a life with meaning

Life lesson number nine: It’s not what happens to us that defines us; it’s how we choose to respond

If you haven’t heard the heading before, then you haven’t heard of Viktor Frankl and his utterly moving book called Man’s search for meaning.

Before you rush out to grab a copy, I should start by saying it isn’t easy reading. What it is, is one man’s account of why, when you put a group of strangers into a concentration camp during the Holocaust, only some of those strangers survive. 

It’s not always the strongest that make it through. It’s the ones with hope and a reason to live. 

And, while bad things can – and do – happen, they need not define you. You always have a choice about how you respond. 

Cancer taught me this lesson. But, it was a lady interviewing me about my experiences who showed me that this lesson is one that Viktor tried hard to share with the world. And it’s one I heard again only last week when a man was talking about breaking his neck in an accident many years ago. (I love the fact TED has a clip of Viktor speaking on their site because, I think Viktor, were he alive today, could have taught us a lot about finding meaning in our over-commercialised world.) 

So it was an absolute delight to hear legendary Bob Wilson, co-founder of the brilliant charity Willow, use that phrase to describe me when I was lucky enough to be interviewed on BBC Radio Five in December about my upcoming marathon wedding.

I say that I am the sum of my imperfections. By this, I don’t mean the physical scarring or the rearranged body parts. I mean the bits that life didn’t get right first time. It’s because of those imperfections that I have been forced to look in the mirror and really see whether I like the person looking back. It’s because of those imperfections that I know that while I’m sensitive, I am also strong. It’s because of those imperfections that I try and fill every day with a little bit of meaning.

I didn’t let cancer define me. I chose to make serious illness a force for good. 

I haven't changed my job or my career. I've changed my attitude.

I thought I didn't have time. Now I make time. Sometimes the last thing I feel like after a long day at work is writing a charity blog or drumming up support or cash for a volunteering event, but I can guarantee it's the meaningful and purpose-driven acts that feature most in the gratitude diary I write every night.

In some ways, you could say I am one of the lucky ones. I didn't need to find a cause. My cause crept up behind me and then hit me over the head.

Knowing just how important having a little bit of meaning woven into the fabric of every day is one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned. And it's a lesson I want to share with the world.

I started this year with one clear aim: to make it meaningful. I learned back in 2013 that a life without meaning is no life at all. But, this year, I really want to make it count. And the wedding is a big part of that.

If finding meaning makes your day, tweet me about it (@jackie8 #makeitmeaningful). 

Success isn’t a nice life, it’s a meaningful one. I know Viktor would agree. 

So, let’s go be successful! Starting now…

Life in a list: What would you say if you had to write a line a day?

My 35th birthday was more than just a mid-thirties milestone. 

It was the day I closed my five-year line a day book for the last time.

This little green book has been a great companion over the last five years. Every entryholds a memory of the day, a more thoughtful 'note to self' or life lesson and a rating (out of 10). I appreciate this may be stretching the definition of a list somewhat, but I do sit it firmly in my 'did it happen?' set of lists, the important ones that hold you to account and help you capture the past so you can shape the future. 

This little book has seen great happiness and success. This little book has seen cancer, loss and moments of real sadness. This little book has seen brilliant sunsets and terrible storms. This little book has experienced delicious dinners and skipped mealtimes. 

It may be small, but with more than 1,000 life lessons in here, this little book might just contain a pretty accurate definition of happiness - mine that is. 

Am I the same person who started writing in it at the age of 30? No. 

Am I happy about that fact? Absolutely. But, what is great about this book of moments is that it tells me exactly how I was feeling each and every day, which is a far more accurate record than a brain that can't even remember what it had for dinner last week. 

Rather than tuck it in a drawer with old diaries and 'I'm-sure-they-will-be-useful-one day' notebooks, I have started sifting through it. Typing out all the lessons, spotting trends and reminding myself of what it is that really makes me smile time and again will take time to explore. So, I thought I'd start with a few of the 'notes to self' or life lessons to give you a snapshot.

Here are some of my favourites (not all profound and without cliche):

1) Balance in life makes everything better (2015)

2) A good day at work can be as satisfying as a day off (2014)

3) Happiness isn't always fun (2015)

4) Just start and then you'll be excited to finish (2016)

5) Don't check email on the way to bed (a happiness hack right there and many a sleepless night caused when I didn't take my own advice) (2013) 

6) You can have cancer and be happy (2014) (obviously not a route I would recommend but an interesting observation for someone seriously ill at the time) 

7) Step back and enjoy the view (2016) 

8) Work those edges (2016)

9) Hard work isn't always enough (2012) 

10) The world is full of incredible people if you know where to look (2016)

11) Great flavours are not to be underestimated (2015) (Great to be documenting this more than a year after losing my taste buds to chemo) 

12) Knickers can be lucky (2012) (Maybe not a deep life lesson, but it made me laugh) 

13) If it's in the routine, it's easier to keep up (2013) (habits give you energy for other things) 

14) Anticipation is everything (2013) 

15) There is always time for friendship (2016) 

16) It is ok to not be ok (2014) 

17) The explanation is always better than the assumption (2012) 

18) You don't need butter to make a light and fluffy cake (2012) (not a metaphor for life, you can come here for baking tips too) 

19) You are the only person who can put you first (which is where you belong) (2015) 

20) Adventurous days make better stories (2016)

And the one that made me laugh out loud:

21) I'd pay to have Imelda Staunton act out scenes in my life (2012) (I had just seen her in a play so it wasn't as random as it sounds). 

I may not have analysed the last five years in detail, but I can already spot some interesting trends. I like things organised. I have a strange obsession with time and making the most of it. I like to push myself. Friendship and family are really important. I am quite fond of smiling and good food (particularly making bakes). I need to not procrastinate. Oh, and it seems I have a soft spot for Great British actresses. 

I think I am getting wiser (from lucky knickers to the importance of friendship). But, I think I still have much to learn. 

Ask me again when I've finished the next book! 

And, why not make 2017 the year you start your own 'line a day' book? More fun than a diary, less time-consuming than a journal and more insightful than not writing or remembering anything down at all! 

I look forward to hearing how you get on.

(By the way, I love Kikki K stationery if you're looking for a thoughtful brand to make record keeping even more enjoyable.)