Roadblocks on the Road to Meaning

Many of you know that my favorite musical is “Man of La Mancha.” In it, amongst all the glorious music, is a particularly poignant moment. Cervantes is telling his fellow prisoners that in war he has held dying men in his arms who looked up at him with confused and frightened eyes asking, “Why? Why?” Cervantes observes, “I do not think they were asking why they were dying, but why they had lived.” This is a question for all of us.

How do we answer it? And more importantly, how do we answer in a way that reassures us; that gives us spiritual comfort?

Why have we lived? It is a uniquely human question. One can find, daily it seems on Facebook :-), examples of differing emotions in the animal kingdom. Animals play. They love. They can learn to fear and feel anger. Animals can feel lonely. They dream. They mourn. One thing our animal friends do not do is ask is, “Why am I alive? Why have I lived?”

A book I strongly recommend to anyone interested in the subject is “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankel. Viktor Frankel was a Shoah survivor, a survivor specifically of Auschwitz. Like many if not most survivors of that until then unimaginable horror, he asked, “Why me?” and “What now?” Where does meaning come from? As Frankel puts it, and I certainly agree, “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life.” I would add, “In her life” as well; but Frankel wrote in a different era. Whether we will admit it or not, our search for meaning is the primary motivation in all of our lives.

But if it’s that important, why don’t we get it right more often? Why is it that so many of us look back at our lives and ask, “Why?” One reason, I believe, is that there can be so many roadblocks between us and meaning. That’s what we’ll want to look at today … just a little.

The mere fact of living puts many roadblocks in front of us. Allergies can be a roadblock. Poverty can be a roadblock. Where we are born can be a roadblock. And that just scratches the surface. But roadblocks to our search for meaning? These, I believe, are self-imposed. When it comes to meaning, we put our own obstacles in front of ourselves.

We put down roadblocks that keep us from being who we are – roadblocks that keep us from being the best of who we are. Why do we do this? How do we do it?

One of the most profound questions we ever face is faced, I believe, very early in life – before we are aware enough even to ask the question, we’re faced with it – and we answer it. “Is my life to be about me, or others?” How we answer that question will help us or haunt us every day we yet draw breath, and will help determine what sort of meaning we find in life – how we answer the question, “Why?”

I believe, then, that inextricably tied up with our quest for meaning is how we view ourselves. It seems to me that before we can even begin to answer “what does our life mean?” we must come face to face with who we believe we are.

While I have many beliefs, as we all do, as an Interfaither I think you know that I’m pretty flexible. This morning I would like to offer something that for me is foundational. Possessions, power, looks, fame – all of these are mere distractions. In the end, who we are is all we ever really have. Who we are is the only thing we will ever truly own. If we are to find meaning in our lives, it lies then in who we are. There is no meaning in what we possess.

Frankel puts it a little differently, but just a little. He writes, “Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.”

But even being dedicated to a cause greater than oneself can be, and in truth often is a roadblock we put in front of ourselves. Say that cause is world hunger. How can I dedicate myself to a problem I cannot possibly cure? How can my life have meaning if I strive all my life to address world hunger, and yet, when I die I am well aware that millions remain hungry?

But again, that’s a self-imposed roadblock. It’s not how big we are that counts. WHO we are is all that ever truly matters, for who we are is all we ever truly have. The question then is not “Did you end world hunger?” The question is, “Were you the kind of person who tried?”

I realize this is counter-culture. In our culture “success” is everything. Somehow we have moved seamlessly from “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” to “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Bull! Harmful, self-defeating bull!

My person favorite of the Biblical prophets is Micah. Micah writes, a little later than the passage in our earlier reading, “Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and how bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before Him with burnt-offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” These are the questions that have consumed us, all of us, all of our spiritual paths. How shall we pray? What is the right way to bow? What shall we bring? What must we offer? But Micah tells us, “What doth the Lord require of thee: only this – act with justice, love compassion, and walk humbly with your God.”

A life of meaning? Be a person who acts with justice, loves compassion, and walks humbly with your God.

This last, I believe, is often misunderstood. So I’d like to spend some time here. It’s not walk humbly with your God because God is so great. It is walk humbly as you walk with your God.

Jesus, you remember him, he came a little after Micah, when Jesus said that the meek will inherit the earth, I don’t believe he saw it as a consolation prize. I believe he was echoing Micah. The meek will inherit the earth because our survival depends on the meek… who nonetheless continue forward. Walk humbly, Micah tells us, not bow humbly, or sit or pray humbly, but walk. So how does one walk humbly with meaning?

For me, one of life’s great balancing acts is to remain unshakably certain of my value as a human being as I realize at one and the same moment how little my poor efforts matter to the unwinding of the cosmos.

Our job then, if we are to live with meaning, is not to contribute wonders, but to contribute. How much good we do in this world is, quite frankly, a matter of luck – happenstance of birth, being in the right place at the right time, whatever. It’s all luck, and luck is no excuse for pride. But in a world that tells us that bigger is better, a world that looks up to people who make the most money, regardless of how; or become famous, regardless of how, keeping our balance can be tricky indeed.

This balancing act, I believe, is what Rabbi Tarfon, who lived about 70 CE, when Jerusalem was sacked and the 2nd Temple burned by Rome, was sharing with us when he acknowledged that yes, there is so much to do in trying to make the world better that it could drive one to despair. He wrote, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.”

And somebody, I’ve been trying to discover who but haven’t yet, spliced the prophet Micah and Rabbi Tarfon together for this amazing quote – whoever assembled it; “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” Yea, verily!

So, is this a Judeo-Christian thing? Hardly. All of our spiritual paths have recognized that one of the great self-imposed roadblocks on our road to meaning is pride.

Among the sayings of the prophet Mohammad are these calls to humility. “All of humanity are the children of Adam, and Adam was created from dirt.” Hello! And this, “Have I not taught you how the inhabitants of Paradise will be all the humble and the weak, whose oaths God will accept when they swear to be faithful?”

So, humility is Abrahamic? Not a chance. From the Jains, “Subdue pride by modesty, overcome hypocrisy by simplicity, and dissolve greed by contentment.” The Shinto, “Within the world the palace pillar is broad; but the human heart should be modest.” The Baha’i, “Humility exalteth man to the heaven of glory and power, whilst pride abaseth him to the depths of wretchedness and degradation.” Buddhism, of course, is based on humility – letting go of our attachments.

Relevant to what we are talking about is one of my favorite quotes from the Buddha. “The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knows.” … which brings us back to how do we live, what can we do? Knowing that we cannot solve the world’s problems, how do we overcome our self-imposed roadblocks to meaning? Bit by bit, little by little, step by step. We walk humbly, but we walk.

I believe that the meaning of our life is reflected by what we put into it, not how much but what we put into it, and not what we get from it.

But, particularly having just spoken so much about humility, when we speak of contributing, the thought that “I’m one person, how can I contribute? Even if it’s a little, what can I do?” This can become a roadblock that looms pretty big. What can we do?

One thing we do is collect food every service for our local food bank. And this morning I’d like to offer something else, something that has been very helpful to me. It’s assuredly not a “silver bullet,” but it can remove some roadblocks. “The Better World Shopping Guide” has just come out with its fifth edition. I’ve brought six copies today to give away. Why?

We are all consumers. Our culture has taught us to look for which products last longer, and which products cost less. This book takes a different approach. It reminds us that every dollar we spend is a vote for the kind of world we want to live in. So the shopping guide grades companies that make the products and the stores that sell them on the environmental impact of that product, whether or not people were exploited in making the product, does the company that makes the product contribute to the betterment or perhaps the degradation of humanity? What I love about this book is that it reminds us that we are part of a community. What I buy and from whom affects not only me, but the people around me. In that light, cheapest isn’t always best for the community, even if it helps me. In terms of what we are talking about this morning, it reminds me that despite all the noise on radio, television, and in our papers, it’s not about me. A meaningful life is about us.

Amen.

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