Choosing the Meaningful Life

According to a recent survey, New York City tops the list for the unhappiest metropolitan area among cities with a population greater than 1 million.

The bling of Broadway, the flitter of fashion, the sizzle of shopping, and the electrifying energy of the city simply does not satisfy the soul. I ride the Metro-North train from Rye, New York, to Manhattan as well as the NYC subway up and down Manhattan, and it is rare for me to notice a truly happy face. What's missing?

During my seminary days in Rome, a bunch of the American brothers decided to bring "Thanksgiving" to Europe. We all wrote "hand-written" letters to our family and friends asking for enough money to buy turkeys and all the trappings to feed over 350 hungry seminarians. As the money arrived, some of the seminarians went out during their limited free times and began to buy turkeys (not easy to find in Italy!), stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes, apple pies and ice cream.

The day before Thanksgiving, we all assembled in the kitchen and divided up the work load. We had to use the massive ovens of the local police department to cook all of those turkeys and we used our own ovens to cook everything else … so it was a long night for the turkey crew because they had to monitor the heat and put fresh turkeys in the oven when the others were fully cooked. As 350 seminarians filed into our dining room on Thanksgiving day, their faces lit up as the saw the succulent feast waiting on each table.

In his latest book "The Road to Character," David Brooks wrote, "We don't live for happiness, we live for holiness. All human beings seek to lead lives not just of pleasure, but of purpose, righteousness and virtue."

He continued: "The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle. The meaningful life is the same eternal thing, the combination of some set of ideals and some man or woman's struggle for those ideals. Life is essentially a moral drama, not a hedonistic one."

During World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany in 2005, I had the privilege of helping to oversee a group of 80 high school and college age men who came from our schools and youth programs from all over the world. One of these college students from Bavaria, Gabriel, stood out in a big way. We planned to leave early on the bus to see Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI arrive up the Rhine river and make his speech from the Cathedral in Cologne but Gabriel came up to me with a smile and said, "Fr. Michael, I have my car, so I will catch up to you a little later."

Twelve hours later, I saw him again in Burger King as we all celebrated our special time with the pope. So I asked him, "This must have been a special day for you to see a German pope come to your native country."

His pause and change in expression made me think something was up.

Then he said, "Fr. Michael, I have seen the pope before in Rome and I will see him again tomorrow, but to be honest, I stayed back today to do laundry for all of the guys. Many did not bring enough clothes to get through the whole week, so it took some time to wash, dry and fold these clothes … but please do not tell anyone, this one is between me and God."

Wow! And yes, he was by far the happiest young man in the group.

Fr. Michael Sliney, LC, is a Catholic priest who is the New York chaplain of the Lumen Institute, an association of business and cultural leaders. 

More from

Our Teens’ Safety is Compromised

The Tedious Trope of the ‘Stressed-Out Mom’

Moms, Kids, Weekends — and Fun

National Defense is a Biblical Concept