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The search for meaning as we age

Published June 07. 2014 09:00AM

Today David and I skipped our club kayaking trip and went by ourselves.

We kayaked a new area in a totally relaxed way. While I was leisurely gliding through the water, I noticed David and I had totally different approaches to our kayaking trip.

I kept searching the waterside, looking for alligators hiding in the grass, or I searched the treetops for exotic birds.

David, on the other hand, kept his eyes peeled on the water in front of him. Because he did, he was the first to spot the alligator swimming across the river and the two manatees bobbing in the water.

With nothing to occupy my mind, I thought how our different approaches mirror regular life. Each of us searches for something different.

Some search for a true, rewarding relationship. Others stay occupied searching for career advancement, a new house or other material things.

But regardless of how we live the first five or six decades of our life, when we get older, we begin to search for something else: We search for meaning.

As we realize our time on earth isn't unlimited, many of us begin to think about ways to make our days count. How can we spend our time in a more meaningful way?

A church pastor who has spent decades counseling people told me he sees this happen to many older people, saying it's a trend with positive outcomes.

I know what he means, because I see it happening around me.

What happens when you've successfully climbed the corporate ladder and feel as if you've done it all?

Well, for starters, you have the satisfaction of knowing you've won the race we call life, at least careerwise, that is.

But when a corporate executive retires, then what?

What do you do with your life after you've stepped away from a leadership position and downsized to retirement?

"Well, when you are no longer being paid to be a leader, you still want to be a leader, and you can be," says my friend, Don.

He's talking from experience.

After he left a position of leadership in a major corporation, Don decided to put his skills to work by volunteering to help nonprofits.

He became head of his town's United Way campaign, then signed on to help other nonprofits. "I don't think there was a local charity I didn't get involved with, and it was usually in a high-profile way," he says.

But after all that, he wanted more more meaning, that is.

"I yearned to do something different, something meaningful," Don recalls.

He found his answer in a simple way. The consummate volunteer answered a Big Brothers/Big Sisters ad asking for people willing to mentor a child.

"With all my children and grandchildren grown, I realized I missed the laughter of children and the excitement they bring to life," Don told me.

He was assigned to mentor an 8-year-old boy named Ricky. The boy's father left when he was a toddler, and his mother works long hours as a cook trying to support her family.

Ricky and his sister were alone a lot. When their mother was home, she said she was too tired to do anything with them.

Fortunately, the children were matched with mentors who enriched their world in meaningful ways.

Don took Ricky to ballgames, air shows, concerts and special events throughout the county. But the best thing he did for Ricky was simply to listen and be there for him.

Ricky's mother told me Don changed her son in significant ways. "His attitude improved and his grades shot up to all A's and B's. I can truly say Don changed his life," she told me.

Don insists he is the one who gained the most.

"I found the meaning I was searching for," he says. "I learned that helping this child is the most meaningful thing I have done."

Many find their search for meaning leads to a closer relationship with God. Others find it means cutting out the busy work in life and concentrating more on family.

They all want the same thing to make the most of their time here on earth.

I find the older I get, the more time seems to fly by in a blur. Days melt together and calendar months seem to be over almost as soon as I turn the calendar to a new month.

I, too, want to make my days count. But it bothers me when time is so fleeting I can't even pause to take it all in.

I found one solution in an unexpected way. Each night, I follow what is called the Examin. Before I fall asleep, I recall all the blessings that came my way that day. Then, I review the day from start to finish, sort of like a movie playing in my mind.

Looking back on my day allows me to grasp it more fully. Little things I hurry by come to mind and let me appreciate them more.

I find days don't melt together when I do this.

Also, it's like a personal accounting of how I spend my day. If I'm squandering the day by not doing much, I realize this during the Examin. It helps assure I spend my day in meaningful ways.

We all find meaning in different ways. What matters is that we embrace each day, squeezing the most out of each hour we are given.

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