From Heartache to Hope – How to Dig Deeper for Meaning

From Heartache to Hope – How to Dig Deeper for Meaning

When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The loss we carry. A sea we must wade.

We braved the belly of the beast.

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.

Somehow we do it.

– Amanda Gorman

Truly, how do we do it? Here’s the link to Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb”, 6 minutes of inspiration and insight, including the lines above, recited at president Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021.

I hope to offer some very practical suggestions on how to do it in the exercise below – How to Dig Deeper for Meaning, similar to the practices I will be teaching in the new online course Transforming Any Adversity into Learning and Growth, six live 90-minute webinars beginning February 4, 2021. 

Not in a blithe “bouncing back” from the all-too-real heartaches of 2020, nor a blissful “bouncing forward” into the hopes for new opportunities in 2021. Very real feet-on-the-ground kind of practices that can begin the transformation process right now.

[Read more for the practices….]

How to Dig Deeper for Meaning

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. – Friedrich Nietzsche

A sincere quest for finding meaning and purpose in the troubling events of our lives, and in our responses to them, is one of the foundational essentials for recovering our resilience, right now…and for the long haul.

1.  Take all things “as” granted, as a gift, not “for” granted, as an entitlement.

We don’t have to come down with COVID-19 to appreciate the preciousness of every breath that keeps us alive. We don’t have to fracture a shoulder (as I did last December) to appreciate being able to cook a meal or drive one’s self to the grocery store. We don’t have to lose capacities to appreciate them. We do practice staying in the awareness of these gifts of life, moment by moment, to stay afloat when we are threatened by their disappearance. 

Identify 3 capacities you have – walking, swallowing, touching your toes. Focus on the experience of walking, swallowing, touching your toes, 3-5 times during the day. Focus on your awareness of and gratitude for being able to.  Each day add 3 additional capacities to focus on – recognizing a friend’s voice, smelling breakfast cooking, blinking your eyes.  As you spend more time each day focusing your attention on the felt sense of these gifts, you’re training your awareness and gratitude on your experiences in the present moment. Eventually, you come to realize you are taking nothing for granted anymore at all.  Everything is a gift. 

2.  Find cues of safety in times of danger

If you can keep your head when all about you   

    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…

[beginning lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If]  

We know our nervous system responds instantly to perceptions of threat and danger; that’s its job. We also know that we need to return to equilibrium in our nervous system, not too revved up, not too shut down, if we are to meet the problems looming in the moment with skill and effectiveness.

This practice is from my friend Deb Dana, the clinician who has brought the wisdom of polyvagal theory and be-friending your nervous system to the world, who knows many ways to send cues of safety to her nervous system when feeling upset or threatened – music, meals with family, time in nature, a luxurious warm bath. When the nervous system gets the signal, processed unconsciously, that we are safe in the moment, it stays in equilibrium, even if there are real dangers in the outer environment.  From that baseline equilibrium, we can better decide what actions would be wise/effective to try in the larger world. 

Identify 3 of your own cues of safety in the present moment – petting your cat or hugging your child, a cool sip of water on a sultry day or a sip of warm tea on a frosty day, curling up on the couch with a good book at the end of a long day. Train your brain to use these practices, over and over, when things are relatively quiet and peaceful, to “rehearse” using them automatically when you feel startled or stressed. You’re strengthening the neural pathways the brain can use to assess the meaning and significance of the disturbance that’s happening outside of you, to help you access calm and a sense of safety inside of you, even so.

3.  Treasure the connection of common humanity.

It’s true, we’re not all exactly in the same boat.  Some of us have health insurance and others of us do not. Some of us know our families are still intact, even if distanced.  Others of us have lost loved ones, often painfully distanced.

There is some comfort in knowing that other people are facing the same stresses and sorrows that we are.  We are part of a larger human experience; we don’t need to feel so alone or isolated, even though we may, in fact, be alone and somewhat isolated. 

Identify a moment of sorrow or struggle in your own life. Identify three other people that you know are going through a similar sorrow or struggle.  From your heart to theirs, offer wishes of loving kindness – may you know and trust that you are not alone in your sorrows and fears; may you find the strength to meet this suffering; may you know and abide in true peace and ease. Offer these same wishes to yourself.  Ask for and receive these same wishes offered by people in similar circumstances that you feel comfortable asking.

Shared joy is a double joy. Shared sorrow is half a sorrow. – Swedish proverb

4.  Live from core values

Our core values provide the anchor we live our lives from, the keel that keeps our boat afloat no matter how severe the storm. These are the values we most cherish in ourselves and in others – integrity, patience, determination, trust, etc. When anchored in these values and moving in the larger world in alignment with them, we have the stable foundation we need for meeting the dangers and crises of our larger world. 

I called these core values Big Organizing Principles and offered an exercise to identify your BOP’s in the book Bouncing Back.

1. Identify three principles from this list that resonate with you as BOPs that you already prioritize in your life.

Accountability Faithfulness Joyfulness Patience

Commitment Focus Knowledge Prudence

Cooperation Forgiveness Love Purposefulness

Courtesy Frugality Loyalty Reliability

Creativity Helpfulness Magnanimity Resourcefulness

Dependability Honesty Mercy Respect

Determination Humility Modesty Reverence

Discipline Idealism Obedience Simplicity

Excellence Industriousness Orderliness Tolerance

The BOP’s of Betty, a single mother of three who came to one of my workshops on resilience and renewal, were patience, faith, and planning. Neil, a retired surgeon, shaped the course of his days through curiosity, gratitude and awe. David, a car mechanic learning computer skills at the local community college, steered his course by hope, steadiness of purpose, and the love of his family.

2. Identify three arenas where you are able to manifest these BOPs on a regular basis. (Patience helping kids with homework, courtesy with colleagues, selflessness in volunteering at the homeless shelter once a week.) Gather cards, photographs, mementos of your experiences manifesting these values in these arenas. (A complimentary letter from your son’s teacher; a thank you card from someone you mentored at work; the program from a celebration honoring volunteers.) Spend a few minutes every day for 30 days contemplating these mementos, noticing the meaning these values still have for you. 

3. Identify one more BOP from the list, or a quality from your own list of values, that you would like to cultivate, that would be a stretch for you to cultivate. Set the intention to look for opportunities to manifest this BOP every day for the next month.

4. Notice how a sense of meaning and purpose deepens in your life as you focus awareness and appreciation on where you have already manifest that meaning and purpose.

5.  Cherish the joy in service

As soon as coping with the contagion of the pandemic restricted so much of our daily living, folks were offering to more vulnerable folks the picking up of groceries or providing rides to the doctor, even an outing to a park. Studies show that people practicing altruism in the form of generosity experience even more benefit to their well-being than being the recipient.

I slept and dreamt that life was joy.  I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.  – Rabindranath Tagore

Identify several different moments when you have been kind, generous, helpful to other people. Share your story with a friend; listen to their stories. The sharing of the stories is not an idle exercise. The sharing creates an emotional contagion that amplifies of joy of service in both people.


The disappointments and difficulties of the last year can greatly diminish our faith and our energy for meeting the continuing difficulties in the coming year. Deepening a sense of meaning and purpose is one way of resourcing ourselves and re-filling the well. May these practices be helpful to you and yours.

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