Truths You Can Use

Truths You Can Use

How to Discover the Meaning of Your Life

“The most important challenge is not learning how to live after death. It’s learning how to live after birth.” Steven Carr Reuben

meaning of life

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.

Discovery

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.

Is Work-Life Balance Really Possible?

Even though I’m only 33, I know that people today work harder than ever. During my childhood, my dad had a highly-professional job and still made it home by 5:00 pm. Today my own life and those of my friends and congregants suggest that this is a rare occurrence.

Has technology simply meant that we work more? Has globalization meant we are competing with the world? Yes and yes. Does that mean that finding a true balance between working and living is impossible? No.

Looking at the life of one of history’s busiest and most successful figures, we can find a framework and tips for doing so. That figure is Moses. Consider his successes and his failures.

Successes:

1. Led Israelites out of Egypt

2. Received 10 Commandments

3. Taught the Torah to the entire people

Failures:

1. Paid little attention to his wife and kids

2. Got impatient when people did not to live up to his standards

3. Lost his temper with his boss (God)

As is often the case, we can learn more from his failures. What can we learn?

1. Integrate Life and Work More Closely: Aside from his siblings, the only family member Moses let into his work life was his father-in-law Jethro. Rather than send his wife and children off to live in Midian while he led the Israelites across the wilderness, Moses could have made them part of the journey. We can let our kids know about our work and feel part of what we are doing.

2. Respect Other People’s Priorities: Moses responded to the death of his brother Aaron’s sons by stating simply that God has His reasons for what happened. Rather than dwell on this loss, he needs to focus now on achieving the mission God had assigned them. Aaron responds to Moses with silence. The implication was that Moses’ words did not bring comfort. While Moses could focus solely on continuing their mission of reaching the Promised Land, Aaron needed to mourn for his children. Moses did not grasp Aaron’s concerns.

3. Keep Perspective: Our work can feel all-consuming. We can begin to think the our whole lives rest on the next decision we make or meeting we attend. 99% of the time, it does not.

Rabbi Larry Kushner writes of his friend, an Episcopal Minister, who threw away every piece of paper on his desk at the end of every month. “What about the important ones?” Kushner asked him. “Not to worry,” he explained. “If it’s important, it’ll come back.” We need not adopt this exact practice to recognize that every single piece of paper does not require urgent attention.

Work and life can never be completely in balance. As we grow and change, our priorities and needs shift. What does not change is our need for meaning. We seek meaning in our work and our families. To be in balance is to express our best selves and find deep satisfaction in them both.

Have You Declared Your Interdependence?

Which is the more American holiday–Thanksgiving or July 4th? I used to say July 4th. America is about independence. It is about the free spirit of adventure and progress that built our country.
interdependence dayMy view hasn’t changed. Yet, my understanding of July 4th has. Today we do not only celebrate independence. We need also, if we are to be true to history and to the way life works, recognize our interdependence.

No matter how successful, how intelligent, or how powerful we are–we depend on others. Albert Einstein put it well when he said, “A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of others, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have been received and am receiving.”

We Depend on Others Every Day

Think of when we turn on the water faucet. To get that glass of water, we depend on plumbers, chemists, engineers, upon the manufacturers of pipes and spigots, and also on the people who build the reservoirs, water meters and generators.

One of the great achievements of the environmental movement is that it has helped make us more aware of the ethical and global implication of the work that goes into producing the food we eat, the coffee we drink and clothes we buy. We depend on others, and with that dependence comes a sense of responsibility.

Every Room Needs a Window

An obscure Jewish law teaches this truth. Any room in which people gather for prayer must have a window. We are not permitted to isolate ourselves from the world around us.

Technology today makes us ever more interconnected. Yet, it also gives us ways to escape into our own worlds. Perhaps it’s time to declare our spiritual independence. We do not need devices and distractions to entertain us all the time. We need hope. We need dignity. We need one another.

Are There Atheists in Foxholes?

A young disciple once asked his rabbi: “Do you believe God created everything for a purpose?” “Of course,” the rabbi answered.

“Then why,” the student asked, “did God create atheists?”

The rabbi paused and stroked his beard. He then spoke softly and intensely. “Sometimes we who believe, believe too much. We see the cruelty, the suffering, the injustice in the world and we say: ‘This is the will of God.’ We accept what we should not accept.”

“That is when God sends us atheists to remind us that what passes for religion is not always religion. Sometimes what we accept in the name of God is what we should be fighting against in the name of God.” (This teaching is attributed to a variety of sages, including Jonathan Sacks and Rav Kook)

Avoiding Self-Righteousness

What a powerful answer. Atheists challenge what the faithful often take for granted. They prevent us from giving easy answers to important challenges.

In an age of soundbites and talking points, we need such serious and courageous conversations. Doubt, as Paul Tillich pointed out, is not the opposite of faith. It is an element of faith. Doubt makes faith meaningful. If we welcome it with open hearts and open minds, we help stop righteousness from becoming self-righteousness.

 

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