Finding Meaning in Everyday Life . . . Where You Least Expect It

Finding Meaning and Purpose in Everyday Life

I just returned from a Caribbean cruise, on which I was fortunate enough to deliver a lecture and workshop series on all things RLP. I called it “RLP at Sea.”

I provided a comprehensive framework for understanding human well-being, the importance of social connection to that, and how to develop it with someone, and finding meaning and purpose in your life. Finding it hidden in plain sight, even. 

Before the trip was over, I’d have found a source of meaning, propped on a remote beach, waiting for me to discover it. 

Venturing into new territory

Teaching on a cruise ship might sound like a pretty good gig, and it is. Not the least part of that goodness is being among so many people seeking to blend fun in the sun with personal growth—my kind of people. But it's also a lot of work. So, when we arrived on Grand Turk, in the Turks and Caicos Islands, and I had some time off, I was looking forward to a little downtime. 

Finding meaning where you least expect it

I disembarked the ship to find a nice little shopping complex that took me all of 10 minutes to see. Also, a statue of John Glenn commemorating his splashdown in a Mercury space capsule in 1962, right off the coast. 

But the beach is what I was after. A particular type of beach experience, that doesn’t exist in Los Angeles. Specifically, I wanted the beach experience you see in commercials for tropical islands: turquoise water, coconut palms, and no one else around. 

It was a tall order, and it certainly wasn’t what the beach area around the ship terminal offered. That area was crammed with tourists in beach chairs, being served cocktails with little umbrellas in them. So, I started walking.

Very quickly, I reached the boundary of the terminal property (as a gate and sign made sure I understood), and pressed onward. The herd began to thin out. A couple strolled along the beach here; a fisherman cast his line from the rocks there. A few people on a guided ATV tour motored past. I kept walking. 

Being open to finding new meaning

After 15 minutes or so, the coastline curved around to the east, and as I rounded the bend, I couldn't believe what I saw. The entire southern coastline of Grand Turk was laid out before me—a good two or three miles—and it was completely deserted.

Keeping your eyes open

I was a bit wide-eyed as I dropped into a new sense of connection and wonder with my environment. I felt the curiosity and enthusiasm of a child, coupled with the gratitude of an adult aware of how rare an opportunity this was. 

I poked around in tidepools. I held up conch shells the size of dinner plates, dazzling white in the tropical sun. I found coconuts rolling in the surf. I imagined being stranded and needing to crack one of them open, and tried to remember how Tom Hanks finally got it right. 

I had my turquoise water, dappled with spots of dark green where the sea grass waved just below the surface. I had all the turquoise water I wanted, and islands scattered offshore, too. It was my own private castaway island fantasy.

Finding meaning in adventure

I must have walked and played around for an hour and a half, when I started to get thirsty and ready for a break. So, I started a lookout for a driftwood log, like I'd seen earlier on the beach, to sit down on. I realize I was being picky—I could've just plopped down on the sand, after all—but I decided to push on just a little further to see if I could find a makeshift chair.

A few minutes after that I saw, up ahead on the sand, a shimmering block of bright blue and white. Colors that were so out of place that I thought they must be a mirage. As I drew closer, they took form. The form, incredibly, of a deck chair from a cruise ship. 

It must have been blown overboard from a ship's deck, I figured. It seemed like it couldn't have been put there deliberately: there were no roads, no paths, and no earthly reason why someone would drag a clunky deck chair to a desolate stretch of beach.

Yet, there it was. Complete with full-length cushion, and not even dirty. Washed clean by the surf, I presumed. Not only that, but it was upright, and facing perpendicular to the beach, overlooking the turquoise water, offshore islands, and giant conch shells. 

By whatever forces involved, I learned, for the 500th time in my life, that I will find what I'm looking for, and maybe even more than I dare hope for, if only I'm willing to keep walking. 

No such thing as ordinary

Certainly, I didn’t need a deck chair to make my escapade enjoyable, but it did help to make my fantasy complete. But, much more importantly, it provided an opportunity for me to convert a merely pleasant experience into a deeply meaningful one that affirmed a core value of mine: perseverance. 

It so happens that, the following day, my lecture was on cultivating meaning and purpose in life, so my beach experience made for a convenient, current example, too.

I talked about how important it is that we take the objective data points of our lives—the where, what, and when of the things we experience, and bring to them the why; the meaning of it all. 

People are naturally more predisposed to find meaning in times of triumph and tragedy, but the fact is that we don't experience extreme highs and lows every day. The vast majority of our lives consist of small upticks and downticks which, when viewed from a distance, or at a glance, can seem of little consequence, as though we’re always crossing deserts of the mundane en route to life-changing events.

Meaning and purpose hidden in plain sight

But we don’t, really. Our day-to-day lives contain as much promise and potential for purpose and meaning as any setback or trophy-worthy achievement. And since we spend most of our time in those in-between moments, it's extracting meaning from our everyday lives that can make the most impact.

Now, is a walk on the beach in Turks and Caicos an everyday experience? No, not for me anyway! But my point here is that the external qualities of our experience are ultimately secondary to the subsurface meaning we attach to them.

That's true whether you're on the beach, walking down a city street, or wrangling your kids in the back seat of the car. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder.

Another man walking on Grand Turk that day might have complained about the jetsam spoiling the pristine beach. That might have been my reaction, on a different day, had I been more preoccupied. 

But on this occasion, I was open to a deeper sort of experience. I gave thanks for the bit of poetry that was dropped into my experience, took a seat, and took a picture, so I could pass a wish along to you: that you are able to recognize your deck chairs wherever and whenever they appear for you.