We are all used to asking us “why”. Why am I doing this? Why should I continue? I would like to suggest a shift in perspective and another wh-question that will change our view! I very much prefer to ask “What for?”!
We regularly feel driven by existential uncertainty – and work life has developed into a field of change and unsteadiness, with all its benefits but also its downsides. Since the financial crisis at the beginning of the 21st-century, life-long employment relationships are no longer the norm. At the same time, the increasing digitalization poses the challenge to be present and active in all sorts of possible channels. Complexity is growing in a galloping globalization, in branch structures and remote work, with employees sitting anywhere in the world working for teams and enterprises that are eager not to be left behind. These are factors driving our efforts. In their light, the trend researcher Kerstin Ullrich from Heidelberg also speaks of a “Multi-Duty Life.”
A lot of energy and time is invested to ensure one’s competitive advantage. Work life extends into free time; we network, are busy with further education and on permanent standby for work issues. These logics of progress like the growth imperative of capitalism, fan the lack of connection with ourselves and yet, connection and vivid relationships are at the very core of what we need to feel the meaning of what we do and experience. And the relationship with ourselves is often the most neglected one. Let me illustrate why exactly this is relation, though, is so important:
Many people, feeling that their lives are empty, have a profound longing: There’s got to be more! Was this all there is? Some start looking for help. Often just before the outbreak of an illness, at the breakdown of a relationship or close to quitting a job. Sometimes in a manifest crisis or in times of change, the death of parents, when the children leave home, or a child is born. Often changes that we perceive as positive can trigger a crisis and bring to light an inner emptiness.
Inner emptiness rises in a similar way as an illness takes hold of a tree. As long as we are in balance, the tree is green and sappy. In a crisis it starts to drop its leaves. Because it gets sick, or what happens more often: a Sisyphus routine is digging away at its water supplies and nutrients. Perhaps because I failed to fill my life with enough meaningful content or because I live the values of a closely related person as my own. And still, we can also see this feeling of emptiness as a present to us – as it clearly wants to show me that it is time to listen to myself. I would like to invite you to listen closely to yourself, because within you you will find the source four YOUR meaning. You will find it in your answers to the question, ‘What do I really want?’ Once you start listening to your longing – and this might need some time, exercise, courage and curiosity – you will get the answers you need.
I should recognize and reflect my needs and desires, should ask myself, what contents and experiences am I seeking. Give yourself the time to find out, who you are and what is important to you, so that you can come into fulfillment and strength.
Many people, who come to my counseling, have lost touch with themselves, with their inner core, or need help to explore it for the first time. Then we clarify together, what their needs are, because every person already carries the solution inside themselves. The search for self and the meaning of life is no hocus-pocus. Those, who dare to engage with it, will find it, their own essence.
Courage, next to longing, is the driving force. However, the pressure of suffering makes brave, as well, and drives us to surpass ourselves and discover what makes us happy: each one of us has his own stone of wisdom, the jewel that makes us shine. Or, to say it with St. Augustine: “Only who is on fire himself can ignite others!”
In contrast to the Why the What for gives us more room to act. The Why is a justification, the What for an outlook to the future. The cause of our reflections and actions is not to grasp the Why of our lives but the What for. This is my theory.
Therefore – and here I am in contradiction to some philosophical approaches – it is about the question What for? and not about Why? We cannot ask for the great meaning of being because we cannot question being itself. Being simply is! This is my very firm conviction.
The search for meaning is the big question of the What for?.
Therapist & Co founder of Meaning at Work
Christoph Schlick studied Law and Theology at Graz, Salzburg and Rome. He lived as benedictine monk for over 20 years. In 2001 he founded the Institute for Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, and in 2014 the SinnZENTRUM in Salzburg and has worked as consultant, speaker and coach since. He finds his purpose of life in supporting others in their search of meaning.