“The most important challenge is not learning how to live after death. It’s learning how to live after birth.” Steven Carr Reuben
Cats don’t ponder it. Elephants don’t wonder about it. People, however, fret it about it. Why are we here? What are we to do with our lives? We ask these questions of life in general, and of our lives in particular. We do not live by instinct. We live with questions.
And it is through asking certain questions that we can arrive at AN answer. It will be AN answer (not THE ANSWER) because we differ from one another in skills, temperament, interests and backgrounds. Yet, the search for an answer unites us as human beings.
Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote the classic text on this search, Man’s Search for Meaning. Dr. Frankl said that we do not decide the meaning of our life. Rather, we discover it.
“We discover meaning in life,” he writes, “by doing a deed; by experiencing a value; and by suffering.” These three are not indivisible. In fact, they often coincide.
A Life of Meaning
Consider the story of Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, an extraordinary leader who passed away a few years ago.
He was the President of Hebrew Union College, a Jewish seminary, for 25 years. Dr. Gottschalk told the story of how he grew up in Oberwessel, a small German town. He was eight years old when Nazi storm troopers burst into his school room and shouted for the Jewish students to leave.
Soon thereafter came Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Synagogues were destroyed and Torah scrolls burned.
The next morning, Dr. Gottschalk’s grandfather took him to the stream behind their desecrated synagogue to retrieve the torn fragments of the congregation’s Torah scroll. “Alfred,” his grandfather said, “Someday, you will put the pieces back together.”
In that moment, an eight-year-old boy found his purpose. He transformed an experience of suffering to a life of deeds grounded in service. (I am grateful to Rabbi Richard Block from whom I heard the story of Gottschalk’s life)
A Dream Not Yet Realized
We do not always need to suffer, as Gottschalk did, to find meaning. But we do need a yearning, an unfulfilled desire, a dream not yet achieved.
A story is told of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, the leader of a famed 19th century seminary. As a boy he was an indifferent student. One day he decided to abandon his studies and enter a trade school. He announced the decision to his parents, who reluctantly acquiesced.
That night the young man had a dream. In it an angel held a stack of beautiful books. Whose books are those, he asked. “They are yours,” the angel replied, “if you have the courage to write them.” That night changed the young man’s life. Reb Chayim was one the way to discovering who he was meant to become.
The meaning of our life is not waiting to be found. It is created by what we do.