The Search for Meaning

Earlier this year, Rabbi Harold Samuel Kushner passed away at the age of 88. While best known for his book on the problem of evil (When Bad Things Happen to Good People), I’ve decided to honor his memory with his 1986 book entitled When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough: The Search for a Life That Matters.

Kushner asserts that our souls thirst for relevancy. We aspire to lead a life such that the world will be better for our having passed through it. We want to know that we matter.

rodin thinkerThis soul quest is nothing new. Twenty-five hundred years ago, a wise teacher explored the topic in the Book of Ecclesiastes. He feared dying before figuring out how to live. He fully expected that nothing he ever did (or would ever do) would confer any lasting value. So, how should one spend one’s time?

He rejected uninterrupted fun as it seemed merely a way to escape the challenge of doing something meaningful with one’s life. While diverting, nothing of value remains when the fun is over.

Likewise, the pursuit of wealth and power – and the exercise of power – would prove foolhardy. Such a quest narrates life in terms of competition instead of cooperation. Moreover, the exercise of power can make relationships problematic, thereby interfering with our basic need for connection. As Kushner says, “When one commands and one obeys, there can be loyalty and gratitude but not love.” And who wants to live a life without genuine love?

Even piety can prove a challenging anchor on which to bind our lives. Should faith pander to our desire to be told what to do – especially when life gets complicated – then it fosters childlike submission and dependence. Kushner claims that authentic religion does not want obedient or perfect people. Rather, it gives us the courage to face life’s vexing questions, get ourselves together in the midst of them, and be at all times who we are at our best.

Instead of searching for the Great Answer or the Immortal Deed that will make life feel worthwhile, Kushner shares his simple wisdom:

“[Life] is not about writing great books, amassing great wealth, achieving great power. It is about loving and being loved.  It is about enjoying your food and sitting in the sun rather than rushing through lunch and hurrying back to the office. It is about savoring the beauty of moments that don’t last, the sunsets, the leaves turning color, the rare moments of true human communication. It is about savoring them rather than missing out on them because we are so busy and they will not hold still until we get around to them… There is no Answer, but there are answers: love and the joy of working, and the simple pleasures of food and fresh clothes, the little things that tend to get lost and trampled in the search for the Grand Solution to the Problem of Life and emerge, like the proverbial bluebird of happiness, only when we have stopped searching.”

The author of Ecclesiastes attained this wisdom after many disappointments and false starts. May his lasting legacy be the flash of insight that sets us on the right path long before we pass from this earth.