The Primal Quest for Meaning

September 15,2019

Psalm 90:1-6, 12, 14-15; John 10:10


          Tenley Michaelove was training for a bike race earlier this summer, sweaty and tired towards the end of a ride. She reached up with one hand to adjust one of her earbuds as she was wheeling around a right turn.

          Out of the blue she started to slide, unsure of what was exactly happening but before she could get her free hand back on the handlebars, she realized that her front tire had blown out and she was feeling the rim of her front tire gliding on the pavement at 20 miles an hour in the middle of a turn.

          Time slowed before her. She could see the panicked expression of a man driving in the lane coming the other direction. There was no possibility for a graceful landing but she just tried to avoid hitting her head on the pavement as she tumbled over the front handle bars onto the warm summer asphalt. It was quite a flop. She hit her shoulder and her hip somehow, grateful that she had worn long sleeve gear on the hot day to spare her flesh from being ripped.

          In an instant, she was stunned. It was probably going to be okay, but her hip was numb, her shoulder was numb and she could not move. Her first thought was how ridiculous she must have looked, followed immediately by ‘this is going to hurt later’. The oncoming car had stopped and she saw someone dialing their cellphone for help.

          But right behind her was a Co-ed in her Jeep Wrangler, hurtling around the corner while playfully flirting with her boyfriend in the passenger seat, oblivious to the downed cyclist in the road ahead. Tenley strained to see the oncoming Jeep. She tried to move but her body would not respond.

          She didn’t have time to think about her three kids. She didn’t have time to picture her husband. She just thought to herself, “you must be kidding me that this is the end.” She watched as the boyfriend screamed. She heard the serious squeal of the brakes, as 4500 lbs. of steel careened straight at her and slid to a stop right over her, the smell of burnt rubber filling her nostrils, the front license plate not a foot from her head. Without thinking, the number on that plate forever etched in her memory.

          A couple days later, she is at the beach with her sister and both of their families. She sits up in bed before the dawn, wide awake in the dark. She is anxious, reflective, cannot possibly sleep after a dream where she is back in college and she is taking an exam. She is halfway through her essay when the proctor calls time. She didn’t realize that this was just a half hour exam. It was supposed to be an hour exam. She hadn’t made her main argument yet.

Egad the anxiety dreams of middle age. She puts the coffee on, scans the TV, and decides to go for a jog up the beach.

          The first fingers of daylight are streaking out over the Atlantic and the luminous canopy of twinkling stars are fading from view. The sky is bright like an enormous azure blanket enveloping our globe in comfort, the sun a redolent magenta ball on the horizon.

          The waves are gently rolling in like an orchestrated march of harmony. It is quiet, so peaceful.  And she was taken by the rhythm of nature, how vast and overarching it all was, how tinged it was an effulgent aura radiating the unbearable lightness of being itself.

          So beautiful and so old. The skyline had been here way, way before any of the houses on the beach had appeared and the skyline would be there after all of this disappears. And then she almost started to feel vertigo. We are so small. Our lives are so brief. We are here today, gone tomorrow.

          A subterranean well of emotion rose up from within him that he could not control and he was awash in sorrow and fear, tears that would not stop, and a grief so powerful that he shook in fear.

 Psalm 90 says

You turn people back to dust,
saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it is dry and withered.

Looking out at the big sweep of the Cosmos, who are we humans that we should warrant any significance at all? Says the Pslamist. And what is our place in it?

          Every petitie morte, every small death, like Tenley’s beckons this question whether we want it to or not. We can avoid it if we so choose but it is so spiritually primordial that it arises from our subconscious as an undifferentiated anxiety. We are suddenly directly aware of our finitude, our contingency in the midst of this seemingly infinite universe of time and space.

          For none of us is really capable of comprehending what is before us in the night sky. Very, very few of us actually possess the imagination to scale a billion years. We repeat these terms when we hear astrophysicists speak of the Big Bang, and we can rehearse the estimated age of the universe and the age of the Earth, but the scope is so vast that we can’t really take these numbers in.

          In its totality, the Cosmos is spiritually presented to us as a simple gift, an ineffable miracle that spontaneously elicits a sense of wonder and awe. It confronts us, as Rudolf Otto so wonderfully put it, as a mysterium tremendum, a sweep of being so vast that know we will never really comprehend it during our short sojourn here.

          We simply have to accept it, as a gift so to speak. For the very fact that we are aware of the vastness of the Cosmos, the very fact that we are anxious about our contingency in it, is a foundational spiritual conundrum that we must pose for ourselves.

          We not only know. We know that we know. We possess the ability to sense our individual continuity over time. We can actually reflect on our personal history, our personal time. Because of that, we have an inchoate sense of responsibility for our lives and how we live in the world.

          Why is it that I am here? What is it that I am supposed to be about in the very limited time that I have allotted on this earth? What is my fate and destiny, the finished telos of my life that I am in the middle of living right now?

          These questions are never posed to us abstractly, which is why the study of philosophy proves to be so elusive. We are not interested in knowing the structure of our knowing or the structure of the universe itself like a mathematician that seeks to derive the equations that unlock the principles of how our solar system functions.

          The questions of meaning and purpose are posed to us personally, as existential spiritual questions that we must answer for ourselves. What is the meaning of my life? What is the purpose that I am supposed to embody in the place and time in which I was born? How shall I account for how I am daily living in the midst of this work in progress?

It is the spiritual questions that haunt us, that beguile us, because we cannot avoid them. And most of the time, when these questions confront us directly, we are immediately aware of how much time we have wasted not reflecting on them earlier. They bubble up from our subconscious that makes us periodically aware that time is a relentless flow in one direction and that we are ever-changing and evolving through the life-cycle, so different today from what we thought we might be when we envisioned ourselves in the future as children.

Socrates once observed that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and we existentially intuit this from time to time when our present opens the bigger picture and our place in it.

          Mere existence, as it turns out, is not quite enough. Despite the relentless marketing that diverts our attention towards the pursuit of a beautiful self image, enhancing our power, and creating life of leisure and ease, our souls are restless because of our underlying, subconscious quest for meaning.

          We spend so much energy in the early part of our adult years trying to establish our careers, trying to establish our family that it is tempting to become singularly focused on acquiring status, acquiring wealth, enhancing our range of influence as though this were an end in itself. (Slide 1)

          In metropolitan New York, where I have lived most of my life, it is almost made into radical chic. The most beautiful people are routinely depicted in our media as living the beautiful life completely in the present, never giving voice to any reflection on meaning and purpose. (Slide 2) In our attempt to highlight the attractiveness of wealth, fame, and the leisurely comforts that it provides, it is almost as if we elevate a vain and supercilious detachment from the quest for meaning, as though somehow if you are beautiful enough you are never worried about your own contingency. You never question the meaning of your place in the world.

          It is spiritual horseshit. Every day we open the papers to read about another tragic life that is cut short. We turn on the television to witness streams of refugees that are fleeing for their lives in some war torn region of the Middle East. Our relatives and friends contract tumors that are inoperable, resistant to treatment. How can you not reflect on the bigger picture? How can you not be spiritually disturbed by the witness of their lives as well?

          Marcus Aurelius, arguably the most powerful man in human history, left behind his thoughts on the subject of meaning in the daily journal that he kept. They were later collected in a short book titled The Meditations.

          His regular refrain to himself was a reminder of how fleeting and elusive the beautiful life really is. He was surrounded by sumptuous food and drink, delighted by beguiling entertainment, able to indulge any sensual desire he could imagine, with a command of power that had a range unparalleled in human history up to that point. But what he writes about in the early hours of the morning, left to himself, is how fleeting power and beauty and wealth really are.

They are the background context in which he has to live his life. He simply must exercise the levers of power. He simply must fete the public with feasts that the Romans made epic in their legacy. All of these perquisites were built into the fabric of Roman Imperial power.

          But, personally, existentially, he keeps asking himself what is really real? He knows that at some point, sometime relatively soon, he will step off the grand stage of the beautiful life. He will no longer exercise power, no longer have his rugged good looks, no longer be able to indulge his every whim and desire.

“Who will I be then?” he asks himself over and over. What is it that will really last? Who am I if you take away all of the perquisites of the “Good Life” that Rome has to offer?

          In the end, he reflects, we have only our character. And the quest in this life is for us all to engage in soul formation. We are simply a work in progress, nothing more, though nothing less either.

          No, if we are lucky enough to live in a society of relative peace and stability, prosperous enough that we have time to reflect on the bigger picture, we are beset by the quest to realize the higher purposes for which we were created. Existence, even beautiful existence, is not quite enough.

          Jesus once said, “I come that you might not simply have life, but that you might live life abundantly”, that your life might become pregnant with meaning and purpose.

          How do we access that fuller dimension of being? How do we find ourselves wading into a deeper pool of meaning that our life has to offer? How can we find our way home?

St. Augustine once remarked of the spiritual quest, “My heart was restless until it was at rest in Thee”. How do we find our way towards the peace that comes from integrity of character, realizing what we were meant to become? This is the spiritual quest that undergirds the many different religious traditions that wrestled with the questions that are posed to us by the wonder of existence itself.

          The spiritual life does not seek answers of orientation that can be given by coordinates unfortunately. And this is one exam you can’t get the answers by looking on your neighbors’ paper. Because the spiritual life is about you answering these questions for yourself. Our religious traditions may be valuable guides, but you seek answers to questions about your personal integrity. You want to find the authentic way to live.

You want to embody the higher reasons for which we were born.

          You can’t copy someone else, you must discover this within yourself. And that is the point. Rabbi Zhusya once said, “When I get to heaven, God is not going to ask me why I was not more like Moses? Why I was not more like Jesus? God is going to ask me, ‘Why were you not more like Zhusya?’” Why didn’t you become more of who you were supposed to be?

          These are questions that God poses to us. And only we can answer them for ourselves. Genuine spirituality is the inner dimension of our outer exploration. It is about character. It is about who we are and how we choose to live in the world. It is about what we value and who we are becoming.

          We can ignore this dimension of our lives and sometimes we ignore it for years on end. But the clock is ticking. Subconsciously, we know this.

          You actually find yourself in much the same situation as the two characters in the closing scene of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”. Throughout the play they keep hoping that God will simply show up and give them forthright answers to the difficult questions that they ask about the meaning of our lives. But that kind of God never shows up.

          We don’t actually get answers of that clarity and there is nothing definite that we can hold onto. We must content ourselves with the provisional and tentative answers that we provide for ourselves. That left Beckett in a state of despair. Like so many of us, we don’t want to work that hard. We’d like to just know for certain and be done with it.

          But we know our lives don’t work that way and we prove it to ourselves several times in our young adulthood. We latch onto something that we think will unlock the key to this enigma only to find that it doesn’t.

          Beckett himself was unquestionably given over to despair, but the end of his play is not necessarily despairing itself. For between the Scylla of obedience to some orthodoxy and the Charbydis of agnostic angst lies another way, the way of humane faith.

          We do not have all the answers. But we must try to figure this out in all humility, drawing upon the wisdom of the past, recognizing that it contains important insights, even as it is surrounded by obvious limitations.

          At the end of Beckett’s play Vladimir asks Estragon, “Well, where shall we go?” The curtain falls with both of them frozen in place, as though we are not capable of actually tackling the question of meaning for ourselves.

          But the answer of humane faith is “onward”. And so may you embrace the challenge as well, knowing that you only have provisional and partial insight but neither immobilized by the difficulty of the task. May you look to the wisdom of the past and cull from it the “truths” that it has to offer. And may you be willing to think for yourself, to own responsibility for developing values that embody an abundant spiritual life, quite in spite of the fact that it has proved elusive to so many before you.

          This is your time, your one and only life. How is it that you will shine?

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