Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Step in the Right Direction

A buddy of mine and I were having a conversation about the lack of meaning we had both experienced in the military life. After I had told him about Viktor Frankl he said, "That is very interesting. So you are saying that everyone is really trying to find meaning in life."


"Now some people would say that simply searching for that meaning is what really matters," he went on. "That whether or not you find that meaning doesn't make a difference as long as you are searching for it. That is reason enough in itself. What would you say about that?"

I thought for a bit. "I don't think that can be right," I answered.

"I don't necessarily agree with these people. I am just pointing out that some people believe that and asking what you think."

"I think that that is partially true. It is a falsehood based on a partial grasp of something that really is going on. They are grasping that they need to search for some meaning in life, but to say that it doesn't matter whether they find it or not is nonsense. The only reason for searching for something is in order to find it. If it is unfindable, or if it simply does not exist, then what on earth is the point of searching for it?

You see, this meaning is not something arbitrary and personal. You cannot simply decide, 'Well, I am just going to say that stamp collecting is the meaning of life,' and be satisfied with that. Meaning is not something we create, it is something we discover, or fail to discover.

The people who hold to that belief are not completely wrong. In fact, they are on the right track, so far as they have gone. They have half the truth. They have grasped the fact that we are missing something, and the awareness of this loss is a step in the right direction..."

At this point we side-tracked to a short discussion of semantics. He submitted that "lack" was a better word than "loss," since "loss" implies possession at some point in the past, whereas it seems pretty clear that the person has never possessed this "objective meaning." I accepted his correction since I realized that I had unconsciously been drifting towards a collective loss, the Original Sin of Catholic theology, which was not really our topic.

"All right then, so they have come to feel this sense of something lacking, which is a step in the right direction. But that is not enough. Being aware of a lack all day long will not bring you one whit closer to filling it. Remember, it isn't an illusion, it is an actual objective lack of something that we really, desperately need.

Think about it like this. Suppose there is someone who is anorexic. For whatever reason she simply does not eat, and she is wasting away. For her to feel hungry is a good thing, even though it may be less comfortable than simply not having an appetite. It means she is becoming aware that she is missing calories. However, no amount of hunger will do anything towards putting actual calories into her stomach. For that she will need to act upon her hunger and find some real food and eat it."

He nodded. "Hmmm. Interesting. Well, you have a good weekend."

"You too," I answered. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

An Insufficient Why, Part II

The funny thing about conversation is that it has a way of bringing to the fore and making articulate ideas that were perhaps there, in your mind somewhere, but which were hidden. Perhaps they were active as motivations of actions, as half understood feelings or prejudices, or just as a gut reaction to something, but when you talk about them with someone else, and answer someone else' question, they have a tendency to take shape in quite surprising ways.

The conversation with P was somewhat like this. I have been pondering Viktor Frankl's book, "Man's Search for Meaning," for several years now, especially his dictum, borrowed from Frederick Nietzche, "A man can endure almost any 'how', so long as he has a sufficient 'why'." It seemed self-evident to me at the time, since I was going through the Special Forces 'Q' course. It was not easy, but I endured it because I had a sufficient 'why.' At least it seemed to me that I had a sufficient 'why.'

Perhaps I was a bit naive, but I more or less thought that the Special Forces motto, "De Opresso Liber" (To Liberate the Oppressed) was a serious job description. I envisioned them as being sent off to other countries to battle evil warlords, topple ruthless dictatorships, and rescue refugees. Perhaps at certain times and in certain places they have done these things. Afghanistan is a good example from recent history. However, after getting to know a number of Special Forces guys as instructors in the course I realized that most of them (not all, but most) regarded it as an opportunity to travel to exotic places, sleep with exotic women, and kill exotic people with no repercussions.

After that my sufficient why was pure cussedness. I decided God had put me there for a reason and I was learning a lot, so I was going to hang in there simply for the sake of hanging in there. I decided God had a plan, and I was just going to hang out and see what it was.

There was something that both P and I saw about the job, once we got here. It is fun. There are a lot of fun things that we do. We get to travel, we get to see strange places. I got to jump off the highest canyon swing platform in the world in Nepal, drink fresh chilled coconut milk out of a coconut on a beach in Thailand, ski for free at Mammoth Ski resort in California, learn to climb rocks at Red Rocks in Colorado. We have fun times. I get to shoot thousands of rounds, workout in world class gyms, and learn medicine for free. I get paid for it all.

The problem is that there is a corollary to Frankl's statement. It is true that you can endure any circumstances, no matter how awful, if you have a sufficient reason. I have found that it is also true that if you do not have such a sufficient reason, the circumstances, no matter how fun, simply do not matter. This is why the richest people in the world, with the most leisure and recreation opportunities, cannot enjoy them. They do not have a reason.

There is an insufficient why in this job. No matter how cool some of the things I get to do are, they do not matter unless there is a reason for them. The older I get the more my priorities shift, and the more my priorities shift the more the army, the government, the whole question of politics and economy, nationalism, (dare I say it) Americanism, etc. all begin to seem too small. They feel claustrophobic, as it were. It isn't that they are bad things. They are not, and the world is a better place for those who give themselves unselfishly to any of these goals, and the ends for which they rightfully exist (except, perhaps, nationalism.)

I, on the other hand, have seen that there is more in life. There is something worthier of time and effort and sacrifice. You see, America, the government, the nations of the world, programs, conflicts, all of these things are temporary. All of them are no more than dust in the wind. With the shifting of political and economic climates all of them will simply vanish and no more trace of them will be left.

Sometimes we get sidetracked by the fact that they are more visible than we are. We can see them stretching out for centuries, so there is a sense of history and heritage in them, but from the point of view of eternity that a thousand years are a blink of the eye.

The older I get, the more I figure, "Why bother?" There must be something more.

Monday, July 29, 2013

An Insufficient Why

A few weeks ago I was at work, packing my bags to leave for the day. Another guy named "P" came down into the locker room, also packing to leave. The difference was that he was packing to leave for good. He just came back from a combat deployment, his time in the army is over after one enlistment, and he is done.

P has kind of an interesting life story. He speaks Chinese fluently, having studied it in college. He traveled and worked in China for a year or so. He is a bar registered lawyer who practiced with a law firm for several years. He also spent two years in Africa working for the peace corps teaching at a school, where he taught himself French, which he also speaks fluently. To top it all off, in his thirties he decided to join the Army and go Special Forces.

One time, a little over a year ago, he asked me, "Does your faith give you meaning in your life?"

I answered that, yes, it does, but that is not necessarily why I believed it. I believe because I have come to see that the Faith is True. It is that truth that gives meaning.

He nodded thoughtfully, and said, "I ask because I joined the Army hoping that it would provide me with a sense of meaning, and I was disappointed to find that it really didn't."

With this background, and knowing that I also plan to get out  of the Army about this time next year, it was not surprising that he should ask while he was packing, "So, what are you going to do after you get out of the army?"

I answered, "Try to do something meaningful with my life." It was a rather non-specific answer, since I actually do have a fairly detailed plan (for me). But he wasn't really asking what job I was going to do, or what college I was planning on attending.

"Something meaningful. Well, there is the big question, isn't it? What really is meaningful in life?"

"That is the question, isn't it?" I replied. "That really is the biggest reason why I am getting out. Do you know who Victor Frankl was?"

He shook his head.

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychoanalyst in the early 1930's. Since he was Jewish he was deported by the Nazis some time after their takeover of Austria. He survived throughout the war, and out of his experiences he wrote, "Man's Search for Meaning," a book examining the psychological phenomena he encountered in what was arguably one of the most abnormal experiences for a human being to endure. In fact, it was Frankl who coined the phrase, "An abnormal response to an abnormal situation is normal behavior."

The burden of his book was the role of purpose in Auschwitz and other such places. He observed that those people who survived were the ones who had some purpose, some meaning, something worth enduring for. Those who did not have this transcendent sense of purpose either simply gave up and died, or they survived by doing incalculable damage to their own psyches. Only those who believed in something made it through with anything like their mental health intact.

Not all such purposeful people survived, of course, for no amount of  purpose will stop a bullet or make you immune to poison gas. Indeed, some with the deepest sense of faith and purpose did not live. At one point in the book he makes a point of separating himself from the martyrs by saying, "We who have come back, we know- the best of us did not return.” There were those who had such a deep and powerful purpose that it gave them the peace and strength to die well. 

Since I read that book, some three or four years ago, I have been pondering it very deeply. There is something haunting, almost accusing, in the strong, patient insistence on meaning. He coined a phrase by Neitzche of all people, "A man can endure almost any 'how', so long as he has a sufficient 'why'." It is this that P was searching for in his varied and rather remarkable like thus far. He is trying to find a sufficient why.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Prophet's Reward

The Bible Study that I am a part of in Tacoma is a very successful Bible Study, as Bible Studies go. The reasons for this are simple, but effective. It is at a regular place and at a regular time every week, (Monday at 7:30 P.M. Panera Bread, Tacoma Mall.) It is led by an extremely passionate and dynamic woman with a strong knack for names, faces and stories and a powerful love of Jesus. The core is a group of very close friends who have been going there for years, and a few new arrivals like myself who have sort of been adopted into the group. Finally, it has a very simple and effective format. Every meeting starts off at 7:30-45-ish (whenever the Filipinos show up) with introductions and the question of the day, which can be anything from "What was the most memorable spiritual experience of your life," to "What was your worst ever haircut, and how did you end up with it?"

After that we pray and begin the actual Bible study portion. The plan is very simple. We read the readings of the day, meditate on them, and then discuss them. At about nine we do announcements and then go to Red Robin for bottomless fries, root beer (or real beer for the 21 or over) floats, and burgers.

Simple, but it works. I should do a Thugfang post about Bible studies sometime, but that isn't what I set out to write about. It was a bit of a digression. I set out to write about one of the thoughts that came out of discussion from last week.

The Gospel from last Monday was Matthew 10:34 - 11:1. Of course there are enough passages in that gospel to spend hours and hours meditating and discussing, but in the interests of keeping this a blog and not a book, I just want to focus on the one line that struck me most powerfully, "Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is righteous will receive a righteous man’s reward." Matthew 10:41.

At first glance this seems unfair. All you have to do to earn a prophet's reward is find yourself a prophet and offer him some hospitality. You don't even have to be one yourself, which is a pretty sweet deal considering all the ostracism, shunning, stoning and whatnot that goes along with it. As my younger brother said, "Well, if that's the case, sign me up. Come on, all you prophets, free hospitality right here!"

Which is exactly what I would say myself.

On a deeper level, this passage challenges a good many of my deep set notions of what religion, salvation, and heaven are all about. I mean, I had always thought that there are levels of reward in Heaven. Each person rises to the level that he opens himself to. The more spiritually developed you become on earth, the more room you have for heaven, so to speak. The priest has a higher vocation than the layman. He gives more, and as a result he is emptier and has more room to be filled with joy.

This is an overly simplistic way of putting it.This passage tells me that in reality it is not so simple, or maybe it is simpler, but not in the same way. Of course everyone must be completely empty before they can enter the Kingdom. Some choose that emptiness as a way of life, and I had assumed that they would have a head start when they got to the pearly gates, but maybe that is not the case.

When I read this passage it reminded me of Mother Teresa. She started the order, the Missionaries of Charity, whom she described as contemplatives in the midst of the world. That is, their charism is both to develop the deep, intimate relationship with God which we would associate with a contemplative order, and also to engage in active service for the poorest of the poor. They are known for their work throughout the world, and I assume that Mother Teresa has a very high place in Heaven. Not that she earned it, per se, but that by the evidence of her life I can only assume that she had an unusually close and deep and rich relationship with God.

What a lot of people do not know is that Mother Teresa also started another group, which she envisioned as being as large as the MC itself, sort of an auxiliary MC. There were two groups, really. One was composed of terminally or chronically ill people, people who could not leave their beds, who could not lead an active life. Their mission was to "adopt" a Missionary of Charity, and to offer up for them all of their prayers and sufferings and the frustrated desires of their lives. The other group was composed of lay people, man, women, children, families, lawyers, businessmen, blue collar workers, teachers, just your ordinary everyday people. Their job was very similar, to adopt spiritually a Missionary of Charity. In addition they were to support them financially in their work through donations, volunteer work, whatever they could.

Both of these "auxiliary" groups seemed to be working the lesser missions on face value. The Missionary of Charity sister or brother or priest is out in the field, doing the real missions. They are the ones going out into the gutters and streets, touching the lepers, smelling the rotting flesh, witnessing all the horror of poverty and degradation. The two other groups are no doubt useful in their way, but really, aren't they just glorified ammo handlers, in the spiritual sense? Sitting at home, passing spiritual ammunition to the real spiritual warriors? How will they get a "holy man's" reward simply because they supported a holy man?

But that is not Mother Teresa saw it. She did not view them as supports for MC's work. Instead they and the missionaries were simply support for God's work, each tools in the hand of God, which He used as He saw fit. It was not the task that they were called to do it, but how freely and lovingly they did it which mattered. She said, "No one can do great things for Jesus. Only little things with great love." This from the woman who saved countless thousands of people from dying alone, friendless and despairing in the gutters and the slums around the world.

This is what I think Jesus meant in this passage. It is not the task that matters. The prophet's task may be higher than the bricklayer's task, but that does not mean that his reward is greater. Reward is not determined by task, since task is given by God, not earned by merits. The only possible thing that could be rewarded is response. The more wholeheartedly we open ourselves to the task that God gives us, the more we allow Him to empty us, stretch us, and fill us with Himself. That is the reward, as much of God as we can hold.

And this is how a man who gives a prophet a glass of water because he is a prophet can receive the prophet's reward because of it. It all depends on how much love goes into that glass of water.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Busy Mystic

I turn away with an ineffable sense of loss,
From the overwhelming presence of the thunderous Dove
To the silence of Monday morning push and shove.
But then amid the rush and rumble and toss,
In traffic, the grocery line, or while arguing with my boss
I pause and looking up I see above
My heart the pierc├ęd Corpus, dripping Love.
I have never been elsewhere but at the foot of the Cross.
Here I stand, not by my will, but bidden
By numbered bones, flayed back and riven side;
Invited, asked for, called at His behest.
In silence, in safety, from the shallower “me” well hidden
“Thou” workest, transforming my “I” from deep inside
The camouflage of business.
                                                             Ite! Missa Est.