The Meaning of Finding Meaning

Holistic self-care is just the beginning of a new life journey, not the final destination.

Photograph by Chris von Holle

I knew my days as a business major were numbered when I failed Econ 101 my freshman year in college. But the one class that always stuck with me from that transitional time was a philosophy elective called God, Evil, and the Meaning of Life. My final assignment as a newly minted 19-year-old was a paper, titled (aptly) “The Meaning of My Life.” I fumbled my way through it, but the fact was I hadn’t lived enough yet to know. The best I could do was make a good guess.

I didn’t think much about that time again, until a few years ago, when I unexpectedly ended up in the hospital after a life-altering health scare. Pretty much every doctor I saw said I was lucky to be alive. But after a week or so of feeling euphoric, I found myself strangely overwhelmed at the gift of a second chance and asking some pretty deep questions. Had my life been spared for a reason? Did I want to keep living the way I had been so far? Finding meaning suddenly came to the forefront again.

Searching for answers, I turned first to my writing—a constant source of reassurance throughout my life. I’d brought a laptop with me to the hospital, in fact, so I could meet a story deadline. But something had changed in recent years. I’d written more stories, earned more recognition, and tackled more difficult projects than ever before, yet nothing I did ever felt like enough.

I rarely let my mind stay long in the present, constantly pushing ahead to my next big project. At home, I felt out of touch with people and things that really mattered: family, friends, my faith. Caring for my body through food and exercise had become an afterthought. I needed physical healing, but I also needed something more: holistic healing of the whole self—mind, body, and soul. It wasn’t going to be a quick fix, but I knew the journey had to start with some serious self-care.

Look up “self-care” online, and you’ll get more search results than you can imagine—articles and ads about everything from homeopathic potions and alternative medicines to herbal tea, aromatherapy, journals, crystals, coloring books, candles, meditation tips, and weighted blankets. But the best, and simplest, definition I found while researching this topic came from Stevi Carr, founder of a new women’s health initiative called the Wise Wellness Guild. Self-care, she says, is “getting back to the basics.”

Photograph by Chris von Holle

Not facials or cocktails with friends, though many of us miss these things dearly during the pandemic. Not golf weekends or nights out. Not aromatherapy pillows or massage chairs or actually anything you can buy. According to holistic R.N. Melissa Dyer, self-care is all about “getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, eating real food, taking care of your mental health, and having good relationships.” Truly, getting back to the basics.

Some of these things, I found out, can be much harder to tackle than boiling a cup of tea or lighting a scented candle. And yet, in a pandemic-stricken world still moving in many ways at 5G speed, the basics matter now more than ever before.

Think of yourself as a top, says Carr. “If you’re centered and balanced on all of the pieces [in your life], you continue to spin. But if you’re out of whack in one area or another, there’s no way you can keep going and be in that flow. The goal is to continue to spin. Burnout looks like flying off the table.” Or, in my case, having an existential crisis.

Last spring, a University of Copenhagen associate professor reported that global online searches for prayer had “jumped to the highest level ever recorded” in response to the pandemic. Locally, both Dyer and Carr saw corresponding upticks in interest in holistic healing and self-care. Dyer says her Florence-based Covenant Natural Health Care, which emphasizes healing through nutrition and supplements, “went from seeing about six new patients a week to 20 new patients a week” by the end of 2020. Carr’s Wise Wellness Guild expanded from a small test market in Cincinnati to clients in 13 states and five countries and a partnership with The Christ Hospital. In short, says Dyer, the pandemic “has driven people to say, I’m going to do something about my health now instead of waiting until I have a problem.”

That proactive approach to whole-self healing sits in sharp contrast to more traditional, reactive tendencies like turning to medical doctors and prescription drugs when we have a problem. “Medicine is designed by people who are geniuses,” says Dyer, and sometimes that approach is necessary. Ultimately, though, “it’s a Band-Aid. It’s meant to be a temporary thing.”

Traditional medicine takes into account just one-third of what makes up a human, says Dyer—the body, but not so much the mind and spirit. Holistic healing, she says, is a life change that has to “start with the spiritual and flow into emotions” before physical healing can even occur. “I have supplements I can sell you all day long,” she adds, but patients who don’t get to the root of their problems will never be truly cured. And no amount of yoga, says Carr, “can combat you getting just four hours of sleep a night.”

What does self-care look like in practice? For starters, says Dyer, breaking down big changes into small chunks so you don’t get overwhelmed and revert back to your old ways—like going to bed 15 minutes earlier every week for a month until you’re finally getting enough sleep.

Photograph by Chris von Holle

For me, it took an entire year to start thinking about meals as fuel instead of just another obligation, to develop daily prayer and meditation habits, and to remind myself to stop every once in a while—even in the face of adversity—to be grateful for what I had. Sure, I slip back into my old ways sometimes, but my own year-long journey to holistic healing taught me how to right my own ship.

There’s one more thing I learned that, in my experience, doesn’t get enough attention: It turns out that turning inward can take you only so far. In 2017, researchers published a study in the journal BMC Health showing that volunteering your time to help others, in just about any form you can fathom, “had significant health effects.” Not only that, but something the researchers called “other-oriented volunteering” (“altruistic” volunteer jobs in sectors like health, education, religious groups, human services, public/social benefits, and youth development) had “significantly stronger effects on the health outcomes of mental and physical health, life satisfaction, and social well-being than did self-oriented volunteering” (“self-serving” volunteer jobs in sectors like culture/recreation, environment, law/politics, and business or professional services).

In other words, the study found that giving back—simply for its own sake, and expecting nothing in return—can truly change your life for the better. Seems a long way from self-care and holistic healing, but it’s not. Self-care, I learned, isn’t an end point; it’s just the first step on the journey toward holistic healing. And holistic healing is only the second step on an even bigger journey.

Life, I learned, is most fulfilling when you take that newly minted version of yourself—the one you’ve improved through all the self-care and healing—and start giving back any way you can. Volunteering is fantastic, but you can also resolve to start doing nice things for a coworker or something special every so often for your spouse or kids. You can make an effort to hold doors open for strangers walking behind you or pay for another person’s coffee in the takeout line. You can informally serve as a mentor to someone younger or offer to run a neighbor’s errands whenever he or she is sick. The options are endless, as are the opportunities. The Jesuits call it being “men and women for others.”

Thirty years after writing that old college paper on “The Meaning of My Life,” I decided to dig it out of a basement bin and re-read it. I admitted not knowing the official answer, but even then—before I’d ever heard of the Jesuits—I knew a life of substance included making more of an effort to think about and understand other people and finding good even in experiences that were bad.

I’m still learning more each day, but it turns out that 19-year-old Lisa wasn’t as ignorant as I remembered. It just took a mid-life journey through self-care and holistic healing for me to remember what really mattered.

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