Leo Tolstoy, the Russian author of the epic War & Peace, discovered that “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Tolstoy was an interesting figure. Not only did his belief in passive resistance influence Gandhi later in the twentieth century, Tolstoy contributed to the world’s understanding of meaning in life. Though he was wealthy, noble, and famous, he was not happy. At age 50, according to Irving Singer in the book Meaning in Life, he had a “breakdown,” a mid-life crisis as it were. Singer noted that the conditions that preceded the author’s despair, “in some respects resemble the condition of many affluent baby boomers in present-day America who feel a sense of emptiness even though they may have satisfied their own personal ambitions and lived up to the demands of their society. …they are perturbed by the possibility that their lives may be ‘meaningless.’” I believe Tolstoy’s and others’ quotes on meaning, echoed in his wise words, can be helpful to us as we move through the world.
Quotes on meaning, such as Gandhi’s (paraphrased) statement that one ought to be the change they wish to see in the world, are quite compelling to one interested in personal growth. Consider: if one wants to change the world, how would one go about successfully accomplishing that? For example, if I lament the barbarity with which our fellow humans treat other beings, or the rampant materialism choking the life out of the American soul, what can I do about that? Should I support charitable organizations that have goals reflecting my values? Ought I to write to my senators about trade bills they are debating? I might wish to forget about it, claiming that “I’m only one person and the problems of the world are huge.” These grand ideas will have varying degrees of success, with some having none.
One needs something to believe in, something for which one can have whole-hearted enthusiasm. One needs to feel that one’s life has meaning, that one is needed in this world. ~ Hannah Senesh
Gandhi and Tolstoy left us with their quotes on meaning, and their words of wisdom are applicable to us in this millennium. They both spoke of the person changing himself first, and then the world will be different. It is empowering and meaningful to feel one has a sense of efficacy to change oneself. Just as a person who won the lottery views the world and acts differently, so will he who believes, as Sam Harris put it, that “If each of us was involved in some sort of positive change, there wouldn’t be enough problems to go around.” For example, throwing one bottle in the recycling bin rather than the trash; letting that person in front of you who only has one or two items to purchase at the grocery store; allowing a person to get in front of you on the freeway; giving food or money to one who is legitimately hungry – then, have you not been the change you want to see in the world!? Certainly, those with more power in this society can create huge ripple effects with their efforts.
What life can compare to this? Sitting quietly by the window, I watch the leaves fall and the flowers bloom, as the seasons come and go. ~ Hsueh-Tou
Everyone thinks of changing the world, but few think of changing themselves. Complaining about the violence on television is reasonable, in that it may be true, but you’ve got to believe that what the child sees his mother and father do to her, to each other, and to the family dog, is infinitely more important than what fake characters on television do. Indeed, the ancient philosopher Socrates did change the world by thinking, and by talking with his fellow Athenians over and over and over again. He stated, “Let him who would move the world first move himself.” If we all actually did simple, positive things over and over again, the world would literally BE different.
One reason we don’t actualize our potential to change the world is that we are afraid to make the first move. But literally, one person can make a move that inspires others to act. The remarkable historian and peace activist Howard Zinn notes:
People … want change but feel powerless, alone, they do not want to be the blade of grass that sticks up above the others and is cut down. They wait for a sign from someone else who will make the first move, or the second. And at certain times in history, there are intrepid people who take the risk that if they make the first move, others will follow quickly enough to prevent their being cut down. And if we understand this, we might make the first move.
This says to me that if a movement starts with each of us – at the grassroots if you will – then big things happen. After all, women’s right to vote happened very slowly due to some folks saying, “Hey, this isn’t right, and I want to change it.” Now, few men could conceive of women not having the natural right to vote, but that is only because some women and conscientious men had the courage to be the blade of grass that grew above the others. Frederick Douglas is known as one of America’s true heroes and is a legend with the English language. Do you know which school he earned his degree from? None. The man who penned these immortal words was a slave instead of a student: “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” He is the giver of many quotes on meaning, truth, justice, freedom, and righteousness. Quite a man! Read his biography here.
The person who is searching for his own happiness should pull out the dart that he has stuck in himself – the arrowhead of grieving, of desiring, of despair. ~ Pali Tripitaka
Abraham Maslow, the pioneering humanistic psychologist of the twentieth century, endured a difficult childhood, but went on to show humanity how far it is possible to grow. His quotation enlightens us on how to begin the process of changing ourselves, and thus, the world: What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself. There are differing opinions on what the nature of meaning is, though. Philosophers are famous for penning quotes on meaning, and the British philosopher Colin McGinn is certainly one of them: “Clearly, to find meaning in life we need to identify some values that confer meaning; so the question is what values to pursue. What makes life worthwhile? These need not be limited to ethical values though no doubt ethical values should be included. Three main values have been championed by philosophers: pleasure, knowledge, and virtue.” Psychologist John W. Santrock also weighs in on this issue of how to find fulfillment and make sense of it all for oneself: “Victor Frankel argues that examining the finiteness of our existence leads to exploration of meaning in life. Faced with the death of older relatives and less time to live themselves, many middle-aged individuals increasingly examine life’s meaning. Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs argue that a quest for a meaningful life involves fulfilling four main needs: purpose, values, efficacy, and self-worth.”
For example, in order for a man to leave a note on a person’s car if he dings it with his car door, he has to have a conscious sense of responsibility: He has to have an awareness of the Golden Rule, only because of which would he leave the note. Changing one’s awareness of oneself is the key. If you want to change, to be better, you have to know yourself. As Maslow might say, this may require less staring blankly at your computer screen and more experiences where you educate yourself, open up to the world – including those you are in relationship to. The great thinker George Bernard Shaw provides evidence here when he noted that “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” Progress in the external sense involves changing oneself first and foremost.
You don’t get to choose how you’re going to die. Or when. You can decide how you’re going to live now. ~ Joan Baez
There is so much growth we can attain given the right mindset and effort. I think it is hopeful and wonderful to imagine that if we simply act mindfully, energy just might come to us in unforeseen ways. The Chinese urge one to “Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps the singing bird will come.” Can we think of ourselves as a project, a wonderful opportunity to face challenges with our values intact? I may lament the Middle East conflict and educate myself about the various sides to the problem, to see the issues underlying the ongoing violence and the mistakes of both parties, but I am not in the position to resolve that quandary. A visionary Jawaharlal Nehru said “Peace is not a relationship of nations. It is a condition of mind brought about by a serenity of soul. Lasting peace can come only to peaceful people.”
Each of us has 1,440 minutes a day to be the change we wish to see in the world. This requires us to visualize what change we wish to see in the world, and then be aware of what we can actually do to make small steps toward that realization. It takes courage to be that blade of grass that boldly grew tall, as Howard Zinn put it. But remember, others may very well follow if you start. When you let someone in front of you at a crowded freeway off-ramp, they usually wave, feel better, and you feel like you have contributed to the world, however small the act may be.
What’s most rewarding for me is meeting people and having them say that my work or my words have had an effect on them. ~ Cindy Podurgal Chambers
The changes demonstrated in these quotes on meaning can be so simple, and yet they have big impacts on one’s self and others one comes into contact with. Will you nod at the next person you see, or keep your eyes downcast? Can you refrain from insulting the next person who makes you feel small? Am I strong enough to not throw my cat off my lap in anger when he bites my hand? If she would rather have a few beers than help her friend move, what choice will she make? Do I give time and extra money to worthwhile charities or keep all my resources for myself? When a loved one is talking to you, will you look at her, or keep your gaze fixed on the television? Is a decision of whether to attend your son’s soccer game able to be viewed as an opportunity to fashion yourself the way a carpenter fashions wood? How much closer to my potential can I be tomorrow? Allow quotes on meaning to enlighten you and bring about a desire to grow, change, and improve!
I encourage you to look up more quotes on meaning in the Wisdom Archive.
Every individual has a determination, a desire, a burning desire deep in his heart, and I’m sure that if every person can search for that, and reach for that, they will be successful in whatever they decide to do. ~ Peterson Zah
When my heart can beat no more, I hope I die for a principle or a belief that I have lived for… ~ Tupac Shakur
Follow your bliss. ~ Joseph Campbell
How can one not speak about war, poverty, and inequality when people who suffer from these afflictions don’t have a voice to speak?
I hope you are enjoying these quotes on meaning. More quotes on meaning follow:
Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them. ~ Tenzin Gyatso
We have not come into the world to be a number; we have been created for a purpose, for great things: to love and be loved. ~ Agnes G. Bojaxhiu (Mother Teresa)
We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by doing a deed; (2) by experiencing a value; and (3) by suffering. ~ Viktor Frankl
Though Albert Camus and the others say the human condition is absurd, they establish only that men and women act as if they can have meaningful lives while also believing that the universe does not give a damn. And if people act this way, are they not creating values and a meaning for themselves?
Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society. The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil.
Some men see things as they are and say, “Why?” I dream of things that never were and say, “Why not?”