by Megan McDonough

Who do you long to be? That question—and your ability to live into the answer each day—is the greatest freedom of all. And that big freedom can be overwhelming, especially when we’re looking for the “right” way to live.

Life is not always easy, kind, or clear cut. Life is messy. And I keep trying to neaten it up. I think most of us try to do that … to take the unknown, mixed in with our longings and deep desires, and try to make sense of it all.

That’s why listening to Dr. Michael Steger, founding director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose at Colorado State University, was such a relief. You see, very often I spend time trying to figure out life. To create a narrative that is affirming, even when times are tough. To get this life right.

As he spoke at the recent Embodied Positive Psychology Summit, he asked, “What if a meaningful life weren’t a puzzle to figure out? What if it was a mystery to be lived into?”

You can figure out a puzzle if you just gather more information. Where are the edges? What colors go together? How does that piece fit here, or does it go there?

A mystery is a different thing altogether. Information is always missing (we can’t know it all, no matter how long we study). Sometimes we have too much information, and can’t make sense of it all. And other times there just isn’t a neat and tidy answer. How would you possibly describe the color blue to someone who is blind? Blue is a mystery.

Meaning in life is a mystery, not a puzzle. That doesn’t mean that you can’t explore that mystery thoroughly, each and every day. Mystery is not giving up. It’s not throwing up your hands and saying, “Oh well, I can’t know this so why bother exploring?”

The opposite is true.

The great freedom of this day is seeing the mystery of each moment-by-moment experience, opening to it with awe and wonder, like our long-ago ancestors who looked at the vast night stars. On the dark canvas of the universe, they drew pictures of huge warriors, winged horses, and gods and goddesses by connecting the dots. I doubt they asked, “Where are the directions for this constellation-drawing exercise? Am I doing it right?”

The stars were a mystery to them, and they drew meaning out of it.

Steger’s question of looking at purpose in life as a fundamental mystery allows us to relax a bit. The greatest freedom then becomes less intimidating and more playful, as we trust the unknown just a bit more.

Find out about Michael F. Steger’s WBI course, Meaning in Life, beginning August 26.

Megan Megan McDonough is chair of Wholebeing Institute, an educational organization co-founded with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. WBI is committed to spreading ideas and practices that can help individuals and groups live life to its fullest.

Click here for a course listing.