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For the past two years, my friend Paul Louis Metzger has devoted untold hours and a huge portion of his energy to something that would never appear on anyone’s bucket list—driving to a care facility several days a week to care for his young-adult son Christopher.

Christopher suffered a traumatic brain injury and remains in a bed hooked up to medical equipment, with very limited ability to communicate and move his body.

Paul speaks to him, sings to him, prays for him. He extends and rotates his arms and legs. He and his wife closely monitor the care Christopher’s getting and constantly advocate for him while also supporting his wife and young daughter.

During this trying time, Paul has continued his work as a professor and the director of a nonprofit, even managing to finish another book. But his family’s traumatic ordeal has forced him to reframe his ambitious research and writing agenda. There have been no amazing vacation trips. Thrilling experiences? Those are when his son shows another inch of progress toward regaining full consciousness.

From a bucket-list standpoint, my friend’s life is failing the test. But from the standpoint of living a real life—life at its deepest, most meaningful level—Paul gets an A. He is doing something that is absolutely 100 percent worthwhile—which is arguably the point of life.

What’s worth wanting?

In the popular imagination, the goal is to figure out who you really are, what you really want, and how you can fulfill your identity and desires. Much of education and training are focused on efficiency and effectiveness.  How can you succeed at what you’ve set out to do?

Rarely do we ask: What’s worth doing? What’s worth being good at? And the whopper: What’s worth wanting?

These aren’t my questions. I’m getting them from a new book by a professor and two research scholars at Yale Divinity School (my employer). In Life Worth Living: A Guide to What Matters Most, Miroslav Volf, Matthew Croasmun, and Ryan McAnnally-Linz draw from the great philosophical and religious traditions to guide readers through an examination of their lives that goes much deeper than the culture and normal inclinations would have us go.

The book is the latest output of Life Worth Living, a project directed by Croasmun that has been operating for a decade. It’s best known for the popular classes it offers for Yale undergraduates, though its curricula have spread to other universities and schools as well. A few years ago, the program offered a class for adult learners as part of Yale’s continuing education program for alumni (which, as a staff member, I was able to take).

The class—and now the book—have put a lot in perspective for me, including the hollowness of devoting oneself to excelling at pursuits that don’t matter much in the ultimate scheme, that don’t do much good for anyone or the world—things that are not deserving of our devotion.

As a workout guy who appreciates the health benefits of exercise, I don’t mean to denigrate fitness. But I do wonder about people who pour inordinate amounts of their time and energy into perfecting their bodies like it’s the most important thing in life. Journalists and scholars have noted how CrossFit, SoulCycle, and the like can become like church for the most zealous. The community that forms at these gyms is obviously positive. But if body perfection is where one seeks ultimate fulfillment, it’s literally an “exercise” in futility—albeit a relatively harmless one.

Some passionate pursuits and areas of human achievement are the opposite. Think of the brilliant scientists who dedicated themselves to creating nuclear weapons and making them ever more destructive. Think of talented marketers who excel at luring people into a life of materialistic distraction where they’re never satisfied with what they’ve got and are always wanting things they don’t need and aren’t worth coveting. Think of politicians who use their charisma to manipulate citizens into politically useful but life-sapping delusions, hatreds, and anxious states.

Think of the incredibly smart and hard-working engineers and coders racing to make artificial intelligence ever smarter, ever more powerful, while evincing little care for the potentially shattering human consequences.

Something deep

Listening to the great sages and artists of the past, we realize that a good life is one that gets “in sync with something deep about the world,” the authors write in Life Worth Living. It’s more than the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, as valid as those are (especially when we concern ourselves with others’ pain and pleasure in addition to our own). Some of our most worthy pursuits might bring with them a lot of discomfort and tedium, a distinct absence of dopamine payoffs.

For my friend Paul, that deep commitment is the tenacious support of his son. He could leave much more of his care to others—doctors, nurses, other family members. But at a real cost to his career pursuits and fun quotient, he keeps making that drive to the care facility, day after day after day, to be with his partially conscious son.

As summer approaches, many of us savor the prospect of vacation trips to beautiful, far-off locales. No such plans for Paul and his wife. Instead: more time with Christopher. Their joy will be derived from the moments when he lights up, clearly having heard and understood what they said to him, or when he moves his arm or leg a little more than before.

Paul tells me the endeavor pulls at him like a powerful magnet. He knows it is what he is supposed to be doing. His son’s bedside is where he is supposed to be.

As I’ve learned from the hard things I’ve done, “wanting” is beside the point. Whether it’s extraordinary, self-sacrificing support for a family member or friend, a project that serves vulnerable people in our communities, or anything else that’s high in importance and low in bucket-list value, we do it because it’s worth doing. Because our values and commitments leave us no choice. Because regardless of the outcome, we know it’s the only way to satisfy our consciences.

Such commitments yield no fun and little pleasure of the conventional types. But to cite the title of the new book by the Yale trio, it’s the stuff that makes life worth living. Who doesn’t want a life like that?

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Tom Krattenmaker

Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion, meaning, and values in public life. A longtime columnist for USA Today, he is the author of three award-winning books, including "Confessions of a...