The Gospel of Meaning (July 2006)

July 2006



One thing that is often said about young people today – as well some not so young – is that they are obsessively driven to find ways of escaping the dreariness of their lives.

In part, this explains the popularity of extreme sports and the relentless pursuit of ever more shocking sensations. Some of these activities seem innocuous on the surface, such as some life-style choices or forms of entertainment.

Others are bolder in their claims to satisfy the agitation that inhabits vulnerable people. Among these we find violent video games, ever more perverse pornography and the slippery slide of substance abuse.

Many of us have come to call the phenomenon that lays behind such trends a crisis in meaning. We refer to emptiness that prompts a person to seek anything to fill this void and to take away the pain of it.

Having discarded traditional systems of meaning, whether religious or not, lost souls desperately grasp at straws in the hope that the latest thrill will suffice. Sadly, if it does provide relief, and often it does not, the feeling that momentarily appears as solace soon vanishes, only to be replaced by a deeper and more painful emptiness.

Last year, I read a book that amazed me. It’s called Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, Victor Frankl speaks of his experience in the bestial and terrifying conditions of Auschwitz during the last world war.

Frankl’s perspective is fascinating because he was a psychiatrist. From that vantage point, he observed how people who survived the horrors of this dreadful concentration camp did so principally on the basis of the meaning that they could find in their absurd experience. Those whose system for creating meaning was inadequate would sooner or later lose hope and then loose strength.

Typically, they were killed because, under the crushing weight of despair, they could no longer work productively in the utterly dehumanizing circumstances of so brutal a slavery.

Obviously, the crippling reality of confinement with no relief imaginable is a deep sense of loss – loss of freedom, loss of loved ones, and loss of control. Much of what we do is motivated by the anguish of loss or the fear of it. So often, we feel that we are alone …and the loneliness feels to us like an unbearable burden.

We need not feel that way because God is with us as he promised he would be. Moreover, he is present in those that he sends — provided we have the wisdom to welcome them. But they are not always the ones that we seek. Indeed, often we look for peace in all the wrong places.

In ministry, Psalm 23 is used to comfort those afflicted by suffering of many kinds. As familiar as it is, however, it never ceases to amaze me what richness is still locked undiscovered inside those powerful verses.
In particular, I often wonder about this one, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.” Each time, I come away with a different understanding of what is meant by God’s rod and staff. And it is good that I would do that. Scripture’s power lies to a degree at least in its capacity to speak to a particular person at a particular stage of his or her life and about a particular set of circumstances.

Indeed, despair comes from loss of meaning, not from difficulties. Difficulties may challenge us but they cannot destroy us; only lack of meaning can do that. The Apostle Paul is a great witness to this fact. He wrote to the Corinthians, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Cor.4: 7-10)

The rod and staff referred to in Psalm 23 can be understood as the wisdom and power of God, which is ours if we find our meaning in his teaching.

Mark’s gospel is the shortest and perhaps the pithiest of all. In it, we find the account of a great crowd hurrying to on foot from all the towns around where he was just to hear him teach.

We are told that “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” (6: 34) From this, I conclude that man’s search for meaning is a perennial pursuit and that the need for it drives men to agitation.

A mature response is to seek satisfaction in wholesome things; on the other hand, an immature response is to bite at a worthless lure glittering in the sunlight, as a lamentably stupid fish would.

Jesus demonstrated the meaning and purpose of the human experience both by teaching and example. In so doing, he satisfied man’s profound hunger for understanding, as he still does today.

Loss of meaning in our society appears in many forms. Among these are depression, suicide and violence among young people.

The suicide death rate for teenagers increased four-fold between 1960 and 1991. (These numbers are a bit dated but indicate a problem that is still apparent in our society.) In 1990, suicide was the second leading cause of death for both teenage men and women.

The situation is much worse among First Nation teens. We have taken away the stories that gave meaning to the lives of their ancestors and despair has risen in the wake of this assault on their culture.

The presence of gangs too is an indicator of a loss of meaning. Young people search desperately to belong to a system that gives meaning to what appears to them as an absurd world.

Today’s youth are not the first or the last to struggle to find meaning among the ruins of shattered dreams. Throughout history there have been such times, usually when one era ends and before another begins. We have evidence of this in Jesus’ time.

Great crowds followed Jesus in the hope of hearing something that would make sense of oppressed and brutal lives. The trouble is that grabbing hold of the meaning that he offered meant letting go of the ways of this world. Most turned away, looking for an easier path. Some were wise enough to realize that no other path would do.

Saint Peter was one such person. Seeing the fear that gripped his disciples in his final days, Jesus bade them to leave freely if they preferred to go another way. Peter spoke for all of us, I think, when he replied, as we read in John’s Gospel (6: 68) “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Indeed, we know Jesus’ teaching to be true because they are the only words that make sense of this crazy world of ours.

If this is so, the people who really need to hear the Gospel are the ones who have lost faith in its relevance. They are the people struggling to find a purpose for their lives, to find kindness in a selfish world; gentleness in an aggressive society; community in a lonely city; and hope in a morbid culture.

We must thank God for faith and the hope that it gives. Without it, how could we love in the midst of hatred? How could we go on reaching out to address irascible problems – poverty that never ends? Without hope, there cannot be life.

The life that Jesus teaches has meaning, deep meaning. To understand what Jesus means by life we must come to understand what he means by love. Contrast his teaching with all the shallow ways in which our world uses that word. Then ask, who else has the words of a meaningful life?

Faith gives meaning and meaning gives hope. In the words of Vaclav Havel, playwright and statesman, “Hope is not the conviction that something turns out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”