I told Matthew it’s time to take the kids apple picking. “Do you want to come with us?” I said. “We’re going to a place in Illinois.”
“What? What’s wrong with the apple trees here?”
“We have apple trees?”
So the kids and I got in the back of the truck, and Matthew drove over hills and through gates to a pasture full of apple trees.
He pulled the truck under the tree like a ladder.
When you’re picking someone else’s trees, you are careful, looking for the best apples, respectful to not mess it all up for the next people who pay $35 a bushel.
On your own farm, you shake the apple tree, and apples fall into the back of the truck.
Each tree’s apples taste different and each is an unfamiliar taste. They are cross-pollinated and random, so you never know what you’ll get until you bite. We put soft baking apples in one pile and hard eating apples in the other, and the boys became philosophers about what a particular type of apple would be good for.
Each time we shook a tree, the cows jogged over to eat apples that fell. Their calves came with. They are too young to eat apples, but they watched.
Between the trees, Matthew noticed a cow who seemed to be looking for something. We drove closer and there was a calf lying in a gulch. Matthew said the mom didn’t have any milk. So he jumped out of the truck, and put the calf in the back, with us.
The calf could barely stand.
Apple picking was over. We were in crisis mode. The calf was too scared to sit, but we couldn’t let him fall in the truck, so we held him. Then we had to get milk replacer formula from a neighbor, and we set up a system to force feed the calf, through a tube, if he didn’t drink from a bottle.
You’d think that picking apples was the fun part of the day, interrupted by a farm emergency. But in fact, the best part of the day was saving the calf. We look for moments of happiness, but there is not much lasting happiness from a few bucolic moments in a field of apple trees.
What lasts is having meaning. The kids felt important bringing the calf to safety. When someone needed to stay by the calf while we went to get milk replacer, one of the boys stayed. My oldest son takes care of the calf now. He feeds him twice a day and walks with him in the barnyard because the calf is still too scared to walk alone.
Roy Baumeister writes about happiness as something that gets in the way of a meaningful life. Happiness is about decreasing stress and conflict and taking rather than giving. In a forthcoming paper about the difference between a happy life and a meaningful life, the authors write, “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”
Emily Esfahani Smith writes in The Atlantic about how current research shows happiness and meaning are competing forces in life. We live a deeper, more fulfilled life if we actively seek meaning.
Viktor Frankl writes that stress and hardship are actually more meaningful than happiness because they cause you to be focused on others rather than yourself. Dan Gilbert writes that this is why so many people choose to have kids even though kids don’t make people happy. And Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes that working hard at something to the point that it pushes your life off-kilter is much more emotionally rewarding than doing something conflict-free and fun.
For kids, the difference is picking apples or saving a calf. For adults, it’s more complicated—aiming for an easy, conflict-free, peaceful life, or heading straight into something difficult that shakes up your life so you can be part of something larger than you.
Each of us has a different capacity to give to others without losing ourselves. Some of us can give only a bit, some of us give so much there is nothing of us left. Your real job—not necessarily the one you get paid for—is to find the opportunity to infuse meaning into your life by challenging yourself to give in a way that jeopardizes your happiness.
Look around for where you can make a big difference. It is likely a place that will shake you up. And remember that if my husband weren’t looking around for a big problem, all we would have done is pick apples and driven home.