A few months ago Rev Jane Barraclough asked me to lead the Wednesday lunchtime service at Cross Street Chapel. I was delighted to be asked to do this and duly agreed to do so. Seemingly no meaning there and then last weekend it dawned on me that it was exactly seven years ago to the day that I had first entered Cross street chapel on a cold Wednesday lunchtime. Just a beautiful bit of synchronicity, or at least I saw it that way.
It was a wonderful and wonder filled day that seemed so rich in meaning. I loved listening to the little conversations on the tram on my way to Manchester. I enjoyed my walk around the city, watching all the people going about their business. I felt so connected, so in harmony with what was going on. Every snippet of conversation I overheard seemed to be addressed directly to me.
After the service I met a friend for coffee and shared what I’d been experiencing. I told her how I felt so excited and alive and that I seemed to be seeing meaning in everything. She looked at me and said “really, I see little meaning in anything; I’m pretty much sceptical about everything.” It made me pause and it also reminded me of the man I was not long before I began my Unitarian adventure. I could find no meaning in anything; I was pretty much sceptical about everything.
The conversation has been on my mind ever since. I saw no meaning because I was asleep to meaning it would seem. I was suffering from a kind of colour blindness and tone deafness. Something inside was locked in and therefore I could not experience all that I can today and as a result I denied the possibility that there could be a deeper richer meaning. My rational reflection on my experiences back then revealed nothingness and yet my rational reflection, on my current experiences, reveal a life that is rich in meaning. I hear music where I could not before; I see a myriad of colour that in the past was only grey; I experience that under lying meaning that was just an empty void in the past.
But what is meaning? And can it be discovered in what many see as the emptiness of life?
When I think of meaning and our search for it, Viktor Frankl immediately springs to mind.
In “Man’s Search For Meaning” Frankl gives an account of his struggle to find meaning when held as a prisoner in the Nazi death camps of the second world war. He lost most of his family and friends in the camps and yet he never lost hope in humanity.
Frankl was the founder of what has often been referred to as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy” Freud founded the first which was based on the central role of the libido or pleasure principle in human psychology. Alfred Adler founded the second which emphasised the importance of the will to power and the significance of the superiority/inferiority complex in human behaviour. In contrast to these two schools Frankl’s psychology is based on the will to meaning which he saw as the primary motivating force in human life. He named it “Logotherapy” taken from the Greek term logos, which means “word”, “reason”, or “meaning”. Think of the opening words from John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” The word here of course is “Logos”. There is an implication here that meaning has a transcendent origin.
Frankl saw a spiritual dimension beyond the biological and psychological. He saw the suppression of this as the root cause of our human malady. Therefore the task of “Logotherapy” was “to remind patients of their unconscious religiousness” and to uncover the spiritual dimensions of their lives and enable them to recover the capacity to choose those values which give our lives worth and meaning.
Now this meaning is of course different for everyone. As Frankl said himself:
“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”
Frankl claimed that meaning is discovered through creative and worthwhile activites, by creating something beautiful or doing good – I believe that one of the greatest sadness’s of our age is the fact that the phrase “do-gooder” has become a term of mockery, that it is somehow seen as wrong and suspicious to do good - Meaning can be found through experiencing and sharing in the beauty of art or nature or through loving or ethical encounters with others.
Even in the most horrific and terrifyingly hopeless situations we still have the capacity to choose our attitude towards whatever circumstances we are faced with. It is our response to life’s events that shapes our souls. Remember Frankl developed his theory during the utter despair and horror of the Nazi death camps. As Frankl himself 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.”
I witnessed a wonderful example of this on Sunday night. I went to see the performance poet “Rodney Chris Paradox” he really is worth checking out. During the night he delivered a song poem entitled “Mr Pain”, which is essentially about him dealing with the suffering he experienced while losing a limb. Before he began he explained that he’d been on a journey throughout the world in search of meaning, his life had become empty. The journey ended in Mexico where he had an accident which led to him having half a leg amputated. From this grew the story “Mr Pain”.
The poem describes how he had developed immunity to pain killers. He is assigned a “pain team” who try every form of western medicine to fight off the excruciating agony, every attempt failed. He then called upon all he had learnt from all the eastern traditions, which again failed. Finally he screams out to God and enters the emptiness. Here in this place of nothingness he surrenders to the pain and accepts his lot and from here the pain no longer seems to matter. By surrendering to it, it lost its power.
Everyone suffers pain in their lives and often there seems no justifiable reason for it. It just seems so unfair. I believe the mistake that we make is that we look for reasons in the past instead of making reasons out of what has happened. You see by remaining locked in the past we isolate ourselves, we say look this is my suffering and pain and we seek out someone to blame. What we ought to doing is understanding that we all share pain in life, it’s a part of existence and seeing what we can give back to life from our shared experience. I have discovered by doing so meaning begins to burst out of the seeming nothingness.
None of us gets to choose our pain and suffering and none of us can avoid it. That said we can choose how we respond to it and pass those lessons on to one another. No one can take that away from us. It is perhaps our one and only true freedom. How we respond to life’s circumstances.
I discovered that the real meaning in life emerges by trying to help others find meaning in their lives. Do you know what ever since this discovery life has become so rich in meaning. These days I see meaning in everything.
Remember “there’s no turning back because we are in this together all the way."