Friday, December 02, 2005


Quest for meaning

Last Sunday I returned my daughter to college after the Thanksgiving break. It’s always a strange experience going to the campus since it’s the same place that I went in the sixties. I never pushed the place on her because I had ambivalent feelings about my experience there anyway. When I went away to school I didn’t so much go to college as escape to college. After escaping the painful experience that was my family I was left with only a few things to believe in. I grew up on a farm during the fifties with an innocent and naïve faith in both my country and my church – no matter how boring.

When I went away to college the Vietnam War began to build. The mass of contradictions that provided a rationale for the war, as well as the meaningless death, began to tear away at my belief that some benevolent order existed in the world. Some friends began to come home in body bags. When I got married at 22, my grandmother sent me a clipping from my hometown newspaper detailing my wedding. On the back of the clipping was an obituary of one my best friends from high school who had been killed on the first day of the Cambodian invasion. A brilliant student and West Point grad, he had gone off to be slaughtered. I was devastated. Over these years my world was stripped of meaning and I felt I was becoming an empty shell. I had gone off to college to gain some meaning in my life and instead ended up losing meaning to the experience of the times.

Though my life is far better, our collective experience of life is no better, if not worse. We head in all possible directions: blindly searching for meaning, cynically denying that such a thing could exist, immersing ourselves in numbing the mind or just flat out piling up the riches. One time in college my brother came up to me and proclaimed that he had figured out the meaning of life, at least in our culture. Life was about having a dump truck pull up and unload a mountain of shit on us. Our aspiration in life, according to him, was to become the driver. Truthfully, that’s the impetus that guides many lives, especially our religious, political, and corporate leaders. Many others just accept the load of shit in one way or another.

I’ve made it through the maze to a large degree, discovered my own well of meaning, but it’s been hard work. I hold out the vision or hope that many others will find their own wells of meaning, but it requires a certain relentlessness of spirit, and in a time of cynicism and despair, this relentlessness of spirit is hard to come by. Until this happens though, all our actions, fascinations, and evasions are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Will we make it? I don’t know. I simply hold out the possibility, no matter how small.

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