More Meaningful Than We Know

Lately, I’ve been struggling with “what am I doing here” thoughts. I’ve been kind of down, and someone noticed and reminded me of this story. It helped me, and I thought it might help you too.

Seven years ago, I was rescued by people who never knew they were saving me. That May, my multiple sclerosis (MS) started going downhill fast. My fatigue was incredible. I could spend about two hours a day working at my computer, and the rest of the day I was mostly in bed.

Where I had been lifting weights and using various exercise machines, all I could now do was some gentle, deep-water exercise called “water-running”[1] wearing a flotation belt. But I didn’t give up. I kept coming to water-running class, even though I could only do 20–25 minutes out of an hour program, at a very slow pace. I came partly because it got me out of the apartment, and partly because my body wanted to move, and this was the only way it could. But the main reason I went was to see my water-exercise friends.

These weren’t close friends. I never saw them outside of class. But I so looked forward to splashing around and talking with Desiree, Ken, Barbara, and the others that I would drag myself to the pool, fatigued or not. They were always encouraging, always seemed happy to see me. I didn’t want to let them down. So I kept coming. And I started to get better. I got to where I could do 55 minutes of exercise, pretty vigorously, and have enough energy for my work and some fun, besides. I even got back to the weight room and started strengthening.

It wasn’t just the water exercise that helped. I went to a movement therapist and learned some new stretches. I got psychotherapy to cope with the stress. But, as you may know, it’s not so easy to go out and find new help when you’re feeling sick and getting worse. Regular contact with my exercise buddies helped me get the help I needed.

And here’s the point; here’s why I tell this story: Those water-runners had no idea how much they meant to me. They didn’t know how important they were or how much good they were doing. If it hadn’t been for them, I might not have been able to finish my books, which are helping a lot of people. But they didn’t know anything about that.

And this situation is absolutely typical. We all go through our lives largely ignorant of how important we are, how much purpose our lives have. Rachel Naomi Remen, MD,[2] author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, says, “Most of us lead far more meaningful lives than we know.” In this vast world where everyone and everything is interconnected, our lives have meanings and effects far beyond our awareness.

What enables us to live meaningful lives despite illness? The important thing is not to quit. Another great spiritual teacher, Woody Allen, said, “80% of life is showing up.” And while I would never take any relationship advice from Woody Allen, I think he was right about that, probably more right than he knew.

People do some wonderful, amazing things, and we should all give each other credit, and give ourselves credit for the things we do. But 80% of the time, more or less, what we do is far less important than our just being there. Like those water-runners; they weren’t doing anything! They were just coming to class. Our simple presence, showing up and letting people know we care, is often as important as anything we do or accomplish.

There’s a saying in MS support groups that, “One person coping helps everyone cope.” Sounds like a Hallmark card, doesn’t it? But it’s so true, and it’s so powerful. If you can keep coming to work or to support group or wherever with a smile, if you can get out and walk half a block, if that’s all you can do, that helps everybody else keep going.

We all lead much more meaningful lives than we know. We need to remember this when times are hard, especially when you’re dealing with complications[3], or you get bad news on a test, or your marriage breaks up, or someone dies, or the oil is hitting your beach, or any of a thousand wounds that come in this life. In those situations, we often feel useless, as if our lives have lost most of their meaning, purpose, and value. These negative feelings can have profound health impacts. But just because we feel a certain way doesn’t mean it’s true. Even if you don’t know exactly what your meaning and value is, you will always have it, and nothing can take it away from you.

So value yourself and live accordingly.

  1. “water-running”:
  2. Rachel Naomi Remen, MD,:
  3. complications:

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David Spero: David Spero has been a nurse for 40 years and has lived with multiple sclerosis for 30 years. He is the author of four books: The Art of Getting Well: Maximizing Health When You Have a Chronic Illness (Hunter House 2002), Diabetes: Sugar-coated Crisis — Who Gets It, Who Profits, and How to Stop It (New Society 2006, Diabetes Heroes (Jim Healthy 2014), and The Inn by the Healing Path: Stories on the road to wellness (Smashwords 2015.) He writes for Diabetes Self-Management and Pain-Free Living (formerly Arthritis Self-Management) magazines. His website is His blog is

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