A traffic controller standing in the hot sun as he directed the flow of cars on a stretch of Colorado highway was asked by a driver how he could stand such boring work. “I keep people safe,” he replied. “I care about these guys behind me, and I keep them safe. I also keep you safe, and everyone else in all those cars behind you.” This man had found meaning in his work that gave his life a sense of purpose.
Long ago when most folks lived in tightly-knit communities, they found purpose in caring for each other. As Aristotle knew, meaning is not something we create within ourselves and for ourselves. Rather, he said, meaning arises from our relationships to others. This includes having a mission tied to contributing to society and connecting to something bigger than the self. It seems that when we devote ourselves to difficult but worthwhile tasks – whether than means raising a child, running for office or directing traffic – our lives feel more significant. Not necessarily happier, but more fulfilling overall.
In the last few decades, it’s become trendy to research – and pursue – happiness as an end in itself. Yet, notes author Emily Esfahani Smith in her fascinating book The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness, the happiness frenzy has largely failed to deliver on its promise. In fact, she says, social scientists have found that chasing happiness actually makes people unhappy. In a world in which global suicide rates have spiked 60 percent since WWII and a million people take their lives each year, we need to stop glorifying ‘rugged individualism’ and start reaching out to one another.
Which brings us to the Autumnal Equinox, happening this Saturday evening. The change of season is marked by the Sun and Mercury moving into collaborative Libra – sign of relationships. However, both planets run smack into an opposition to vulnerable Chiron in Aries and a square to no-nonsense Saturn in Capricorn. Monday’s Aries Full Moon (Sept. 24, 7:52 p.m. PDT) brings this whole configuration into high relief as the Moon joins Chiron. This could represent a crisis point at which we must admit that alone our power is limited (Chiron and Moon in Aries). But when we join with others to share our pain and further a common cause (Sun and Mercury in Libra), then beautiful things can start to happen. Saturn cautions us to move slowly and deliberately, and to choose our companions wisely. And most of all, to make sure we’re headed in a direction that can bring us a sense of purpose.
As Emily Smith adds, not all of us will find our calling. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t find purpose. No matter what occupies our days, when we reframe our tasks as opportunities to help others, our lives and our work feel more significant. Each of us has a circle of people – in our families, in our communities, and at work – whose lives we can improve. That’s a legacy everyone can leave behind.”