiety, Developmental Disabilities, ADHD, Social Anxiety, and other Mental Health issues approach life with enviable perspective on what makes a valuable life. Their outlooks toward achieving a meaningful life, although differing substantially from individual to individual, have a couple of things in common. One is that there is always a strong ambition toward a positive achievement, whether it is short-term or long-term. Another is that life is celebrated, despite the adversity faced in their life. Sometimes, due to factors such as limited communication skills or challenging behavior, the ambition and the celebration is not always obvious. However, in my experience, I have always been able to recognize these signs not too far under the surface.
The individual’s perspective towards life is closely paralleled by the dedication and perseverance exhibited by the family members and caretakers of these individuals. Every day, families are finding new ways to improve the individual’s life, and increase communication. I don’t see family members as being defined merely by the disability in the family, however more often they are enhanced through the care of the individual with the disability.
So what are we all searching for?
Aside from setting positive goals and celebrating achievements, there is sometimes more that is sought after. The most important thing to remember is that it is different for each person involved. For some people, this may mean getting through each day with limited behaviors or maintaining good health. For others, it means engaging in an activity that brings gratification. We are all unique individuals with unique upbringings, causing infinite possibilities for how to answer and seek answers to these questions. Perhaps this is why it has always fascinated me to think about these questions and especially to see how many interesting ways other people come to these answers for themselves. For me, continuous introspection has often been the avenue for finding an ever-evolving value in life.
Often the most valuable experiences that contribute to a fulfilling life are those that involve deep and meaningful relationships with others. Through these relationships, we learn more about compassion, compromise, values, and common interests. We share experiences of joy and sorrow that bind us closer together. Family members care for individuals with mental health concerns or disabilities can often attest to the fact that although it may appear as though some individuals retreat or isolate, they often desire nothing more than having a meaningful connection with others.
Is it supposed to be easy?
Although I have witnessed the joy and enrichment in these families, I’d be remiss to exclude the challenging times. Mental health and developmental disabilities often carry with them the most unique, unpredictable, and frustrating set of life trials. It is unrealistic to expect that the individual or the family manage through these difficult times unaffected. During these trying times, things are sometimes unbearable and feel insurmountable, making it nearly impossible to celebrate or think about meaningfulness. Through these experiences, one can become more in-tune with and grateful for the small successes, when they come.
Time and time again, despite how difficult the daily ins and outs of caring for the family member are, I meet people who are wholly grateful for the ways the individual has impacted their life. On some days, the challenges can be too great to remain positive and grateful. But that’s ok, because there is incredible resiliency in the family to bounce back and persevere. Through this experience, it is evident that the family’s pursuit of a valuable life is through connection with the individual.
Who gets to decide what a meaningful life is?
This is a question that most people don’t think about too often, but is extremely important, especially for those with disabilities or mental health issues. It is human instinct to protect those who we love, especially those who are more vulnerable. However, it is essential to keep a balance between protection and limiting choice. That is to say, each individual, regardless of disability, has the right to create their own impression of what makes a meaningful life. In addition, every person has the right to pursue this by whichever means they see fit. Now that’s a value we can all get behind.
Seth Chandler, LMSW is a co-founder and group Social Worker at Mile Zero Consultation, LLC. He enjoys designing creative small groups to help people realize their full potential. In his free time, Seth enjoys spending time with his family, playing instruments, and petting his two pugs.