On Finding Meaning

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NaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 8

To Patients Seeking Meaning:

Try the Three Question Journal.

One of my favorite parts of a new patient encounter is when we talk about your work.  Not only hearing about what you do (as I wrote on Day 3), but what it means to you.  I ask you to rate your overall work stress on a scale of zero to ten.  Then I ask you to rate the overall meaning of your work (to you, not to others), on the same scale.  I’m looking for meaning to rate higher than stress, and above 6 in general.  This ratio, I have observed, represents a sustainable and fulfilling work life.  When I hear you articulate your passions and intentions at work, it inspires me, too.

Some of you realize suddenly that the meaning you once felt has faded, and you get pensive.  Or you tersely state that your work holds no meaning whatsoever, other than as a source of income.  This is where I usually pause for a few seconds to feel out where the conversation will go.  Should I screen you for depression?  Should we explore or move on?  My meaning comes from these inflection points.

Given that we spend most of our waking hours, most days of the week, at our jobs, I assert that it’s worth trying to maximize our sense of meaning.  Why not be happy and fulfilled at work, if you can?  I also assert that this is something we can and should choose, for our health and that of those around us.

My friend Liz recently re-introduced me to an exercise that may help.  It’s from Rachel Remen, physician and author of two deeply moving books, Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings.  It’s called the Three Question Journal.  You can find background and detailed instructions on her website here.  Basically it’s a daily practice of finding three things in your encounters:

  1. Something that surprised you
  2. Something that touched your heart
  3. Something that inspired you

Many of you may think this is a waste of time, frivolous, meaningless.  You have more important and pressing things to do.  I admit, I am not a consistent practitioner.  I feel anxious: What if I can’t find anything?  That must mean I’m mindless, cold, and utterly un-inspire-able.  Remen says this is okay— “DO NOT BECOME DISCOURAGED!!   Many people find that for a little while the answers to all three questions are exactly the same:  NOTHING, NOTHING and NOTHING.”

Wouldn’t it be so much better to be able to answer with, “This, THIS, and oh my God, THIS!!”  Every day?

We have 22 more days of November.  If you comment that you will challenge yourself to this practice every day for the rest of the month, so will I.  And we can compare notes along the way.  Whattaya say?