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Path to a Meaningful Life: Teach Our Children to Give More, Not Yearn for More

written by Thu Tran, MD,FACOG
on Friday, 12th June ,2015

Another school year is over.  Quite a few of our friends’ children graduated from high school this year and are about to enter college in a few months.  It was quite hectic in the last few months for my friends to help their teenagers decide which colleges would be most beneficial for them.  In our family, my husband’s twin nephews will be graduating this weekend and part their ways in August as they decided to go to different colleges.  Each of them got accepted to several good ones, and it took quite a bit of thinking before they decided where to go.  One of our friend’s daughters gave up a full ride to a university in Rhode Island to go to Georgetown, while another friend’s son took awhile before deciding to accept a full ride to Tulane University instead of going to Georgetown.  It must have been so stressful for all these young adults to know where to go, as if it’s the “make it or break it” decision of their lives. 

As parents, what should we do?  My husband and I will face that question soon, as our son is about to start his high school senior year in a few months.  Like other parents, we would like to see him go to a “good” college or university, one that will help him have a “good” life as adult.  

Is having a “good” life the only reason to go to college? How do we define a “good” life? One where we become the top 1% of society’s earners? One where we get to work in our favorite job and follow our passion? One with balance between work and play? Does happiness correlate to these factors? Is a good life the same as a meaningful life?

I have met enough people in the last few decades to know that college is not the decisive path to a “good” life.  Going to college might be an easier path, but not the only path, to a good life.  Indeed, many people end up doing things totally different from what they studied in college.  At 18 year old, do we really know what makes us truly happy?  Is our vision of success and happiness ours, or what our parents and society believe it to be? 

Several months ago, out of curiosity, I went to my first meditation session at a Unitarian Church in Bethesda.  The session was led by locally knownTara Brach, a former psychologist who now gives a Dharma lecture, or “Western Buddhism” lecture, following the 30 minute meditation.  

Tara Brach’s lecture that night was on the fallacy of belief.  She warned us to shine a light on what we believe is good for us, to find our true self and, therefore, true happiness.  Below is the link to the podcast of this wise lecture:


Last week, I went to our goddaughter’s Sidwell Friends middle school graduation.  As many of you may have read about it in the newspapers, both the Biden and Obama families were there.  Mr. Joe Biden’s granddaughter and Obama’s younger daughter are classmates.  It was only a few days before when Beau Biden, Joe Biden’s son and Delaware’s Attorney General, died of brain cancer.  Life had to go on for the Bidens, a granddaughter graduated from middle school a few days after her uncle died.  We all watched the cute middle school girls walking across the stage in their white dresses, and the boys in shirts and ties.  They all looked so “cute,” young and innocent.  Our goddaughter looked like an angel in her long dress playing her cello in the middle school orchestra.  The audience applauded loudly at the end, when the 2015 middle school class marched out of the auditorium.  In just four years, they will be, like my son, asking themselves where they will go to college and what they will do for the rest of their adult life.  

On Sunday, in the Washington Post, I read about Beau Biden’s funeral.  He was a bright and compassionate politician.  He was only 46 years old when he died.  He was supposed to run for governor next year in Delaware.  He would have most likely won the race.  He was supposed to give a speech as the new governor, with his father and siblings, wife, children and friends surrounding him on the stage.  Instead, his life ceased so abruptly, with the cancer having been diagnosed only in 2013.  Last Saturday, many speeches were given in that church, with Beau being referred to in the third person.

Beau Biden wasn’t the only young person who died last week.  In the Sunday’s obituary column, a college student with bright eyes and radiant smile also died last week, from a house fire.  She was in her twenties.  She graduated from Dartmouth and had a Master’s degree from Georgetown.  All the years in college, the yearning and hard work for a bright future.  Did Beau do most things he wanted to do in his life? Did the college student have any regret? What would they have done differently if they could foresee how their lives were not going to be into their seventies?  

As parents, how should we advise our children to live a meaningful life, one without regret? 

I think President Obama summed up this “meaningful life” well when he gave Beau’s eulogy.  As a parent, he got it.  Like me, he sat at Sidwell Friends’ middle school graduation that night and listened to the headmaster and middle school’s principal addressing the students on how a meaningful life should be.  We both got it, that a meaningful life is not all about what you do for yourself, but what you do for others during your finite moments in life.  We need to teach our children to give more, and not to yearn for more.

The president’s eulogy words below for Beau Biden were so poignant and powerful that I think we parents should pass them on to our graduates.  No matter what school they go to, no matter what job they will hold or how much money they will earn, their life will be more meaningful if they do not forget to live fully and deeply, to not waste time, to not ask the world for more, but to give back more of what they already had.

“He made you want to be a better person, isn’t that finally the measure of a man, the way he lives, how he treats others, no matter what life may throw at him?”

“We do not know how long we’ve got here.  We don’t know when fate will intervene.  We cannot discern God’s plan.  What we do know is that with every minute that we’ve got, we can live our lives in a way that takes nothing for granted.  We can love deeply.  We can help people who need help.  We can teach our children what matters.  We can pass on empathy and compassion and selflessness.  We can teach them to have broad shoulders.” 

“What greater inheritance than to be part of a family that passes on the values of what it means to be a great parent; that passes on the values of what it means to be a true citizen; that passes on the values of what it means to give back, fully and freely, without expecting anything in return?”

Don’t we parents want our children to become such honorable man? Don’t we want to be in such family?

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