Chapter 3: Labyrinths of Meaning


I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is
to be discovered in the world rather than within man
or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. [1]

In an episode of the popular television comedy Frasier the central character, Dr. Frasier Crane, is notified that he will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work as a psychiatrist and radio talk show host. Prior to the award ceremonies, Frasier seeks the counsel of his psychiatric mentor because he feels anxious and ambivalent about receiving the award. More fundamentally, however, the session with his mentor reveals that Frasier feels empty in spite of all his professional success. At the award ceremonies, his acceptance speech is noticeably brief and ends with the existential question, . . . now what do I do with the rest of my life? In this fictitious case, the concern is very real. Frasier had reached a critical point along his life path . And, like walking a labyrinth through all of its twists and turns, he couldn t see where he was going next .

A labyrinth is not a maze. It is not a puzzle to be solved but a path of meaning to be experienced . Its path is circular and convoluted but it has no dead ends. A labyrinth has one entrance , one way in and one way out. When we walk the path, we go around short curves and long curves; sometimes we are out on the edge, sometimes we circle around the center. We are never really lost, but we can never quite see where we are going. Along the path we sometimes move forward with ease and confidence; sometimes we creep ahead cautiously; sometimes we find the need to stop and reflect; and sometimes we even feel the urge to retreat. In so many ways, the labyrinth is like life. The center is there but our path takes us through countless twists and turns. Sometimes we are at the heart of our life experiences, sometimes we are at a playful turn ; sometimes we share our path with others, sometimes we don t. No matter what, we are still on the labyrinth. It holds all our experience, in life and in work.

Many great cathedrals were built on the sites of ancient labyrinths. At Chartres Cathedral in France, the eleven-circuit labyrinth on the floor of the cathedral is considered by some as symbolic of the ancient pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But the labyrinth is also a metaphor for what is sacred in our lives. Through its twists and turns, its ancient spaciousness holds everything we experience ”our minds and emotions, our physical beings and our spirits, our losses and our gains, our successes and our failures, our joys and our sorrows. When we walk the path inward, we carry our burdens with us. When we meditate or pray in the center, we ask for grace, forgiveness , and understanding. When we walk the path outward, we are lighter, more joyful , and ready yet again to take on our life s challenges.

Because of my Greek family heritage, I ve long been fascinated with the Cretan labyrinth, a classical seven-circuit labyrinth dating back more than 4000 years . Some believe the Cretan design evolved from the spirals found throughout nature but it s the ancient myth of Theseus entering the labyrinth to fight the Minotaur that captured my imagination . As a child I wanted to explore the unknown; I wanted to be of service, even as I defied authority to find my way along the twists and turns of the path. And as convoluted as it sometimes was, the path has remained my own. As I reflect back, there is a harmony that I couldn t have predicted .

More than thirty years ago, I was introduced to the work of Viktor Frankl. Even though my work changed dramatically over the years, his teachings about meaning became the foundation of my working life. While serving on active duty with the U.S. Army in the late 1960s, I saw how the casualties of war ”military and civilian ”needed to find meaning in order to heal. In Chicago in the 1970s, while working in the mental health field, I saw how schizophrenics could find meaning and create meaningful lives without drugs, psychosurgery, or electroshock treatments . In the 1980s, I realized that linking the contradictions of business theory and practice was essential for an authentic life. In the 1990s, I began to understand that business could actually take the lead in societal and global transformation.

The labyrinth that is my life has taken me from the personal to the theoretical and back again. Yet, it is Frankl s deep belief in the inherent meaning of life that has steadily informed and inspired me, leading me deeper into my life path, deeper into authentic meaning.

When we explore our work lives as labyrinths of meaning, with all of the design features of classical labyrinths noted earlier, we deepen our experience. When we see our work as expressions of our bodies, minds, and spirits, we honor our inner lives as well as our connectedness to others and the outside world. Meaning is everywhere. This is true whether we drive a bus or run a corporation.

Not long ago, while attending a conference in New Orleans, I had the opportunity to encounter and experience Winston, a chartered bus driver for attendees of major conventions. To his customers, at least initially, Winston is only a bus driver, someone who makes sure that they travel between their hotel and the convention center safely and on time. To Winston, on the other hand, his customers represent a labyrinth of experience, as well as an important source of meaning at work and in his life.

Welcome to Nawlins, Winston would say as he greeted everyone boarding his bus. In addition to pointing out what he felt were significant sights along his route, he would ask passengers if they had any questions about the city and was eager to offer his recommendations to enhance their personal experience. He would tell jokes and get everyone laughing, and was even able to engage all the passengers in a chant before the final stop: Don t leave anything on the bus! In short, Winston turned an ordinary bus ride into an extraordinary experience.

Not every conference attendee , you can imagine, was open to or appreciative of his welcoming gestures, jokes, and counsel, preferring silence, especially in the early morning hours, to such exchanges during the bus ride. However, because Winston showed a genuine interest in learning about his customers ” who they were, where they were from, what they did, why they were in town ”he developed a rapport with them that was also truly extra ordinary. His engaging attitude, authenticity, and ability to connect with others added a dimension to the conference experience that was both memorable and meaningful.

In no uncertain terms, Winston showed that he truly cared about people, that he found meaning in his encounters with his customers, and that he was firmly committed to exploring his personal labyrinth ”his inner bus route ” through his work as a bus driver. In turn, Winston found deeper meaning in his work and therefore his work had deeper meaning to him and to those with whom he connected.

Any business leader or corporate CEO would be wise to follow Winston s lead. Yet in the corporate world it can be more difficult to find the daily moments of connection that nurture meaning. The bottom line is a harsh taskmaster. The levels of accountability in a business or corporation might not lend themselves to daily gratification. The opportunities to honor one another through moments of personal connection may be limited, yet the need is there. A business executive, like everyone else, needs to feel appreciated, understood , and fulfilled. The opportunities to feel connected out there ”beyond the board room and office ”have to be actively sought. And even when successful businesspeople already appreciate the link between their inner world and their business bottom line, it s not a simple weaving together of two ideals. Like the design of a labyrinth, it s a complex tapestry .

For Tom Chappell, President/CEO and co-founder, with his wife Kate, of Tom s of Maine , coming to terms with his business calling and his spiritual calling was a labyrinth of meaning that lasted more than thirty years. It took him on a personal journey through the most intimate parts of his inner life, even if it did start with clean clothes, safe soil, and toothpaste. Let me explain.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the beginning of the environmental movement. One of the first concerns was the chemical run-off that compromised the health of the soil and, ultimately, our groundwater systems, oceans, and lakes. In response to the times, Tom Chappell developed Clearlake, a non-phosphate liquid laundry detergent that was environmentally friendly in both product and packaging. Then it was Tom s of Maine toothpaste, an all-natural sugar-free product that was good for the body, that showed up in health-food stores. In those days, as a customer you had to go out of your way to find Tom s of Maine toothpaste; there was no natural foods section in the grocery store.

In many ways, it was a word-of-mouth awareness that established Tom s of Maine toothpaste; it symbolized a personal and ecological movement. (Why use sugar to clean your teeth if sugar causes cavities? Why hurt the environment if you don t have to?) Tom Chappell took his personal environmental ethic and applied it directly to his business ” in both product and process. Since 1970, Tom s of Maine has flourished. The company has made its living, and its reputation, through its flagship toothpaste brand, as well as mouth-wash, flossing ribbon, deodorants, soap, shampoo, shaving cream, decongestants, tonics, and herbal extracts made from natural ingredients and packaged in an environmentally friendly fashion ”all now readily available at your local grocery store.

Thirty years, however, is a long time ”people change ” and so did Tom Chappell. In the mid-1980s, Tom faced a dilemma: he had to determine the direction and purpose of his company, and of his life. Would Tom s of Maine be a purely profit-based company or would he base the company s success on what he could actually achieve with the profits? And there was yet a more compelling, existential dilemma: was his company where he really belonged? Tom Chappell was feeling called by the Episcopal ministry and was considering leaving the company and going to the seminary.

His was a labyrinth of meaning that required heavy doses of ethical and personal decision making. His business had grown dramatically. The pressure to succeed at the bottom line, to grow profits above all, was reinforced by the MBA mentality of the new professionals who had joined his company. Some of them even wanted him to add saccharin to his toothpaste so it would be more palatable to the mainstream market. His original vision of commitment to natural products was facing compromise by the emphasis on company growth and profits. He no longer felt himself and his values being reflected by the company he had founded. Tom Chappell found his company less and less fulfilling. He began to search for inspiration elsewhere.

In 1988 he enrolled on a part-time basis at Harvard Divinity School. For the next three years, Chappell spent two and a half days a week in Kennebunk, Maine, running the company, and the remainder of the work week going to school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At Harvard, he studied the writings of the great moral and religious philosophers and tried to relate their ideas to business in general and to Tom s of Maine in particular.

Chappell was influenced by the work of Martin Buber, the twentieth-century Jewish philosopher who argued that we can have two opposite attitudes towards others, leading to two very different types of relationships. In the I-It relationship, we treat other people as objects and expect something back from each relationship. In the other, the I-Thou relationship, we relate to others out of respect, friendship, and love. In other words, we either see others as objects to use for our selfish purposes or we honor them for their own sake. Tom Chappell quickly recognized that he and Kate instinctively operated their company using the I-Thou relationship, but his professional managers were seeing it in terms of the I-It model.

Chappell was also deeply influenced by the writings of the eighteenth-century American philosopher, Jonathan Edwards. Edwards believed that an individual s identity comes not from being separate but from being connected or in relationship to others. Running with this notion, Chappell began thinking of Tom s of Maine in this light, perceiving it not simply as a private company but as a company in direct relationship to employees , customers, suppliers, financial partners , governments , the community, and even the earth itself.

Chappell s vision of his company as a social and moral entity, as well as a business organization, grew to more deeply reflect his spiritual beliefs, which in turn reinforced his connection to the outside world. His business continues to be a success in the broadest possible terms ” satisfying his spiritual yearnings and will to meaning, as well as the bottom line. Tom s of Maine, founded on Chappell s youthful ideals, is now his mature ministry. Indeed, following the ideals of Viktor Frankl, it can be described as a ministry of meaning.

But meaning can be found at any given moment. Winston, the bus driver, effectively brings his spiritual self to life by seeing each bus-driving moment and passenger as an opportunity for compassion and connection. Even though his customers pass fleetingly through his life, he finds meaning through the experience of encountering others in his work. Tom Chappell, the unorthodox corporate executive, brings meaning to his multimillion dollar business through sustained connection to ”and creative expression with ”his employees, his customers, his products, and the planet.

In the workplace, we can either choose actively to look for and find meaning or we can see our jobs as something outside our real lives. If we choose the latter, we cheat ourselves out of an enormous amount of life experience. Even if we think we hate our jobs, by stopping long enough to connect, inside and out, to our broader relationship to meaning, we can find rewards. The question, of course, is do we want to make such a meaning-full connection? What if we don t have the personal drive of a Tom Chappell or the human compassion of a Winston? What if we are in mundane jobs that are repetitive and boring?

Our first task is to stop complaining. If we are honest, we know how happy it can make us to find something to complain about at work. It s even more fun if we really do have something, or someone, to complain about. We often make meaning by complaining. This can feel momentarily satisfying, but ultimately it undermines the integrity of our experience. It takes the meaning out of our work and out of our relationship to our work. This doesn t mean it s not necessary to complain once in awhile, perhaps even to whine and groan about the job. What it means is that we need to be aware of when and why we are complaining. Is it to bring about a simple moment of relief? Or, have we started to define our work by habitually negative perceptions?

All of us know people who, as creatures of habit, define their work or job in this negative way, don t we? As a case in point, let s take Bob, who for years has worked in the financial services industry. In fact, Bob has had many moments of apparent career success, having attained key executive positions in several banks, including that of president. Bob s labyrinth of meaning at work, however, has taken him through some dramatic twists and turns, and he rarely if ever seems positive or optimistic about his circumstances on the job and, by implication , in his life. As a consequence, Bob complains incessantly about his responsibilities, his colleagues, his customers, his community, and about every other aspect of his working life. And if we were to discuss his experiences walking the labyrinth of meaning at work ”that is, along his career path ”we would hear nothing but stories of misery, negativity, and despair. Unlike Victor Hugo s character, Jean Valjean in Les Mis rables, Bob to this day seems unable (or unwilling) to fulfill his meaning potential, due in large part to his negative, always complaining, posture toward his work.

Complaining about our miserable jobs around the water cooler , or starting a bitch and moan club at the office, might offer a moment of camaraderie but it doesn t nurture meaning, for us or for others. The idea that work is neither fun nor fulfilling, nor should it be, takes a huge toll on our ability to bring meaning to our work. When we make complaining a habit, we make meaninglessness a habit. Before long, we are invested in our complaining so deeply that all opportunity to see our work experience as a rich part of our lives vanishes. Instead of taking the time to find meaning, we take the time to find and focus on meaninglessness. So, from now on, ask yourself why you complain and, perhaps more important, what s the payoff from your complaining.

Remember also that the great complaint carnival is not a celebration ; it s a bandwagon of misery. Our complaints trivialize our experience ”both at work and in our personal lives. When we complain, we disconnect. When we complain, we hold whatever or whoever we re complaining about as a shield between us. We perpetuate an old community of victimization and helplessness. But when we take the time to communicate about our fears and insecurities, our real lives, we connect on a deeper, authentic level. When we connect through this deeper humanness, we create a new community of support and possibility. It s a support that can nurture far beyond the realm of the water cooler.

When we stop long enough to make this kind of authentic connection, we can t avoid meaning. It s waiting for us around every water cooler, in every elevator, every cubbyhole, taxi cab, conference room, and corporate board room. When we miss the meaning in our work life, we miss the life in our work. And when we miss the life in our work, we can t help but become a prisoner of our thoughts ”confined within our own inner concentration camp.

Viktor Frankl excavated the darkest of despair and discovered meaning. He didn t have to create it; it was there waiting to be found. So it is in our work lives. When we open ourselves to meaning, when we stop long enough to appreciate ourselves, and others, at work in meaningful ways, we immediately enhance the quality of our own lives as well as the lives of those around us.

This does not mean that we deny our burdens, our grief , and our worries and sign on to some Pollyanna perspective of the world. On the contrary. Frankl knew well through his experience in the Nazi concentration camps the meaning of unavoidable suffering. He also knew the very darkest of human behavior and the brightest light of human possibility ”at the same time. He carried the awareness of both potentialities , and this awareness deepened his humanity and created in him a deep and abiding faith. He saw people rise out of the most depraved circumstances and offer all they had to others. He saw the manifestation of spirit on a daily, minute-to-minute basis.

To be sure, we all know generosity and grace, those moments when someone says or does just the right thing, offers us the presence we need to see things more clearly, to feel comforted in a difficult time. So why, when so much of our lives happens at work, can t such attention to one another also have a place?

Our lives present us with a labyrinth of meaning, and so do our jobs. And it s not always evident. Life and relationships unfold; they change; we change; sometimes we embrace the process; sometimes we change our circumstances and start over. This is true in work as well as in our private lives. Again, it is part of the labyrinth of our life. We are on one path and it takes us through many turns of fate and fortune , pain and pleasure , loss and gain. It is a path that shapes us, that uncovers our fears, that tests our courage, and that leads us to this very moment. It is a sacred path of individuality and no one walks it but us.

It is not an easy task to stay the course with reverence while walking the labyrinth. But no matter what our faith persuasion is, or whether we even have one, honoring our own path is essential if we are to know authentic meaning in our lives. And only when we know meaning in our lives can we know meaning in our work. Our will to meaning, not our will to pleasure or our will to power, is what illuminates our lives with true freedom. This is an extremely important distinction to make as we explore the ways in which we bring our will to bear on our lives and in our work. In the final analysis, we are free to choose our responses to everything that happens in our lives, including those things that happen through our work. This strikes at the very heart of Frankl s teachings and is the basis of the core principle to be explored in the next chapter.

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Meaning Moment

Recall a situation in your work life in which you were faced with a major decision to shift direction (this may even be your situation today). Perhaps you were faced with a boss or co-worker who was challenging your style or method of doing your job. Or, perhaps you found yourself in some kind of ethical dilemma or value conflict that pressured you to change direction in some way. What, if anything, did you actually do about it? As you think about the situation now, what did you learn from it? What would you have done differently?

Meaning Question: How do you deal with negativity and habitual complaining in the workplace?

For Further Reflection: How might the labyrinth metaphor help you find greater meaning and fulfillment at work? Think about how you might use this metaphor in a constructive way with your colleagues or co-workers .

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[1] Viktor E. Frankl, Man s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (Boston: Beacon Press, 4th Edition, 1992), p. 115.




Prisoners of Our Thoughts
Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankls Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work
ISBN: 1605095249
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2004
Pages: 35

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