Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Meaningful Life

"Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.  As they go through the valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the early rain covers it with pools.  They go from strength to strength."  --  Psalm 84:4 -- 7

Over the past few weeks, I've learned some important lessons about faith and life.  But first, I had to struggle through my own wrong thinking, the results of my mistakes, and the mental and physical stress that accompanied all of it.  It dawned on me recently that all the lessons I've ever learned about faith and life have always come on the heels of a struggle.  Is everyone's life this way?  Do we all go from struggle to struggle, growing and learning something new with each event?  Nietzsche's famous words that, "Whatever doesn't kill me, makes me stronger" are probably a good life motto for many people.

And yet for me, unlike for Nietzsche, the solution to my struggles did not come from relying on myself.  The solution to each problem came only when I heard or saw something outside of myself that seemed to be especially pertinent to my situation and I accepted this oddly coincidental word or image as significant and meaningful for me.  When I did that, and listened to the guidance that came from it, a door opened which led to better understanding, to reparation and healing, and to freedom from all that had weighed me down.

I believe these unexpected and odd coincidences are one way that God communicates.  However, even as a person of faith, I feel a little odd saying that.  For not even all people of faith would accept these coincidences like I do.  They might not notice them, or they might dismiss them as mere coincidences.  Some would rather rely completely on their own inner voice to guide them through their struggle.  Or they might try to ignore their inner turmoil altogether.  Unfortunately, listening to my own guidance and ignoring my struggles is usually what gets me into trouble in the first place!  If I continued doing that, I wouldn't get anywhere except stuck in a dismal rut.

Sometimes I wonder... How else could God work, if not by giving us little clues that can only be reckoned as meaningful by a leap of faith?  If God obviously intervened in everyone's struggles, we would never be autonomous.  Just as teenagers whose parents continually intervene in their struggles never become independent.  And if God only made himself obvious to a select few, we would either become arrogant or resentful depending on where God's grace fell.

As Jesus said, "I speak in parables, so that, "'though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.'"  (Luke 8:10)   Jesus does not say they won't understand, only that they may not.  We can all only be given a hint, one that allows for freedom and for uncertainty.  I truly believe that if there is anything God cannot be, it's obvious. 

I've been reading Victor Frankl's books lately.  Frankl spent his life writing and speaking about the importance of attaching meaning to life's events, even when it comes to painful events.  He helped many people change their unhappy, empty lives to happy, productive ones by pointing the way to meaning.  He knew first-hand what a difference this had made in his own life.  He survived four concentration camps because he felt that he had an important message to share with the world.  In fact, it was because he experienced such great suffering and inhumanity in these camps that he was able to help other people who also suffered greatly. 

He tells the story of his experiences and his therapeutic insights in "Man's Search for Meaning." In this book he also shares the significant events that gave him greater awareness of his purpose.  One such turning point came when he was given the choice to emigrate to the U.S. or stay and support his parents in Vienna.  This was in the late 1930s, when it was becoming increasingly clear that all Jews would be deported to death camps.  As he was struggling with this decision, he went to visit his parents and noticed a piece of marble stone on a table.  When he asked his father how it came to be there, he was told that his father had picked it up from the site of their burned out synagogue.  His father further explained that it had come from a table which had been engraved with the Ten Commandments.  This particular piece contained the Hebrew letter that served as the abbreviation for the commandment to honor thy father and mother.  There and then, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and help his parents as much as he could.  He later wrote, "I for one am convinced that if there is such a thing as Heaven, and if Heaven ever accepts a prayer, it will hide this behind a sequence of natural facts."  ("The Will to Meaning," pg.30)

This choice to see an underlying meaning in life's events, even when it comes to suffering, as opposed to seeing no meaning at all, is perhaps the ultimate example of our having free will.  Free will is sometimes offered by people of faith to explain suffering itself:  most of the suffering in the world comes because we have been given the freedom to make bad choices as well as good choices.  However, some psychologists, scientists, and philosophers nowadays argue that because of our genetic make-up, which determines our health and intelligence, and because of our upbringing, we really don't have free will.  That is a myth, they say.  We are merely a product of mechanisms that are beyond our control.  Stuff happens and we are driven by our instincts in the way we respond.  But I believe, as did Frankl, and the author I read last week, Michael Singer, that we at least have the ability to choose the attitude we will take toward suffering.  That is our willpower at work.

Once again Nietzsche comes to mind, this time as someone who chose not to see any meaning in life's events.  Nietzsche believed that stuff just happens, and like some thinkers today he believed that we have no responsibility for the things that happen one way or the other, nor does anyone.  Interestingly, Nietzsche also experienced a series of coincidences that strongly resonated with him.  And yet, because his life's work was centered around announcing that God was dead, he struggled to explain these significant coincidences.  He wondered if he was going insane.  Eventually, these coincidences piled up to such an extent that he did go insane, though some of his contemporaries actually thought he chose to go insane.  ("The Hidden Face of God," by Richard Elliott Friedman, pg. 184).  Perhaps, if he had not gone insane, he might have had to attach meaning to these coincidences in a way that allowed for the possibility that God existed after all.

As I pondered all this, I read the above passage in the daily lectionary.  I especially like the verse, "As they go through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs."  The Valley of Baca was also known as the Valley of Tears.  It was a dry, desolate place, difficult to cross.  To make it a place of springs required them to see the difficult journey as a blessing.  It could only be a blessing if they learned something meaningful along the way.  And the things they learned allowed them to go from strength to strength.  I find the connection between this passage and my thoughts to be highly significant.  It's connections like these that give my life meaning.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


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