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How often are you building meaning into your life?


Today is April 25 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often are you building meaning into your life?” Life has always been chaotic. Such a belief may run counter to those who have convinced themselves some degree of normalcy is achievable. In his April 17, 2020, Wall Street Journal article "Shattering Illusions of a Benign World,” Robert K. Kaplan wrote “The Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh has noted the regularity of middle-class life dangerously promoted the illusion that the natural world is predictable and benign.” The natural world is far from predictable and benign. In his New York Times column entitled "Some People Turn Suffering Into Wisdom" published April 21, 2022, David Brooks wrote “Grief and suffering often shatter our assumptions about who we are and how life works. The social psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman notes that many people assume that the world is benevolent, that life is controllable and that we are basically good people who deserve good things. Suffering and loss can blast that to smithereens.” Today’s reflect challenges you to reflect upon how often you leverage your mind, body, and spirit to build meaning into your life amidst chaos, grief, and suffering.


John W. Gardner served as the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson. In a November 10, 1990, speech entitled "Personal Renewal" delivered to McKinsey & Company in Phoenix, Arizona he provided a deeply insightful view of personal development and the value of building meaning into life. In his speech Gardner focused on viewing life as an endless process of self-discovery. He observed that life is neither a mountain to summit, a riddle to answer, or a game to win. Instead, Gardner proclaimed: “Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving, and aspiring and the life situations in which we find ourselves.”


At the end of his speech Gardner told the story of a father whose 20-year-old daughter had been killed in an auto accident. The father found a piece of paper that she carried with her. On that paper was the following paragraph from a previous speech of Gardner's: "Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account."


Michael Punke built meaning into his life even if it meant dealing with bouts of pneumonia. Punke grew up in Torrington, Wyoming where he and his brother engaged in various outdoor activities such as fishing, hunting, hiking, and mountain biking while growing up. He graduated George Washington University with a degree in International Affairs and then Cornell Law School where he focused on trade law and became Editor-in-Chief of the Cornell International Law Journal. He worked as a government staffer for Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) and served at the White House as Director for International Economic Affairs and was jointly appointed to the National Economic Council and the National Security Council. While working in Washington, D.C. Punke had a desire to write a political novel but nothing caught his interest. Once he came across the story of frontiersmen Hugh Glass however, he knew he discovered the topic for his novel. According to Tim Punke, Michael’s brother, Michael “used to get up at five in the morning, go into work and write for three hours, and then he worked at his job for eight or ten hours.” The book took four years to complete and the final year was particularly intense as Punke caught pneumonia four times.


Although initial sales of The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge were disappointing, Punke sold the movie rights to his book in 2001 to producer Akiva Goldsman and 14 years later The Revenant was launched as a major motion picture. From April 2010 to January 2017 Punke served as the United States Ambassador to the World Trade Organization. While a high-ranking federal employee, Punke was prohibited by ethics rules from talking publicly or to the media about his work, attending events, signing book copies, or conducting any other activities that could be seen as promoting his work for his personal enrichment. He was, however, allowed to earn royalties and other payments from it. Punke's brother Tim and wife Traci frequently spoke for him instead during press events for The Revenant. Punke wrote a book that had a great deal of meaning for him. There was no guarantee that the book would sell, or 14 years later would be made into a major motion picture. Like Gardner, Punke understood the value of building meaning into life regardless of one’s life situation.

  • How often are you building meaning into your life?

  • How often do you remind yourself that ‘life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery?’

  • Who or what is holding you back from building meaning into your life?

  • How often do you remind yourself that normalcy is an illusion and the natural world is far from benevolent, controllable, and benign?