Monday, May 16, 2011

screaming for meaning

Screaming for meaning.

This morning an email arrived from a Muslim fellow who is hospitalized in Norway. We have corresponded in the past -- I forget how we got in touch in the first place. As far as I can figure out, he is being treated for mental problems ... and which of us doesn't have those, however well-clothed they may be?

His emails almost always retail a desperate longing for meaning -- for a keel that will right an otherwise foundering ship. He uses words like "honor" and "Allah" and "strength" and who am I to fault others for a bit of buoyant flotsam or jetsam in a sea that can seem so uncaring and cruel? Those satisfied with their own meanings may croon and throw out their versions of life preservers, but the sea is vast and cold and full of waves that can obscure what floats and offers a chance of safety.

How desperate and human and touching it is. I have to say I am sick of philosophies and observations that do not reach back and make the obvious link to actual-factual human beings. World War II, for example, involved PEOPLE who were more and less responsible, more and less wounded, more and less vain, more and less frightened. To forget those people, to trump them with policy or philosophy or historical panoramas, to treat them as mere abstracts, may be cozy and satisfying, but it lacks balls and it lacks accuracy... all in the name of some greater or more in-control 'meaning.'

Meaning is desperately important, but however great the desperation, still I think it is desperately important to investigate it all ... all that screaming for meaning. Meaning is not something to pooh-pooh or dismiss. Meaning is where people begin, where they nest, where they imagine happiness to be found. And it is important to begin at the beginning -- right here. Right here is the time and place to investigate -- just take a look, see what is going on and who is making it happen. No criticism, no analysis -- just look.

The easiest story I know about meaning concerns Gotami, a woman in Buddhist lore whose baby had died. Gotami was desperate with grief. How could this be?! What had been part and parcel of her body and mind was now ripped from her arms. In her grief, Gotami approached Gautama the Buddha and begged him to restore he lifeless child to life. She begged and begged. She begged despite the fact that Gautama told her that what she asked was not possible. Her heart was shredded, she was floundering in a vast ocean of grief ... and it was WRONG. Finally, Gautama took Gotami under his wing and instructed her to bring him some mustard seed from the first house she came to in which no one had died. Gotami set off full of hope, begging from one house to the next. The residents were willing to give her a few mustard seeds, but each time she asked if someone had died in their homes, the answer was the same ... of course someone had died here. Nevertheless Gotami persisted ... begging and begging and begging and begging.

But finally, she was spent. There was kindness in the world, but there was no abode in which death was not a companion ... not a philosophy or a religion or a belief system or a meaning ... an honest, painful, real-people death. And so Gotami returned to Gautama with a new request: "Enough with the mustard seed," she said. "Give me the teachings." Which, of course, Gautama already had.

No more hiding meaning with meaning.

What was desperately important had become desperately important.

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