Last week a stranger asked me a thought-provoking question.

I was sitting alone, mindlessly scrolling through my phone, when a young man got my attention: “If you could define your life in one word, what would that word be?”

At first I wasn’t sure he was talking to me—starting the conversation with a question threw me off a bit—but he was. He said he likes to ask this question instead of saying “hello” upon meeting someone new because he believed it offered a better sense of the person, and so he asked me again: what word would I choose?

I thought about it, but a single word? Just one? There are so many words (and so many feelings to encompass!) that I panicked a little, trying to distill everything down to just one simple qualifier: “happy” seemed too overarchingly cheerful; “difficult” seemed too negative; “meaningful” seemed too vague and broad. I felt a sudden pressure as I realized that, by choosing this word, I was communicating my cumulative life experience not just to this stranger, but to me.

After more careful consideration, I settled, finally, on “motivating.”

“Explain,” he prompted.

“I’ve had a lot of challenges,” I said, thinking specifically about my experience living with lymphedema. “But I believe everything happens for a reason, and everything happens when it’s meant to—even the hard times. I find strength in that. Motivation.”

He nodded thoughtfully, and we talked about our words for a few minutes longer before parting ways, still strangers but a little less so than before. It’s been a week since that conversation, and I’m still thinking about it: the writer in me agonizing over whether I chose the most concise word, the existentialist wondering whether this word would change depending on the hour, the day…

A moment of reflection during a morning walk.

It does change depending on the moment, I’ve found out. I’ve started to take time to pause at different points throughout my day and search for a word or two; whether I’m having a good day or a bad day, or some kind of in between, I look for a word. It’s become somewhat of a grounding technique, a way to check in with myself moment-to-moment and allow for some valuable introspection.

For example, when the only word I can find is along the lines of “difficult,” “frustrating,” “futile,” “annoying,” or “hopeless,” I ask myself: “What word would I like to have instead, and how can I make it so?”

When my word is more like “happy,” “delightful,” “ebullient,” “satisfying,” or “exciting,” I ask myself: “How am I embracing myself and this moment, and what can I do to sustain this?”

What began as a random conversation with a stranger turned into a daily exercise in acknowledging and observing my feelings—an unexpected lesson, but also a welcomed one!

Oh, and my word for today? Grateful.

What about you—if you could define your life in this very moment in just one word, what would that word be? Please share in the comments section!