Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


Their Mere Existence Feels Meaningful to Me

I wonder if I have a problem. I definitely have a tendency to seek spiritual inspiration from super-rational thinkers rather than from rabbis and priests and theologians.
One of the beliefs I professed in my culminating "credo" paper at the end of my three-year divinity school experience was a relational theology--we know and experience the divine through relationships. Relationships with those we love, with acquaintances, with strangers, with creatures, with nature, with all of existence we encounter. And though I love my solitude,* I find that sentiment as true now as I ever have.

More so, in fact. While it's easy to say I value relationships in the general, abstract sense, it takes on a whole new meaning when talking about specific relationships with children. Now that I have a couple of my own, I understand the concept in a magnified sense.

The quote above--which resonates with me, obviously--comes from the book Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It by Daniel Klein. I'll share my review of it in a bit, but first I want to share a couple of point-counterpoint quotes that jumped out at me as I read it. The first one speaks to my instinctive philosophical leanings:
If I felt that way today, someone would trot me off to a shrink where I would be promptly diagnosed with Recurrent Depressive Disorder (Code 296.32 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and medicated with Prozac. One thing about living in a psychological era is that few people give credence or value to a philosophical perspective. In our period, despairing of finding any meaning in life is rarely considered a sincerely held worldview; no, it is a sickness that needs to be cured. If I said to a psychiatrist that by treating existential ennui as a disease he is making the gratuitous assumption that the correct way to live is cheerfully and hopefully, he would look at me as if I was, well, sick in the head. Most shrinks presuppose that the goal of life is to become positive and to have a sense of well-being and that it is not healthy to feel or think otherwise.

But what if, after philosophical contemplation, a person finds life empty? What if he cannot find any meaning in life, either rationally or in the depths of his being? Does that simply mean it's Prozac time?
So, yes, that makes a certain kind of sense to me and certainly amuses me. But then I came across this bit:
I certainly have gone through periods of my life when I felt overwhelmed by the meaninglessness of it all, but I never felt the need to advertise it, as the Teacher** does. It certainly is not a lesson I ever felt the urge to pass on to my daughter or granddaughter.

And therein lies a realization I had recently: Even in my darkest moments, I cannot think of my daughter's life or my granddaughter's life as meaningless. Their mere existence feels meaningful to me whenever I think about them. How could such vital and beautiful creatures possibly be insignificant?
And that thought does more than make sense to me, it refreshes and renews me. Because reading it led me to the same realization. Life can never be meaningless as long as it includes people who are so meaningful to me.

A little bit more, then, about the book, which has the subtitle: Wisdom of the Great Philosophers on How to Live, by way of my review:
I wonder if I have a problem. I definitely have a tendency to seek spiritual inspiration from super-rational thinkers rather than from rabbis and priests and theologians.
Now in his twilight years, Klein has formed this book from a notebook he started as a young college student and abandoned in midlife. He titled that notebook "Pithies," and it contained short quotes from major thinkers he was studying, followed by his reactions to each. He abandoned the project at the time as naive and futile, yet in revisiting the notebook more recently found value in it, and so emerged this book.
I still take great pleasure in playing around with philosophical questions, the ones that [Bertrand] Russell is the first to admit have no unequivocal answers. . . . I guess this quality makes me a Cerebral Hedonist, although some would say it makes me a mental masochist.
The book follows the format of Klein's old notebook: he shares a "pithy," then reacts to it. The reflections--most a few pages--introduce context for each thinker and idea before spinning into the meaning and value Klein takes from each. Some are abstract musings, while others are pragmatic, situated, and specific. All are at least a bit autobiographical, and all are accessible introductions to the different veins of philosophical thought they represent.

As Klein notes in his epilogue, the theme that seems to unify the ideas is finding meaning in life by living fully in the moment. Some explicitly express that theme while others provide a more roundabout route to it, and they come at it from many different perspectives. The idea is one that appears to have resonated with Klein throughout his life and presented itself to him in many forms--or, at least, he has found the theme in his interpretations of various thinkers.

Overall, the book is an easy and engaging interaction with a variety of philosophies' pursuit of "the meaning of life." Quite enjoyable.

Finally, a bit of Klein's reaction to the quote from Reinhold Niebuhr that is the book's title:
Even as man contemplates the divine, he remains stuck with a finite mind that can never get a comprehensive bead on transcendent values. A perfect understanding of sin is ultimately beyond us. We cannot climb out of this existential duality; we possess the ability to ponder our mortality, good and evil, and the "meaning of life," but we are unable to ever really see the Big Picture. We just don't have the equipment for it.
Often, Niebuhr displayed a sense of humor about what he saw as man's [sic] predicament. He concluded one sermon by saying, "What a contradiction--to be the judge of all things and yet to be a worm of the earth." Not exactly a thigh-slapper, but not bad for a sermon.

*One of Klein's "pithies" that I quite like, a quote by theologian Paul Tillich:
Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.

**"The Teacher" is one of the possible translations for the writer of  Ecclesiastes, which just so happens to be one of my favorite books of the Bible. In general, it is concerned with the meaninglessness of existence.


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