Sermon: “The Meaning of Life, and Death”
My children, at 8 and 10, are old enough now that they realize when I am listening to the news on the car radio. More importantly, they are starting to listen along, starting to realize that these disembodied voices might be connected to a reality, a reality that might have something to do with their own lives.
I have limits to what I will let them over-hear – but these are not nearly as strict as what I’ll let them see in the visual version of the news. As I tell them often, while you might be able to forget a few words or the over-heard description of something terrible, it is so much harder to un-see.
Still, their listening in on the radio is not an unambiguous good or clear-cut parenting choice. Our drive to and from school or day camp, particularly in these last couple of months, have brought up many uncomfortable, impossible-to-explain topics,
with questions I am not sure I want to be answering, that I’m not sure I have tools to answer, and things that I want to protect them from knowing.
And yet at the same time, this past week – for example, our radio listening led to serious and complex conversations about race, and racism, policing and politics, about language and bullying, sexism, and immigration, and even about the ways that minority groups are often pitted against each other as a strategy to perpetuate the status quo of white supremacy, patriarchy and unrestrained free-market capitalism. Or at least, the 8 and 10 year old version of that last one.
A couple of weeks ago, we listened together to the basic report of a white police officer shooting Philando Castile, an African American man, in his car, with a child in the backseat. I hit the off button on the radio right before it played the recording from his girlfriend, the eery calm of a woman in the full throws of crisis, being comforted by her child. That was my line.
Maybe you will think that I should have turned it off before, that my kids were too young to know even that much. One morning last week, as I turned on the radio to begin our drive, I sighed heavily as I readied myself for the latest.
Gracie looked at me as I did, and asked, what, mom, has someone been shot again?
It hit me then just what it meant to let her know this as Reality, as normal.
So maybe you are right. Maybe I should protect them as long as I can, because it is too much. Too much for any of us, including us grown ups.
And yet, this is the reality of life today. As Unitarian Universalist Rebecca Parker writes, “We are living in a postslavery, post-Holocaust, post-Vietnam, post-Hiroshima world.
We are living in the aftermath of collective violence that has been severe, massive, and traumatic. We are living in the midst of rain forest burning, the rapid death of species, the growing pollution of the air and water, and new mutations of racism and violence.”
Our bodies carry these stories, it is in the air we breathe, in our social systems, our institutions – even if we don’t always realize it, even if we turn off the radio, even if we choose to turn away. Even if we have the privilege not to tell our children.
It would be reasonable, in response to this Reality, to check out entirely. To decide to stop caring. It would be a reasonable response to this much pain – to decide that nothing really matters after all– that your life, that Life itself has no meaning.
You might be familiar with Albert Camus’ retelling of the Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus, who was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again.
This, Camus says, is the essence of human existence. Pushing a boulder up the hill, only to watch it roll down again. Repeat, and repeat.
To make matter’s worse, in spite of life’s meaninglessness and indifference to human existence, Camus observes, humans still keep searching for meaning. This is what we call, absurdity.
Absurdist and nihilistic notions of life’s utter meaninglessness is the fuel for mid-life crises, and what some call the young adult “failure to launch,” that brings twentysomethings back to their parents’ basements. It enables Netflix binges, and political apathy and/or anarchy; it seems to be intimately connected to the force that keeps you stuck on your couch watching cat videos, and some of us find it staring back at us from the bottom of the gin bottle. Surely, this loss of meaning is at the heart of depression – acute, chronic, clinical, or otherwise – that might hit us at any age or stage of life, and “hit is the operative word.
Depression knocks you over, knocks the wind out of you, the breath. Life loses its movement, its generativity. It’s one of the reasons that depression is such a difficult disease and so often requires therapeutic intervention – counseling or medication – in order to heal and transform. Once meaninglessness takes hold, it is self-perpetuating, and immobilizing, full stop.
But this immobility, this stop – we know this does not actually describe Life. Life is not static, it’s dynamic, evolving, always unfolding, In life there is always the in and out of breath – So much is always going on, being created
Always more than one story is true, and the stories are changing – all the time
Remember, the farmer, and our ideas about truth a few weeks ago….Life is – We’ll see.
I was listening to an NPR program about improv this week, and it reminded me of that most important rule of improv – which is – YES, and.
The idea being, you are in a scene, you don’t get to decline the reality of the scene that your partners have given you – you have to accept it, and then add to it. It’s not Yes, but…or No, and…It’s yes, and.
This is another good way to think describe Truth – accepting reality as it is being offered, and yet also knowing the scene’s not done yet, and we get to be a part of the next new creation. Yes…and….
Because Life is not just loss – it is also this continuous creativity. In addition to all those things I started the sermon with, Life is also summer berries, and mountain hikes,
red rocks and the moon hanging there big and bold through the clouds, and it is waking up beside the one you love, it is pleasure, and it is discovery, and it is silliness.
It is both the reality of children who stayed in our church this week because they don’t have homes, and it is the sound of those same children playing and laughing in the front grass with my daughter while I’m inside for a Board meeting.
As Parker also says about Life today, “there are also arenas of great vitality and freshness. [Music and] the arts are flourishing. New movements in religion and spirituality are blossoming. Computer technology, advancing at breathtaking speed and often characterized by a spirit of whimsy, is creating new patterns of human connection [and manifesting new partnerships in justice].
Cross-cultural encounters and countercultural movements are opening up new possibilities in social change, medicine, business, religion, and the arts.”
Life is resilient, and through it all, there remains great goodness, kindness, beauty, and joy – examples are everywhere.
“Living in these times,” Parker says, “I feel the simultaneous presence of violence, chaos, loss, creativity, liberation, possibility, recovery, connection, and empowerment.”
All of these realities are true of life today, and of Life as a whole. Despite the short memories and attention span of our culture and the need for “BREAKING NEWS” that makes everything seem urgently new and novel, in many ways, the moment we’re in is just Life is simply being Life-like.
Which means, we need a way of understanding the meaning of Life that holds this whole,
a story of meaning and purpose that allows our hands and our hearts to open to the fullness of Reality, both the trauma and the vitality, the cruelty and the courage,
the breakdowns and the possibilities, and the ways Life and Truth is always beginning again, and again.
As a part of preparing for today, I read the book that a few of you are reading as a part of our Book Group, The Meaning of Human Existence by biologist Edward O. Wilson. I chose the topic today long before I knew that the group would choose that book, but since it was such a happy coincidence, I figured I should go ahead and learn his perspective.
Wilson takes the story of evolution, the story of the universe, what we know scientifically,
and offers it as the answer to the meaning of life. He describes the meaning of human existence in terms of having evolved over ages – passing into recorded history, “and urgently now, day by day, faster and faster into the indefinite future, it is also what we will choose to become.”
By which he means, while there may have been no pre-existing meaning to human existence, and even though from what we can tell, human life is an accident, now that we have arrived, Life does have meaning, and increasingly so. It has meaning in the choices we make, the ways we will enable life to continue, to flourish – or not.
Life needs our participation, the earth needs our stewardship, and how we act does matter.
This enabling of life, or failing to do so – according to Wilson – is the meaning of our lives.
Further, this capacity to act corresponds with our capacity to engage with a biological imperative for what he calls the “human tension” between our inherent selfishness and our equally inherent altruism and kindness towards others.
Both are true, and both in their own way, have their evolutionary advantages.
Wilson’s approach is new, based in very current theories of evolutionary biology, but his conclusions actually struck me as old, even ancient.
For example, in ancient Greece, Aristotle spoke of life’s purpose as a matter of learning about virtue (i.e. struggling with human tensions between selfishness and altruism)
and then trying to live a virtuous life so that our individual lives contributed to the common, highest good – (i.e. enabling life).
The ancient Greeks called this Highest Good, what they understood as the purpose of life – eudaimonia.
Some have translated eudaimonia to mean happiness, but a better translation is “human flourishing.” This mis-translation has likely helped to support the idea that the meaning of life is to be individually happy. This sense of life’s meaning seems problematic – however –if we are to take in the whole of reality I described earlier.
Individual happiness was never what the Greeks were after – human flourishing is meant to describe the advancement, the continued and ever-increasing abundance, of the whole.
Or as author Annie Dillard has put it, our purpose in life, is “to aid and abet creation, and to witness it, to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed.”
I’ve heard this quote many times, but after reading Wilson, I heard the idea of “aid and abet” differently – as a nod to that “human tension,” and the fact that our efforts may not always bring about human flourishing.
We are here to aid and abet creation – to witness it.
We are here to keep alive and to grow the human imagination for life, the sense of abundant possibilities, the moral imagination.
We are here to make something beautiful, wherever we find ourselves, to keep believing that something new is yet beginning, to keep scattering seeds, and again, bearing witness to the whole.
So far I’ve focused my sermon on the meaning of life, but the original impulse for this not-small topic came when one of you asked me about death.
You wanted me to explain the Unitarian Universalist understanding of what happens when we die.
You said, I know we don’t really know, but tell me anyway.
Even this isn’t quite right, because although these are the words you said, underneath these words that seem like they were asking for information, facts, we both understood there was actually just – grief, your heartbreak, and longing –
you hoped our faith – your beloved faith – could offer a promise, an assurance,
because the one you loved died, is dying, will die.
What does our faith have to offer me for this? You ask. What meaning, tools, and just plain comfort does our faith provide?
I nodded back at you, yes, I said. I hear you.
This is what I was talking about last week when I quoted from the poet Stephen Dunn, when he came acknowledge that evolution is magical, but you can’t say to your child, “Evolution loves you.” Which is to say, “The meaning of Life,” or Death – doesn’t matter all that much, if it can’t meet you here, in this longing, this grief, if it can’t comfort you.
Meaning – for it to be meaningful – needs to have skin on it.
So when you said all this to me about death, I thought to myself, I need to preach about life, and the meaning of life.
I know it doesn’t seem like the answer you were looking for, but the two go together –
death matters, means something, because there was a life that mattered, and had meaning. And life would be so much less if it wasn’t so fragile, vulnerable,
I know we keep hearing about an assurance of ultimate safety, no risk at all – but that isn’t life. Live is terribly risky – its built-in ending – our deaths, give it meaning.
You’re right I cannot tell you what happens after we die, but I can assure you that death definitely does not mark the end of meaning –
often instead it reveals the meaning of a life in ways we never before understood – new insights arrive, new perspectives, sometimes actual new information.
Even after death, truth continues to be revealed, and love continues to live, and grow and evolve.
Kate Breastrup, a UU minister and chaplain for the game Wardens in Maine,
tells about the terrible moments of having to knock on someone’s door, and tell them that their loved one has died.
She says, in those moments, she feels the clearest presence of the holy.
It’s in the wailing scream of the loved one’s loss,
it’s in the denial, in the anger, the throwing up –
all the many ways we react when someone we loved has died.
She calls these holy because they reveal that these lives mattered,
that they had meaning, that they will keep having meaning.
“Hell,” she says, “is when you die, and no one cares.”
Our Universalist faith calls us then, even in death, to a life that bears witness, that remembers, that pays attention. This is not too far from the ideas of God that Elie Wiesel came to in response to the Holocaust – God is that which remembers.
We are living in a complex time, a sometimes chaotic-feeling time, a time of unrest and anxiety – and yet also we are in a time of great peace, health, generosity, discovery and prosperity.
A time of both loss, and new birth.
A time that is both uncharted territory, as well as simply the latest version of a life as it has been going on throughout time.
We cannot afford to pick just one part of life to respond to or pay attention to,
or to make meaning out of a partial view, and we cannot waste our time with ideas that sound good but don’t actually bring us, or anyone comfort when grief arrives, as it will, too soon.
The meaning we make of life needs to be the result of having lived, of having made life our whole occupation, of risking love, even though there is no guarantee
in spite of the world’s sometimes indifference
with the bravery of simply choosing to live
as if our life matters, as if every life matters
as if life itself is in our hands, as if all of this is our inheritance.
Together, we take this leap of faith,
bearing witness to it all,
and giving thanks.