“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.”
Victor Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”
I was at the track preparing for a half marathon. I had injured my right calf while running the previous week given the limited amount of time I had devoted to my goal. You know how it is. Life gets in the way. I was only a week away from the race and I was asking myself a litany of skeptical questions. Should I bother to run this race? Why am I running it in the first place? Why have I not taken the time to prepare adequately? Am I getting too old for this? What am I trying to prove to myself? Should I just try to finish the race or finish in a specified time? What difference would it make if I ran at all? I had run 3 miles at an easy pace that night without any pain in my right calf. Having not run in over 10 days, I was pleased. I decided to run some sprints (that term could be debated based on my usual speeds) in order to assess the true nature of my injury. I walked over the starting lanes and assessed the numbers, 1 through 8. Which lane should I use to run my sprints? That decision came easily. I chose the number 5. That’s when it struck me.
The number 5 carries significance for me. I am fifth in line of seven in my family with four old brothers, a younger sister, and a younger brother. There were plenty of times in life that my position proved challenging. “Hand-me-downs” were plentiful and seconds at the dinner table were scarce. Nevertheless, I grew into the number 5 over time. Being the fifth son in a row, my mom always reminded me that “5 of a kind beats all.” I was born in the month of May. The Bible teaches us that the number 5 represents God’s grace. There are 5 books of God’s law (the Pentateuch) and Jesus used 5 loaves to feed the 5000 (Matthew 14:17). The importance of 5 can easily be seen in the function of our hands and feet. There is a perfect number of digits to optimize function. Is it any wonder that my favorite sport is basketball? As I stood in that lane in anticipation of my running, I began that internal dialogue so familiar to us all. The mind races over past experiences like the shuffling of cards. The memories may only be present for a few milliseconds but the impact of each is profound. We relive the experiences instantaneously and nearly simultaneously. It’s as if the unconscious mind was waiting for the opportunity to shed light on my purpose. Should I be asking myself, “What is the purpose of this?” or should I be telling myself, “This is my purpose.” I resolutely chose the latter perspective and subsequently ran 10 sprints (because I figured that if 5 sprints were good preparation then 2 x 5 would be better).
I answered the call of my vocation to medicine. However, after twenty years of practice, I finally realized I had been missing the point. Medicine is supposed to be about healing. Victor Frankl would argue that healing comes through the search for meaning. So by the grace of God, my role became clear. I need to help others find meaning. If I am to be a healer, I need to support others in their journey to find meaning. I will always be a supporting actor and not the lead. Because of my birth order, I would prefer it that way. The adverse experiences of our lives, while painful and traumatic, can serve as our instructors. My running injury served as a gentle reminder of why I was doing what I was doing. I intended to spend the weekend with my nephew as we share the love of running. I planned to bring my daughter with me for some special time discussing her future plans by visiting different college campuses. I wanted to challenge myself physically. There was a purpose far beyond the minor injury and the run. It was about my supporting role of others, and me, in the journey. Is it possible to find meaning in helping others find meaning? I intend to heal myself and others by responding to life’s challenge. I would invite you to do the same.
About the author:
Dr. James H. Mooney, M.D. is a Hospitalist physician in central Ohio who explores the connection between a person's emotional and physical health.