What Makes A Life Meaningful?

By Keith Miller | February 4, 2011

I was thinking I’ve had my shot.  I’m an old man and all I can do is help a few people find hope and meaning by helping them find sobriety and/or a new life of faith in God.

But helping some pretty negative and defiant people in these ways didn’t seem to me to be related to having lived a meaningful life.  Besides, lots of the young men I meet with are proud and in denial about their addictions and control issues and very rebellious about the idea of really trusting God with their lives.  Although I understand this since I have been the same way most of my life, it’s discouraging sometimes how many have to hit an iron wall before they are ready to surrender enough to get to the wonder of God’s adventure.

Recently a group of us were reading about Bill Wilson, who co-founded the multinational movement of Alcoholics Anonymous.  We read that when Wilson had just gotten out of the hospital for the last time because of his drinking problem, one of his old drinking buddies came to see him.  This friend, Ebby, had sobered up as a result of going to a soup kitchen manned by parishioners from Calvary Episcopal church in New York City.

Bill Wilson’s doctor had told him that he had to quit drinking or he might not make it.  And further his doctor believed that Wilson could never quit drinking, except for one possible chance—that of having a spiritual experience of some kind.  At first Bill thought Ebby had just “gotten religion.”  But somehow the meeting with Ebby struck a chord in Wilson’s life.  He went with Ebby to Calvary church and met the rector, Sam Shoemaker.  As a result, Bill Wilson got converted to Christianity, sobered up and with Sam Shoemaker’s help, wrote the Big Book that described and inaugurated Alcoholics Anonymous as a movement—arguably the fastest growing spiritual movement in the world during the last sixty percent of the twentieth century.

As I sat there listening to the story unfold in the pages of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, I thought about Ebby, a newly sober alcoholic, working his program by telling his friend, Bill, about what had happened to him.

I thought how grateful Ebby must have felt at the end of his life to have had such a significant role in founding one of the most significant and transformational healing movements in the world.   If Ebby never did anything else, that was meaningful, being responsible for the religious conversion and recovery from addiction of the man who founded this great healing community of A.A. would be meaning enough for a lifetime.

But as the story continued, I realized that Ebby probably never even knew what happened because of his simply doing what he was taught to do to stay sober himself—telling another alcoholic how he (Ebby) had found sobriety by surrendering his life to God. 

I remembered that Ebby probably didn’t know the amazing effect of his walking a few days with his old friend, because I’d heard that Ebby went back out and drank himself to death.  Ebby’s life did have great significance because of working a simple program for a short time.  But I also realized that whether Ebby knew it or not, those few days eventually gave meaning to lives of probably millions of men and women around the world.

And after that meeting in which we were reading about Bill Wilson’s beginning with Ebby, a man I’d mentored years ago, who had moved away from Austin, and whom I hadn’t seen in several years, walked up, and we had lunch.  I learned that the young man was not only still in recovery but had gone to seminary and was now being ordained as a minister.  I was struck after lunch by the transformation in the man’s life.  His deep faith and enthusiasm about his work touched me profoundly.  And as he left after lunch, I realized that if I never do any of the exciting things I once did, that my life would have great meaning because I encouraged this one young man and helped him get sober by working the same simple program Ebby was working when he had lunch with Bill Wilson over seventy-five years ago.  And I was very grateful that the Rev. Sam Shoemaker taught Bill Wilson the kind of spirituality that is at the heart of the life Jesus taught his disciples.

Lord, thank you for a life in which each person we love and help along the way gives our lives significance and meaning to you and sometimes to other people we may never know.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

“Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” Philippians 2:1, The Message


“Don’t begin by traveling to some far off place to convert unbelievers.  And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public concern.  Go to the lost confused people right here in the neighborhood.  …  Don’t think you have to put on a fund-raising campaign before you start.  You don’t need any equipment.  You are the equipment.” Matthew 10:6-10, The Message

10 comments | Add One

  1. Matt - 02/4/2011 at 11:40 am

    Thanks, Keith.

  2. Barb - 02/4/2011 at 11:59 am

    Glad I’m home to read this.
    Will forward to my gals at Glory House!
    And also will forward you my newsletter
    telling of their stories.

  3. Mark Forrester - 02/4/2011 at 12:18 pm

    We met at Roy William’s Wizard Academy during the time when you were re-publishing “What To Do With the Rest of Your Life: Awakening and Achieving Your Unspoken Dreams”.

    I have also taken your writing course at W.A. and we shared a moment along w/ your wife Andrea, during an exercise at a W.A. Reunion later that year.

    I have helped many people through the process laid out in the book above, the process you honed along w/ Tom Fatjo (I also read Tom’s “With No Fear of Failure”, only because you introduced his story to me). I have no idea if any of the lives of those I have taken through your process have been ‘profoundly changed’, but I do know, that mine has.

    So here I am, yet another example of the impact one life-yours, can unknowingly have on another’s-mine. Further, I have been forwarding each issue of your blog to my good friend, John Norris, here just South of Boston, MA. John is a devout Catholic, but does not let ‘the rules and regulations’ of Chatholicism get in the way of his powerful spirituality. He looks forward to each issue as do I. I seldom get through an issue without a positive tear(another appearing in my eye as I right this).

    Oh, by the way, John is 30 years sober and as my ‘sponsor’, will help me give thanks for 20 years of sobriety in May. (insert goosebumps here)

    Your ripples, ever widening, will not soon rest upon the shore…

  4. Fred - 02/4/2011 at 1:25 pm

    Our mutual friend David in Lancaster sent me a link to “What Makes A Life Meaningful?” It made me think of the expression “You may be the only Big Book anyone ever sees.” I can’t begin to tell you the effect that the crusty old man who was my first sponsor had on me. He opened up a whole new universe of ideas about the spiritual life which has occupied me for better than 30 years now. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been on either the sending or receiving end of “I remember the time we were talking about ***** and you said %%%%. It changed my whole way of thinking about things.” It truly is all about relationships, starting with the one we have with our Creator and His Son.

  5. Bette Foster - 02/4/2011 at 1:40 pm

    Great word— I just want to encourage you as My husband,John Foster, and I spent a weekend at a retreat you led at Laity Lodge and we read your “Taste Of New Wine”and it helped us begin our Christian walk about 45 or 50 years ago. We never know how God is using us at the time , but sometimes He reveals it later. John and I were From Del Rio,TX. and after 45years as a lawyer there and starting an Episcopal School there –we moved to San Antonio in 2004 –John died in2008 and it was a great loss to our 4 children and me,his church(St.Luke’s Episcopal),his friends everywhere—but it was a great comfort to us all when he told us–“I am ready to go and I KNOW where I am going –He waits for me and is holding my hand”!!!! Anyway , You and Andrea keep sharing Jesus and your love of God always!!!! Bette Foster

  6. Christi - 02/4/2011 at 2:08 pm

    beautiful…thank you

  7. Sarah - 02/4/2011 at 8:02 pm

    Just what I needed today. Just one person. Just work my program. That is what I need to do. One day at a time.

  8. caren - 02/4/2011 at 9:28 pm

    thank you Keith. You have given my life meaning too! when the role is called up yonder it will be fun to connect the dots!

  9. Alma Clinton - 02/5/2011 at 9:41 am

    Wonderful message!

  10. eapenmohan - 02/17/2011 at 3:49 am

    If the son of God says your are free then you are free indeed.
    that is if you allow jesus to live his life in and through you.

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