A “Meaningful Life” (what I’ve also called “RPOV – The Religious Point of View”) is the working title I have for an in-progress book on the religious point of view. It describes the worldview of strong religion, then makes claims for what is religious in secular human terms, the book also talks about religion in relation to time and visions of life (forward facing or backward looking).
For now I’ll inlcude the introduction below, and will post other chapters or outlines as I feel they’re ready for sharing and comments. Comments on this or existing books are always welcome. – Harvey
Intoduction To “A Meaningful Life”
What is a good life? What do we search for, look for; what quests does life pursue? How do we sustain: ourselves, others, meaningfully? Do we, can we confirm or create meaning, ensuring each next generation that life is deeply positive? Who; how?
These questions arise increasingly in this moment of history which is a coming together of the world’s peoples and ideas – the sustaining notions of teachings, foods, cures, and ways to think about these times and of any futures. But there is also a coming together of various histories which urge some different lessons, directions, and fears upon us; upon our understandings of the world and of our being.
For everyone, almost, the question of life seems primary. From the moment of birth, the involvement and investment in being in this moment, each next moment, in the near and far futures, is a dominant theme in our being. The infant – each of us – born, fed, moving, walking, talking, being…who and what we are. Amazing. To live a long life, to be happy, productive, to live well. Ah! Life is truly a gift.
It is also a question of mothers (and fathers). From the moment of birth – earlier: from the time of the imagination of a birth of a new being – the desire, the necessity to invest in another is as important as the quest for a good life for oneself. We do not ask the question without the presence of others in the very formulations of our being. Love: love one another; love life; ourselves…Where are we in this quest? Where are all the others who quest for us, who inspire us, please or displease us and our imaginations? Teach and inspire us? Love us, love one another, love life?
Hope, inspiration. Towards what do we live; how do we sustain ourselves and others with some sense of the positive, including the ongoing ability and willingness to get along with others…and with ourselves? How do we live today, plan for tomorrow and the next days, hoping that things will go as we wished? What do we do, can we do when things go wrong, not as we hoped, planned, desired? Tomorrow, or dwellings on hard times, the I who would have, might have, should have been?
What do we fear? For ourselves: sickness, the possibilities that things will go not as we hoped, they will go wrong, others will not do as we would, we would not do as others wished, as we wished…we would, could, should. That all of our ambitions, notions of being in any and every future will go differently than we had hoped. (How did we find our hopes?)
We fear natural disasters, the roof falling in, the tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, the failure of plumbing and the possibility that any comforts will diminish, disappear, and tragedies will overcome our being, our imaginations, and the possibility that we can comfort…ourselves, others, the world.
We fear that some others may find enemies in us, as us. Hatred, revenge, terror…the list goes on quite long, deep, and it may explode at any moment, when least we expected. Anarchy has reigned too often in the history of history, and the calm which a good government can create, can turn upon us. Or we can turn upon others, even upon ourselves…yearning for…
For others: sickness, death, burdens, disappointments, hurts, corrosions of the might have, would have, should have been…
For everyone, almost, the question of death hovers as a pendulum, moving in greater or lesser circles, vibrating in our feelings and observations. Life is a gift; life is a burden. Life is real; life an illusion. Life goes on; life ends precipitously. For some, death is present actually. Until recently, and continuing in poorer parts of the world, fewer than half of infants survive beyond the age of two: dysentery, infections, starvation are the obvious culprits. For others, death is present in our minds, occasionally or perpetually. Death, strength, fear. The pendulum grows longer; its source is obscure; its support more distant. But now it comes into our vision, growing in our minds, soaring in our imaginations.
Death! – always around, if not actively present. Panic, mere fear, not ready…yet. Oh, woe. Mourning for others, for the sense of life that goes on, merely, goes on…merely. Always be careful! Is it possible that we occasionally fear life, as well, in this charged and changing moment?
Life and death: opposition; complementary; a paradox? What, precisely, is a paradox?
Death is safe. Odd. Strange, to think that death is safe. It is long, forever…and a day. It reflects back upon existence, to note that the time of being can be very, very short; especially, particularly as viewed from the view of forever. Today, tomorrow, not much, nothing much counts as the days count themselves from this moment unto our deaths. Death is strong, safe as each day is precarious and tomorrow is…isn’t.
Death can be safe; it has no pain, no sickness; never fear, a certitude and a sense that whatever might occur, however we may act or be tempted or fail or be arrogant or any of the strengths or failings or tests of life’s presentiments and pressures, none of this much counts compared to the meanings we associate with, create for, think about the fact of our body not…being. Then, there is the story of Hell, in all its formations.
A good life::a good death. Death, taxes. Inevitable. Does the awareness of impending death help give life its range of meanings? Rob it of meaning? Which? When? Be careful, watch out for cars! Be competent. Be competent, but…and…Fantasies of death dance in my dreams, in my waking thoughts, wailing. Focus on life, on living; push death away, outside, anywhere else. Is there anywhere else? Is death a relief? Can it be a relief, a release from a sense of life which has gone on and on and on? How can we retire from worry? How can I get (back) to Heaven? Heaven only knows? Well? Soon? Never?
A good life? If we follow the thinking of certain ancient sages and continuing to these days – peculiar, perhaps, in the Christian calendar announcing the end of the 2nd millennium – we might worry lest we would not get “back to heaven.” Some ask: why are we here, and peer constantly into the infinite to confirm our own finiteness. Life? Meaning? Why: are we here? Death can overwhelm and reduce the living of life: going, going…gone. What meaning: life?
Sickness, debilitation; ourselves, close friends, families. Revolution, anarchy, tyranny. Much depends on what we have experienced, on our sense for the present being frail or fragile, a major turn around each next curve. Much depends on the social world in which we find ourselves; make ourselves…In times of reduced meaning (always, now, for some) the temptation floods being to look for answers, and to deny that the questions of life are also sustaining and infinitely opening into becoming sages in futurity.
When is life? A major controversy in these oddest of moments arguing about the nature of life, destiny, and meaning. For those whose ideas of life are inevitably entangled with death, the question looms differently from those whose notions of life are about the processes of being in the world…with others. The problem since at least the confessionings of Augustine of Hippo, are staged quite differently than those of us whose study of being is full of life, and life, itself. It is women who can and do ensure the future, literally; and for some, this is a mixed blessing.
When is life: for this line of thought which has appealed/appeals to so many, is that life, itself, is some kind of cosmic questioning, an error due principally to the failure of that woman, Eve. Tempted by the fears and uncertainties of the idea of a “life” which occurs after death – or which is some eternal within which life itself is a part, perhaps derived, perhaps an accident of the fates ��� life is being here on earth.
But this is a sense, a story about life: which is less than real, less than the experiences of living. Life is some sort of chimera, an illusion: the trick is to return to the forever-would-be, the Heaven which is our true being, our home with the deity, the creator, God. When is life? – is a very different sort of question for those who (would) seek eternity. The time of our actual being, on earth, breathing, with our mothers and fathers and all, is vague, unclear, often a kind of threat to itself.
In this sense of being, the question of when is life, outpaces the questions of what life is. The meaning of life, in this context, is primarily to return, to go back to the Heaven which is our true place and destiny. If not, then some opposite, a depiction of a Hell, or some indeterminate place where our soul, our seeming true being, is afloat, battered, bastioned by the tempers of whatever we may find frightening or threatening.
Here, life begins at conception: the problem of life is to return, to get whatever help, a baptism, to return to our rightful place: a destiny, a politics of being, at various odds with the sense of life which is breath, experience, relationship, looking forward and all around to explore who we are, and how to contrapose and balance all the senses of our being, and to continue to find meaning, to grow and expand even as we shrink into the gravity of our being.
Possibly the major question to ponder is: when does the battle for the definition of life move from life – itself – to the power of the fear of death to shape all of being?
Much of life, of being a person in the world of actors and counters in the schemes of things, is when each of us is or has a “self,������������� when we are able to think and do and make for ourselves. When is when we know enough to act, to begin to be some-one who can carry on the world with the others who do, as well. Our being grows, increases, as we are able to move and walk and talk and think and act in ways that our parents do and can, and enable us to do.
The answer to when is life, assumes that the infant can breathe on its own, has a kind of integrity and continuity of being, and then enters increasingly deeply into a loving relationship with some-one (its m/other), from which the child “emerges” to become its own self. When is life, involves and implies possibilities, but also the doings of a creature which is its own in this moment, toward the developing future. When is life is about being, but moves from its doings. Conception, yes, but without doing, there is little we can call being.
Optimism::pessimism. Entire cultures live in moments toward times which will be worse, better. At certain moments in our existences, we look forward, toward; at other times, glancing backward, better then, terror visited upon us, seeking only calm or peace. Does the future frame being;? Or do we look backward, toward some versions and visions of the past, to define our present? How did I/we get here? Where am I going? Where is there to go? Life a pleasure or a burden. Yes; and yes.
Do we live in the proverbial city upon the hill, or in some dero-gated neighborhood where no one would want to be, at least not for very long? Optimism: life will be long enough so that death would disappear as a concept/reality which frames life. Pessimism: life will be long, too long, no matter what is long. Suffering, death, frame many moments of thought, most days. The day is too long, too short, time flies, dis-appears. How to remain in each day, loving life…sufficiently?
Contrast with the Chinese proverb/curse: may you live in interesting times. Boredom is good, especially for those who are good at being bored. Bureaucrats in the making. For others, for some others, the excitement of what might be, drives one’s sense of being with a powerful motor. What might be? War, empire, anger, ambitions too large for any life to accommodate…A friend, a mate, a child, my parents, grand-to the generations. Difficult, exciting, moving. A friend, a mate: how to inspire one another and life?
A little change may be good, a bit at a time; large changes call for preparation. Change is exciting; full of anticipation; unknown…and dread may move in as change seems to say, “hurry, hurry/��� The question of change and permanence – we are who we are, but we are always moving on – creates a puzzle and a paradox whose power varies in each of our times, and with the times of history and destiny. Too much change, too fast, the technologies of this moment are…explosive. Slow down! Look back for better times, for inspiration, prophecy which will get us past this next…disappointment. What did we think we were…looking for? Stop time! And all our disappointments may diminish.
There are ways – apparent ways, at least – to stop change, or to shape and sometimes control it, disattend, deny change. Some of these seem to be as powerful as the idea of life, as life…itself. Heaven only knows. Only Heaven…knows, is. Life is but a dream? Row, row, row your boat. What goes around, comes around. Your turn. Row, row, row your boat. Life without change? Hmmm. Dream on!
Or maybe it’s as simple as the results from watching television: seeing images of people may make all people into images, merely. I? Where? When? I see, am seen. Who knows how I am; really, how I am? How far, what the distance from my vision, an image, to tele-vision, to the image being graven into our being? No wonder, never wonder why the ancient Jews banished the very idea of images, as they engrave themselves. Grave.
Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? I invented myself, didn’t I? Others told me who to be, who I couldn’t be, wasn’t to be; inspired me, held hope high enough to cause me always to look up toward the future. Hmm. Strange idea: time. Are the inspirers less inspired, less inspiring? Now? And then!
Sometimes in our living, we seem not to ask such questions, not to quest for meaning in our lives, to be somehow satisfied, to be able to put off or stash away, to postpone until a moment far, far in the future of being, such worries, dialogues with myself. How many selves am I? Which is the one which I am? What is a self…which sustains; or which might wreak vengeance on the quests for possibilities? Today, low. Tomorrow, a better day. The pendulum sways. And sways in odd and interesting ways.
Who gets what? Who deserves life, a good life? What is destiny; what is my destiny? Climb. Climb up the ladders of life�������s offerings, possibilities. Or, like Sisyphus, life is a continuous discovering that I am, in each now, at the bottom of the mountain. I need to climb each day, struggling to reach the top, to find only mere moments of almost rest as I tumble down, racing to recover, ready to struggle each next day. (Is the view on the ways up and down, the vision from the mountain, enlightening?)
What is meaning; what the meaning in life? Too many questions floating around my mind’s eyes looking outward, facing inward. How do I find and preserve meaning, or help provide the possibilities of a meaningful life to others? If I sense a loss or diminution of meaning of life or toward the future, what can I do to rethink and reconsider. Hear me, listen to me. I love you, my self. Be worthy! Promise me. I’d like to get through just this day; just this day, well. And sleep, calm, safe, to wake anew moving forward. Up, rise.
The earth. Our home has been made more and more removed, remote; going, going from our thinking about being, pushed and planned into the future of the next generations; going forward. The earth: our Mother. Who are we, then, when the earth retreats, when we move from every moment�����s awareness toward a less caring caring? The earth? Home? Meaning in life needs a home. The home shelters being.
All these seem such basic questions, hardly the stuff which enters our thinking too often in the sustenance of daily life. Yet they seem to be arising in much of the world just now, as many of the world’s peoples seem to be moving from the more ordinary to the very edges of being. Witness the increase in what are often called religious fundamentalisms, movement to what seem like extremes of ideas and life forces. And they are attracting, then captivating many of the world’s peoples. Why? Why now?
This is true, particularly within the religious traditions which flow from the thought of the West: beginning from Judaism, flowing to Christianity, thence to Islam in the orders of history. We are dealing with some senses of urgency that history might provide clues to our deepest questionings. Go back; return to the heavy hitters, the thinkers who had the genius to…tell us how it was, is, to be…became prophets in the retellings of their thoughts. Search the texts, the books which tell us how the prophets were, and what they said, and how they thought���at least how we might understand them in the present. Nice to have such good company in the loneliness of a future whose sense is no longer being written in our hearts. The past is today: today is already…past?
The present? Do times change? Life, yes. Death, apparently not, or not much. But there are stories in the world of religions which talk about Heaven and Hell and places between or around, which frame life and how we think we are and are to be, to judge, to be judged. The major paradox of the West: change vs. permanence. Raised conceptually to the level of which is the true reality, we can calculate all of being in quite narrow dimensions. Life: a gift? Or…Eve’s fault? Eve’s grace-iousness? Mother…of…now and what is to be?
Grasp their being, as well, the ancient sages who were trying to think about the human condition, to figure out how we are, and are meant to be. The idea people, the Plato, the Aristotle, the Sages and Saints who formulated their ideas and turned them into practical and practicing truths for the unforeseeable future. Rising just now, as we balk at the enormity of the present changing so much, so fast, that it is difficult to see each day, fresh. Change so much, so fast feels for the world like chaos, life a peril. No time, to…Time too fast turns us to the sense of chaos – and permanence beckons.
Yet, this is now; this is the moment of the present…or so it seems, as the quest for meaning often seems to place ourselves outside our time and being. The question of the time of our being, of history, and futurity is up for debate, if not debacle. Stay in the present, hope toward the future, a mode where we count each day toward the next and the next: life inspired by the living. Each new generation, generating the idea and reality of the future become each present. Or return somehow to certain inspirers of the past; prophets who can seem to grow and grow in our thoughts. Genius was, genius no longer is. Greatness, power, the present is diminished, the future can only be a story…the present is becoming more and more, a story. Life, more imagined than lived? More imagination than a life. My self: where are you…going?
The past, the prophets, we should (should we?) believe in them. But what does that do to the present in which we live; in which life occurs, presents itself. Tomorrow is a new day. Each life begins anew. Or…
Or trust in the past, in the prophets. Make this day, which seems changing, smaller. Diminish it, lessen life as a burden. The old guys were smart, geniuses, inspired by ideas outside of our being; larger than life. God…willing! The present isn’t much, is nothing unless I do what is right, as I am told. The present moves; the past seems infinite. Thinking…creates problems, trouble.
So it seems. This set of writings, of thoughts, pensees, aphoristic peregrinations and flailings, wonders about all of these questionings. It notes that we have been in a period of thought which has focused much on the ideas which flowed from the Enlightenment: science, reason and rationality, a sense of social progress which we could explore thoughtfully and apply directly. Life begins at birth, and our destinies are open: to experience, teaching, to finding our own ways. Our mothers devote years to the weaning of our being, so far beyond the act of giving birth, so incalculable that we make it into each new ordinary, and hardly note it. But with their acts and inspiration, we humans can think out the world and ourselves, understand it, make it better. A question about the human. What are we? How do we find out, decide? The central questions toward meaning?
Better things for better living, and we will all live longer and longer. Recent and current technological changes and increases in longevity have been truly amazing. And such periods of change are often responded to in reaction, within some framework that too much change equals some kinds of chaos and displacement from what was and what seemed to be clear; and no longer is.
This period of history which is just a bit longer than the history of America, has grasped the idea of progress as necessary and obvious. It has directed us (perhaps this is the gist of a great irony) toward some sense that the world is moving on into an increasingly predictable sense of the future. Yet in the midst of this sense of progress which urges us on into the future, there has been much conflict; wars without peer or comparison in the histories of humankind. The century of the greatest conflicts in history, products of this period of rationality, so-called. Usually they developed out of some sense of how humans are, really. Really, they did: a communistic notion that we are all the same and we can run the world…together; a Nazi theory that some of us are destined by nature to be superior to everyone…else. Old ideas, captured by politically ambitious men(!), translated into the necessity of being right, and making the world in their image. So ironic; the golden rule turns us leaden.
Some thinkers, at least – mostly Europeans who were caught in the moments of WWII, and found their earlier upbringing turned fully upon its head – think that the outcomes of this history, the thinking, the sense of economic and political ideas which have been driving it, are responsible, at least directly implicated in the wars and destruction. They have proclaimed the eclipse of reason, the death of capitalism – the ideas that we could determine in advance where we are going, and where there is to go. Meaning? Who would, who could know? Knowing, gnawing, having no sense of direction. There is no sense, no meaning, only politics. Some truth, here, for sure. Others drive us back to prophets: their words got us here, didn’t they!? The truths of what was, can, must be, the truths of now, no matter what time and change and ideas and things have changed the world, and, most especially, our thinking. Change or permanence::reality vs. illusion…in both orders; disordered.
The ideas of progress, of prediction, the sense of control of the very ideas of the future seem sometimes overwhelming. They often seem to make their own successes excessive, wrong, questionable. Without progress, minus prediction, on the other hand, the question of the present moment, the idea of the future, diminish, dim; and we shrink with them, looking backward to find the real…men, or beings who are beyond actual being. Actual being?
Worse, perhaps, this entire enterprise, this sense of prescience has often neglected the necessities of each of us and all of us to create an ongoing sense of meaning in our lives. Meaning to say who and what and why we are, and to reflect what we do…and why. And whence tomorrow, and the next day, and…?
Our current sense of being and history neglects, avoids the questions which have driven many of the ideas which have gotten us here. Meaning, in the large, the sense of prediction inferred from the rational and logical study of the world’s issues from largest to smallest, neglect the seemingly simple but ultimate questions of life and death: why are we, where are we going, what meaning to my life as death will inevitably take me from all that is? Fame, hero to my life? Bah!
These are questions which have pervaded, inspired, and haunted the quests of Christianity and Islam from their inception in the stories flowing from the sketches of the life and thinking of Christ who died and was resurrected. These are questions which seemingly remain remote in the excitement of the theories of life and being which have flowed from the ideas of science and its task to describe the world: the idea of nature being outside of us, in some deep and essential ways. The God of the Qur’an is the God of the day of Judgment, it says in the Introduction. Death rules…Life? Being as politics?
In these traditions, death is not Death, not death merely, but a solution to the fears of death, to the problem of death and life. Life is but a dream…Death is what is real. To be with the deity in Heaven is, was, will be our destiny. Life’s quest: to return to Heaven? But what about today? How will we breathe into each tomorrow? Ah, with joy?
Within all this thinking, questioning, questing for the nature of the world, the locus of the human, of you and me, has received much study. We have created forms of medical treatment and insight which are truly remarkable in so many senses: conquering many illnesses, surgical interventions, the list is long and growing every day. The pill, sex without any sense of procreation. Whoever heard of such a thing? Did any of the prophets foresee…the pill? Should we invoke the ten commandments and demand that television be banned as a graven image? Reality fades into images, fades into chimeras.
We have created a vast and growing technology which is, most probably, as large and powerful in shaping our lives and the world, as any in history: the pill, transportation, the conception of space travel looking back at the world and making it seem graspable in any instant, television, computers, internet, bio-tech engineered foods, robotics, nanotechnology; work is service. Change, change, growing. But on the downside, the ability to destroy by weapons, chemicals, and biology. And where are we, merely living in the midst of all this…change? Terror?
We have physical, but also social theories and practices which seem to describe the world in depth and with a sense of knowledge that seems, at least, to promise concepts like the development of the entire world. We have, in many senses, created a model of being, a therapeutic, and necessity.
We can easily focus on the sense of the one, of who I am, and neglect the notion of the many: of community, of belongings, of the very ideas of something larger than I or we: the idea of the nation, the conception of a Heaven and places outside of our being in which we (also) reside. And in the world-changes currently occurring, there is a sense, sometimes grand, other times haunting, that my own existence falls beneath the larger sense. On the other side, the possibility that I exist mainly within the larger ideas, often leaves me puzzling. Me/she, family, teachers, history, who and where am I? I am a Teacher: I inspire the future!?
Somewhere, somehow in this thinking, there is also a sense of nature which exists, mostly outside of us. The question of the human, of where we fit into nature – or if we do – remains odd and somewhat obscure. Much of science – of what we call and calls itself science – places the human outside of our actual, experienced being. We are parts of nature, aspects of the world outside us. And how we are, what meaning means to us, all these questions of our individual or personal experience, remain in some places which are difficult to locate. The brain is us? My brain will die? So what? So?
Or we cannot find ourselves, or our questions about destiny. In all of this burgeoning knowledge, the question of who I am, to be, the sense of meaning which sustains me, in terms of which I judge others and myself, of all the virtues and vices and temptations to which I and we are susceptible; all of these are hard to locate. Who I am, what should I do, what is knowledge, what is the human…? Where am I going? Why, why… why?
In all of this flight and rise of knowledge about the world and the human which can predict and tell us about being now and in the future, there has grown some sense that what we are being told is not the entire story, the whole truth. Or it is merely one story which might apply sometimes. But there are other stories; there need to be, or there must be. Perhaps the big story, the gathering story is about the idea of what is real. Nature? Human…nature? How we/I think about being? Other stories? Reality? Life: a dream? Heaven only knows! Sacralize the world. Be amazed by my being, by all of being. Life has been underrated; too cheap. Be amazed! Breathe���deeply; now, again…
Into this moment of a vastness of knowledge and change beyond anyone’s ability to know, comes a sense of wonderment, of doubt that the quest for nature and prediction will reveal much of what it is that we call meaning. From this moment, flows the sense that the direction of time, the ideas of movement and change needs some location or place, some anchors which will solidify our being.
How are we humans different from other species? Where do we locate our deepest or most essential meaning? Are we in nature – in part – and outside of nature – in other parts of our being? Or, for some thinkers, does our reality exist separately and independently from nature? How do these wonderments flow in our thinking and being?
From a history which has wandered into many paradoxes, the question of change and permanence has focused much of thought. Whatever is Western thought has concentrated a great deal on what is the permanent in our lives: our bodies change, thus that cannnot frame the reality of our being. What is real is something about our minds, spirits, or souls. We are in the midst of a great argument, it seems, about the very nature of reality. Life? – or Death? Life as an aspect of death? Who will win? And what is winning?
Gather from the 19th century perorations of Friedrich Nietzsche who noted that for many persons, the idea, belief in and of a superhuman deity, of God, was dead. Most thinkers had thought that the yielding of such a strong belief would merely land us in a land of reason-ableness. But Nietzsche thought: No! It would go beyond that, picking up steam as we would move from a skepticism about our own reasons and reasonings, turn toward the cynical, and land in the unplaces of nihilism; a destruction of all of belief, knowing…being. This could not hold. And we would bounce back to the search for clear and discernable places of meaning. A renewal of the idea of the deity?
How then, with whom do we explore the permanence of our being? Enter the prophets. Rather, re-enter prophecy to help us explore meaning, and help us locate where we are…truly. Truly!
These are the contexts of this work which attempts to explore aspects of our being and thinking, as they arise in our experience and wonderings about the meaning of existence, leading to prediction about the nature of the future. Or do we return to texts and the prophets of old or long ago to tell us what and who to be in this or any moment? How does this shape experience in the present…and the future? Where ��� is there?– a sense of genius, of the possibility of the prophetic in each of us which can inspire hope and the very idea of futurity? How might any of us (all of us) pursue wisdom in this moment, that there will be a next…and a next���and…?