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  • The Unexamined Life Can Kill--The Danger of Meaninglessness

    • Posted on Oct 11, 2015
    Here's this morning's WCF Courier column.  Why seeking and finding meaning makes all the difference--and that would be positive meaning.  

    In my decades of teaching at UNI, a year seldom went by that I didn’t notice at least one young, white male who fit the profile of a mass shooter.  Right in my class.   

     Sullen, usually slouched, no smiles, never contributing to discussions.  Often these sad students dropped the class, or may as well have.  

     Such lonely souls worried me, even when they didn’t disappear.  They just seemed to give up, and came to class in body only. If they finished, they were undistinguished and unknown.    
    When they have access to guns, they’re potential shooters.  And most have access to guns.   

    Gun control?  With millions of weapons already out there, that seems like a dead end.   Still, we need at least as much control for gun ownership as for car ownership.  Well regulated, as the second amendment says.     

     Beyond that, the only hope I see is spiritual. 

     I don’t mean imposing a set of religious beliefs.  That would be as unconstitutional as confiscating guns. 

     These lost students and dropouts suffer from feeling that their lives are essentially hollow, meaningless exercises in futility. No wonder suicides are common.   

     We now live in a toxic cultural stew: Competition, individualism, violent media depictions that center on gunplay, and no values beyond protecting lonely and fragile egos. 

     Last year I co-taught a course where we discussed several films and books about moral choices.   Many of the characters we studied suffered from the soul-sickness that leads to depression and potentially suicide.   

     Class discussions focused on the differences among characters who survived, prospered, and eventually found meanings that gave them life and hope.   Other characters became depressed and descended into despair and suicide.   

    Three contrasting examples: Neil Perry in the film Dead Poet’s Society, Edna Pointellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and Viktor Frankl in his nonfiction holocaust memoir Man’s Search for Meaning. They all reveal the same powerful lesson:  Meaninglessness can be fatal.    

     Neil Perry committed suicide, not because he had not found meaning, but because he was prevented from realizing it by his authoritarian father.  
    At the point where Neil would have chosen to find a fulfilling career, his father insisted on forcing him into a career about which he cared nothing.  In a fit of depression about the meaninglessness of his future life, Neil commits suicide.  

     Edna Pointellier discovers that her marriage is a sham and unsalvageable.    She tries an affair, then distracts herself with various hobbies, but found nothing she cared about. For her, suicide seems a better alternative than a living a meaningless life. 

     Viktor Frankl, in contrast, writes about a genuine solution.  Frankl survived horrific traumas as a prisoner in Auschwitz, where he developed his ideas about creating and living a meaningful life.  Man’s Search for Meaning deserves serious attention as an antidote to meaninglessness. 

     At the risk of oversimplifying, Frankl believes that every moment involves choices, and consciously using that moment to make positive choices makes all the difference.  But you have to know it’s possible.   

     As Frankl puts it,  “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” 

     I’m well aware that someone who feels rejected and lonely, who’s driven by obsessions and self-pity, who has access to guns, probably won’t suddenly find a meaningful better life.  It has to happen early, and often.   

     I’m talking about a widespread and constant conversation about finding positive larger meanings beyond the self.  Religions offer one way, as does spiritual seeking, commitments to causes, vocations, and powerful relationships with genuine intimacy and love. 

     Without any sense of meaning, people become dangerous to themselves and others.  

     The unexamined life can kill.  

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Death
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
  • What Really Matters?

    • Posted on Jun 21, 2015
    This morning's (Sunday 6-21) Courier column--about what really matters.   Not 
    an easy subject, given the shock we've suffered this week--and I'm in Charleston (my second home city) right now, struggling with the unvarnished reality of race hatred that led to the cold-blooded murders of nine Charlestonians in their church.    

    Still, the idea that there's a larger reality that really matters is what's helping people get through that hatred and move toward healing.   

    Summertime, and the livin’ is easy, wrote Gershwin.  It’s true, at least 
    when summer vacations roll around and beaches and mountains loom.   
    Time for a change of scene, for easy relaxing and pondering.  

     Ponder what, you ask?   

    What really matters, that’s what.  It’s the best all-around question to ponder during those days without deadlines and pressures. 

     Everyone will answer it differently.  

     Winning matters hugely for some, meaning being first and best at everything.  The competitors, we might call them.  

     Others spend serious time finding and nurturing a soul-mate, a love of their life, and that’s what matters most to them.  They’re romantics, bless their moonstricken hearts.   

     Fame, for others, so that everyone notices them, seeks them out, makes them the center of attention.   “Look at me!” their lives seem to say, and cameras beckon to them like moths to flame.  They’re narcissists, and they’re everywhere these days. 

     Wealth, for still others, so that they never have to deny themselves a new Luxemobile, a granite-countered house, a fast boat, a perfect vacation.  They’re high-enders who seek big bucks.  

     For still others, friendships, near and far, supportive and intimate. They spend hours cultivating friendships, lunching, writing, catching up on social media.

     They delight in lending a hand or shoulder to those they’ve gotten to know, love to be
    counted upon for favors, and seek to maintain old friendships.  They’re our friends, and thank heavens for them. 

     We all belong to some of these groups, and derive satisfaction from the undeniable benefits that each provides. 

     So, is that all?  Once you’re winning, famous, rich, soul-mated, and surrounded by friends, have you found everything that matters?  Does your happiness at that point know no bounds? 

     Alas, no. We all know such seemingly fulfilled people who still rely on therapists and happy pills to calm their frayed nerves.  They’re still seeking something that really matters.   

     And what might that be?    

     Dylan’s 1979 song “You gotta Serve Somebody” points toward it:  
    "You may be an ambassador to England or France
    You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
    You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
    You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
    But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
    You're gonna have to serve somebody,
    It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
    But you're gonna have to serve somebody."

     As Trish, the character who tries to commit suicide in that great film “Educating Rita” laments, “I’m not enough.”   

     If you live for furthering yourself and meeting your needs only, you’re headed for disappointment and suffering.   Truth be told, none of us are the complete center of anything.  Our egos don’t really matter. 

     Realizing this amounts to growing up, and the sooner the better.  

     This is not easy, especially with our little digital screens tempting us to believe that we are the center of everything. 

     Granted, a strong, confident self does help you succeed. But that’s not what really matters.   

     Religious folks get at what really matters through worship, faith in some supernatural power, and prayer.  

     Non-religious folks do it through wonder, curiosity, contemplation, and seeking enlightenment through in-depth awareness.  

     I’m among the non-religious, and have found what really matters is a spiritual path that’s stimulating, endlessly challenging, and ultimately satisfying. 

     If you like pondering what really matters this summer, and you’re leaning toward the non-religious, let me suggest two books I’ve found helpful:  Tara Brach’s 2005 “Radical Acceptance” and her more recent “True Refuge.”  She’s a clinical psychologist and an American Buddhist teacher who has been pondering what matters for 35 years.   

     If you’re curious and open to new approaches, these books make perfect summer reading. 

     I can’t imagine a summer without spending daily time seeking and pondering.  
    That’s what really matters. 

    Posted in
    • Hot Button Issues
    • Crime
    • Death
    • Religiosity
    • Conservatives/Liberals
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