May 2011

Meaningful Life, Spiritual Need

Sometimes a sentence or phrase will jump out and stay. It can be in the middle of a text while reading or deep in a presentation or conversation. Other words come and go, disappearing into an unknown crowded place populated with the thousands of words which enter and leave our minds each day. Others linger a while, sometimes to inspire, sometimes to haunt and sometimes with an invitation to know them better.

This happened during the recent Hospice Foundation of America teleconference on Spirituality and End-of-Life Care. It was two and a half hours of helpful and useful words, but some have stayed like a welcome guest. A meaningful life is a spiritual need. This sentence was said by Rabbi Gary Fink. He had a gift for saying things that I felt compelled to write down: "…walk with them instead of taking them on a ride with us" and "what you want to talk about is what I want to hear about." These were good ones, but a meaningful life is a spiritual need has settled in and made itself at home.

Spirituality is a hard one to define by its very nature. Spiritual singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn sings, "those who know don't have the words to tell, and the ones with the ones don't know too well." Spirituality asks how we fit in the world we see and in the world which is beyond what we see. It asks how we make sense of life and all the things that happen in a life. It seems to ask more questions than it answers. Spirituality also connects us to each other, the bigger picture (however defined) and to our inner and intimate selves. Struggling for descriptions, many of us find help in the wisdom and language of religious traditions which include those who have cohabited with spiritual questions for a long time and learned some things along the way.

A meaningful life is a spiritual need resonates. It feels important and true that our individual lives matter and not just to us. When we take a step back and look at the living we have done and perhaps wonder how close we are to the end, it's important that what we see has some meaning. It's important in small and big ways. In spiritual ways. It's also important when we consider lives that are all too brief. Do these lives also have meaning? Do those who die in infancy have meaning? How about those who never say a word, take a step or inhale a breath? Surely yes, but is meaning there to be found or is it a new thing to be made to fit the circumstance? Do we find meaning, make meaning, or both? Finding a way or ways to respond to these questions is a spiritual and human need.

Finding or making meaning brings in God questions for many of us. It can be a sense or belief in something more than, something bigger than us and our imagination. And it can be very specific. Nicholas Wolterstorff's son died in a mountain-climbing accident. He writes in Lament for a Son:

I cannot fit it all together by saying, "He (God) did it," but neither can I do so by saying, "There was nothing He could do about it." I cannot fit it together at all. I can only, with Job, endure. I do not know why God did not prevent Eric's death. To live without the answer is precarious. It's hard to keep one's footing…To the "why" of suffering we get no firm answer. Of course some suffering is easily seen to be the result of our sin: war, assault, poverty amidst plenty, the hurtful world. And maybe some is chastisement. But not all. The meaning of the remainder is not told us. It eludes us. Our net of meaning is too small.

Our net of meaning is too small. It happened again. Jumped right off the page and is now sitting on my front porch swing with a meaningful life is a spiritual need. Not sure if they're renewing acquaintances but it feels like they have some things in common. I overhear snatches of conversation. "could spend a lifetime whatever the size an instrument has yet to be devised so worthy a thing it's bigger than" I think I'll get a rocking chair and join them.

Greg Adams
Center for Good Mourning

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