Saturday, January 10, 2015

Meaning and Meaninglessness

(My remarks from Shabbat services on Friday, January 9, 2015)

In this past week, we’ve once again watched a scourge of horrific violence and terror wreak havoc, death and destruction around our world: from the senseless bombing of the Colorado Springs NAACP office, to the unconscionable and brutal attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the murder of 12 innocent people, including 2 police officers, to the horrific acts that played out today at a Paris Kosher grocery store.  And all of it can leave us feeling terrified, angry, bewildered, and wondering how people can do such horrible and senseless things?  Where is the meaning in any of it?

And in times like this, we first ask questions like those that involve us looking outside of ourselves for meaning, but often afterwards turn to look more internally, and ask ourselves what our existence means in the grand scheme of things when so often everything can seem so meaningless? And the truth is, both these and those questions come not only to characterize our responses to traumatic moments, but rather, they  actually characterize what is perhaps the ultimate and quintessential human pursuit.  And for millennia, scholars, theologians, philosophers, psychologists, talk show hosts and many others have offered theories and advice on how to find the meaning that we, as humans, so desperately seek.

And so, David Brooks’ op-ed from Monday “The Problem with Meaning” caught my interest.   In his well-articulated, somewhat vitriolic critique, Brooks asserts that this yearning for meaning has actually become most problematic in our time. He rightfully observes that “how meaningful something is” has become a standard metric for how we gauge whether something is worth our while.  In general, we seek meaningful relationships, we want to use our time meaningfully, we want our learning and growth to be meaningful.   But whereas in its purest sense, meaning is what you feel and find when you’re serving that which is beyond yourself, today we have instead commodified “meaning,” using it as a vehicle for serving ourselves instead.  

In Brooks’ words:
"As commonly used today, the word [meaning] is flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life...Let me put it this way: If we look at the people in history who achieved great things — like Nelson Mandela or Albert Schweitzer or Abraham Lincoln — it wasn’t because they wanted to bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness. They had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice. They were indignant when those eternal standards were violated. They subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time."

Put more simply, meaning is what should result as an ancillary benefit of a life grounded in a totally different, much more fixed force - morality -   asserts Brooks.  He concludes: “Real moral systems are based on a balance of intellectual rigor and aroused moral sentiments. Meaningfulness is a pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life.”

But I think Brooks misses something in his relatively black and white analysis, something he should have been taught when he was in Hebrew School growing up.  When it comes to this battle of meaning versus morality, from the Jewish vantage, there actually is no battle at all as the two forces not only navigate the same ground, but in fact, blend together so as to strengthen each other.  

Morality, living according to a set of culturally or communally agreed-upon principles about right and wrong, might actually prove a little less fixed than Brooks assumes. Sometimes we may not know what the absolute right or wrong thing to do is in a given situation, but we will still have moral foundations to serve as guidelines.  As an aside, this premise is the basis for the entire structure of the Talmud.   Morality, from a Jewish sense, establishes the ground upon which we navigate in the world, but if we lose the understanding that everything, every experience, every relationship, every act, every breath, is imbued with the potential for deep, impactful meaning in life, we diminish both in the process.  

As Rabbi Geoff Mittleman of Sinai and Synapsis puts it: Meaning is how we make sense of the world; ultimately, it is how we figure out what our lives and our world “mean.” So it is meaning that can help us discover how we can best bring our best gifts and talents to better not only our own lives, but our communities and our world.  And one of the great gifts of Judaism is the understanding that our ethical choices and grounding, our morality, is in and of itself a form of making meaning.  

Victor Frankel, the famous neurologist, psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of the masterwork “Man’s Search for Meaning,” recounted a life-changing decision. With his career on the rise and the threat of Third Reich looming, Frankl was granted a visa to America in 1941. Frankl knew that it would only be a matter of time before the Nazis came to take his parents away, and that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety.

Frankl was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan's Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, "Should I leave my parents behind?... Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?" Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a "hint from heaven."When he returned home, he found a piece of marble from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment from the 5th Commandment: honor your father and your mother. Frankl decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.  He later wrote about the relevance of the wisdom he derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering. "Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself -- be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself -- by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love -- the more human he is."*

Those who would choose to use violence and terror, those who murder in their perverted understanding of what they claim as their religion and their god, poison the moral good in society and prove nothing more than heathen idolators whose actions truly merit no meaning in the construct of our existence.  We, those unwittingly subjected to their crimes as witnesses, can choose whether or not we will permit the deaths of the innocent, the destruction of innocence, to fall into meaninglessness as well.  Victor Frankl so rightly said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  Our faith calls upon us not to be silent or complacent because the task is too daunting, not to accommodate oppression because it is easier that way, but rather because our lives and our world are filled with meaning and potential even in the darkest moments, to move forward with moral courage, clarity, and clear resolve.  In this week’s Torah portion, the Pharoah issued an edict of infanticide intended to destroy the future of the Jewish people, commanding the Hebrew midwives to kill all the Jewish male infants upon their birth, or risk their own execution.  The Torah tells us though that because, "the Hebrew midwives feared God, they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they caused the boys to live.”  A profound example of courage and defiance, morality and meaning.  Today too, we are called upon to make meaning out of the meaningless, and so we must act too to defy oppression in any form, to bring justice and healing to each other and our world.    

*As told in Victor Frank: A Life Worth Living by Anna Redsand

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