How to Find Meaning Again After Tragedy

Dr. Caroline Leaf
3 min readJun 24, 2022

In a recent podcast (episode #393), I talked to N.Y. Times best-selling author Donald Miller about becoming the hero of our own narratives, how to find meaning again after a tragedy, what defines a meaningful life, and so much more.

In his amazing new book, Hero On a Mission: A Path to a Meaningful Life, Donald talks about how there are four characters in every story: the victim, the villain, the hero, and the guide. These four characters live inside all of us.

By examining the roles we play in our own lives and what characters we adopt, we can use the concept of a “story” to create meaning and purpose in our lives. Although this may seem overwhelming at first, it is also incredibly empowering, because it means that we can write our own story — we get to define our own role and give our life meaning.

Different character roles will have a different impact on our life story. For example, if we just play the victim, we’re doomed to fail because we believe that our life is defined by failure. If we play the villain, we will not create genuine bonds that give life meaning because the villain makes other people feel small and tries to control them. But, if we choose to play the hero or guide, our lives can flourish. The hero is willing to accept the challenge, and work on themselves to overcome that challenge even when life is hard, while the guide helps the hero win by sharing their knowledge and experience — the guide finds meaning by helping other people win.

These characters exist in every story because they exist in every one of us. It is up to us to choose what role we want to play in our own story. This is so important because what role we choose to play is the energy we bring to any given situation we face, which will affect how we manage what happens to us and how we define our narrative.

Of course, the hard part is being self-aware enough to know which character we are playing! Thankfully, in Hero On a Mission: A Path to a Meaningful Life, Donald uses his own experiences to help you recognize if the character you are currently surfacing is helping you experience a life of meaning or one of misery, and how to change your role and your story.

There are several factors that are important in creating a life of meaning, which Donald based on Viktor Frankl’s incredible work:

  1. Having a project that you are working on that you are passionate about, which requires your unique skill set. This can be anything from being a painter to embracing your role as a parent. The key thing is that is it something you are interested in, which sparks your curiosity and passion.
  2. Being a part of a community, because we are not made to do life alone. Relationships add so much meaning to life!
  3. Redeeming the challenges you face in life. Life is both beautiful and broken, and it is important to grieve over the broken parts of life while taking what happened to you and using it to grow and learn. That doesn’t mean that life is not hard and terrible things don’t happen, but searching for redemption in the broken parts of life helps us find meaning even in the darkest of times.

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Dr. Caroline Leaf

Mental health expert. I have spent the last 30+ years researching ways to help people manage mental health issues in school, work, and life: drleaf.com