On the Corner

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By Robert Docter –

Have you ever noticed how many people there are who spend most of their time chasing the wind? Like those the teacher describes in Ecclesiastes, they struggle to assign some kind of meaning to life.

“What’s it all about, Alfie?” they ask. “Why are we here?”

These are unsettling questions we have all asked ourselves at one time or another. After all, we are meaning-seeking creatures. We simply must know the meaning of things in our life. If we are confronted with random stimuli, like dots on wallpaper or tile on a floor, we organize our perceptions until we are able to give them some kind of meaning. We keep trying to see the patterns in things–to organize events, information and ideas. Sometimes we do this to people and it leads to stereotyping. If, for some reason, we have difficulty fitting things into some kind of explanatory framework we feel tense, annoyed, dissatisfied. The situation sticks in our mind and we wrestle with it, gnaw on it, and can’t forget it.

We want to give our perceptions of the situation some kind of meaning. Finding the pattern allows us to label the event. Our anxiety is reduced. The tension diminishes, and comfort returns. All because we’ve made “sense” of something. We’ve been able to discover meaning.

We don’t have much trouble assigning meaning to concrete objects–we can touch, feel, smell, taste them. But the difficult meanings are those related to abstract ideas. For instance–what is the meaning of the term democracy–the foundational concept of our culture? What is the meaning of the term marriage? These are much more difficult for us.

With the establishment of common meanings a group of people can exist together, design rules, differentiate right action from wrong action, and determine what is desirable and undesirable. When this happens, we get values.

So–what is the meaning of life?

This is a cosmic question that involves everyone. It can only be answered in spiritual terms. There is no meaning in life without some sense of spirituality. Of equal importance is a microcosmic question–what is the meaning of my life? We cannot separate these questions, but, paradoxically, they must be explored independently.

To explore the latter question we are required to immerse ourselves fully in the stream of life. We must engage it. Life is not lived on the shoreline. The race is not won in the grandstands. To discover the meaning of my life, I must commit to action–I must make the leap of faith.

Exploration of historical figures whom others believed had established positive meaning in their lives revealed some common characteristics. These people were altruistic–giving to others without the expectation of anything in return. They were dedicated to a cause which they believed important and which involved others. They were creative and willing to express their creativity at great risk. They were able to find pleasure–they didn’t spend all their time working. They had self actualized –achieved their potential, but most of all, they had transcended self. When the theologian Martin Buber was asked: “What is the meaning of life?” he replied: “Not for my own sake.”

The teacher in Ecclesiastes helps us examine the cosmic question. He wrote:“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter. Fear God and keep his commandments.”

As Christians we believe that God revealed himself to us through his Son, Jesus. He gave us a concrete representation himself so we could give him meaning, and in the process, find meaning both for our own lives and for the meaning of life. The simplicity of the directive makes it difficult for us to grasp, but that’s where meaning is found.

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