Three Ways to Find Meaning in Difficult Times


December 8, 2020

Finding meaning in difficult times with mindfulness

As I pulled out of the driveway to go to the grocery store the other day, I got stuck behind a garbage truck making its early morning rounds. Realizing that I wasn’t going anywhere fast, I settled in and took in the sights of my waking neighborhood.

As the garbage truck heaved and grunted, outstretching its metal arms to lift and dump garbage into the truck from cans on the street, I noticed a pajama-clad mother and her toddler daughter standing in the dewy grass on their front lawn.

The little girl was jumping up and down and shrieking with delight at the garbage truck’s gymnastics. Watching more closely, I noticed the garbage truck driver and the little girl were playing games. Between each can, the driver lowered the truck’s metal arms and clapped them in the air, mechanically saying hello to the little girl, who shrieked some more, jumped again, and clapped back.

After the garbage truck rumbled on down the street, the mother and the little girl waved goodbye and went inside – for a warm breakfast, most likely. I already felt toasty inside.

For a few moments, the pandemic and the horrible news of the world receded, and I found meaning in the connection between a mother, a daughter, and a garbage truck driver. All of whom reminded me of what’s also right in the world.

Could Finding Meaning in Difficult Times Be So Simple and Ordinary?

David Kessler, a psychologist and author of “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief,” says that we find meaning in tragedy by recognizing meaningful moments.

For me, connection with friends, family, and even strangers keeps my world ordered and makes me feel a sense of belonging that’s easily lost during difficulty.

For you, what’s meaningful might be something entirely different. Maybe it’s being in nature where the sounds of windswept leaves drown out the bustle of the world. Maybe taking action, volunteering for a political cause, or organizing food delivery for the elderly in your neighborhood could bring meaning to you. Or maybe it’s simply finding the good in the bad that matters most.

Whatever it is that matters to you, you affirm its importance when you pay attention to it, and by doing so you remember where the meaning in your life lies.

All of this takes a keen eye and a willingness to be mindful. It also requires a receptivity to what any given moment has to offer you.

I could have stewed in my car and impatiently tapped my fingers on the steering wheel as I waited behind the garbage truck. Before I discovered mindfulness, I likely would have done just that. But mindfulness has taught me to slow down. It’s taught me to pay attention to the many ordinary moments that comprise my life. And as a result, I’ve found meaning – even in difficult times.

Three Mindfulness-Based Perspectives to Help You Slow Down and Find Meaning

  • Break the Spell: Human beings are habitual by nature. So much so that social scientists say much of what we do is automatic. That’s marvelous. We can brush our teeth or send a text without learning how to do it over and over again. But automaticity vanquishes meaning. Next time you brush your teeth, take your time and notice the way the toothpaste tube feels in your hand. Taste the minty freshness of your toothpaste and connect with the act of caring that brushing your teeth confers. Attending to such small moments throughout the activity lays the foundation for finding meaning in the simple activities we do daily.
  • Mindfully Reflect: Because we’re so habitual, many of us aren’t aware of what brings meaning into our lives. Take a few moments and with pen and paper, reflect and write down the things that make your life worthwhile. Some of the activities that make the list might not be easy or joyous. Caring for a friend who has cancer, for example, is weighted with melancholy. But it’s also deeply purposeful. 
  • Find Stillness: One of the benefits of a daily mindfulness practice is that it quiets the external world and connects us to our internal world. Our minds and bodies might be filled with chattering thoughts and restlessness. But by hearing the noise within us, we learn what’s worth listening to and what, in turn, might be most meaningful to us. Thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant, are like an internal GPS, guiding us to our true north.

Written by Kelly Barron