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Posts Tagged ‘Meaning of Life’

The movie Forrest Gump is one of my favorites. Yes, I know one must suspend belief to hold on to the story line.  And, yes, I know that there is a certain sappy sentimentality in it.  Nonetheless, I like it for the interaction of its main characters and the certain philosophical message summarized at the end.

Now, I’m not an extremely emotional person. However, I can never get through the scene of Forrest‘s monologue at Jenny’s grave with a dry eye.  At the same time, I find the underlying existential question Forrest is wrestling with very engaging because I think we all struggle with it.  Forrest, standing over Jenny’s grave, tells Jenny…

I don’t know if mama was right or if it’s Lieutenant Dan.
I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze.
But I think maybe it’s both.
Maybe both is happening at the same time.

The man with the IQ of 75 probably has it right. Life is most certainly like a box of chocolates, like his mother told him: “You never know what you’re going to get.”  Some of life is made up of an apparent series of accidents.  Thus, as is often said, “You have to play the hand your are dealt.”  Like a feather blowing in the wind, as the ending screen shot of Forrest Gump shows us, life can take us in unexpected and unplanned directions.  Forrest’s life seemed to be one accident after another.

This worldview is comforting to those who find themselves unable to control the direction into which the circumstances of life has thrown them. Tossed into a raging river, one does well just to keep afloat and the head above water.  In truth, we cannot always control life’s apparent unfeeling and meaningless events cascading our way, but we can only control how we respond and deal with them.  Thus, we retain some sense of autonomy and determinism and, thereby, meaning and purpose.  I have a feeling that the great majority of people in the world, intentionally or unintentionally, operate their lives with this in view.

Struggling to squeeze some sort of meaning out of life seems to be a part of the human condition. There is a longing to know, “Why am I here?” and “What does this all mean?”  At one point, Jenny asks Forrest, “Do you ever dream, Forrest, about who you’re gonna be?”  Forrest responds, “Who I’m gonna be?”  Jenny, “Yeah.” To which Forrest replies, “Aren’t – – aren’t I going to be me?”  Struggling to be someone other than himself completely escapes Forrest.

On another level, Forrest Gump’s life may seem to be divinely ordained. His destiny has taken him in a different direction than Jenny’s or Lieutenant Dan’s.  Jenny tells Forrest as she is about to leave him again, on a bus heading back to Berkley, California, this time, that they have two different lives meant to come out differently.  Lieutenant Dan tells Forrest essentially the same thing, believing that he missed his by not becoming a martyr for his country on the battlefield in Vietnam.  Does Forrest’s life tell the tale of a destiny fulfilled?  This is what Forrest is trying to figure out while talking to Jenny over her grave.

Baby Seal On the Beach, Lincoln City, Oregon, Summer 2009

Baby Seal On the Beach, Lincoln City, Oregon, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

World religions attempt to answer the question of life’s meaning amidst apparent chaos. In fact, it seems that humankind has spent much of its existence from the beginning attempting to find meaning in the chaos of existence.  Religious answers run the gamut.  Some suggest meaning can only be found by escaping chaos through mindless detachment to the physical realm of chaos.  A dichotomy between the physical and spiritual realm results in a metaphysical battle between the two.  The physical in any form is bad.  The non-physical must be pursued to escape the physical.

Other world religions suggest that chaos is a result of humankind insulting gods or interfering with the unseen spiritual realm. The only correction is to make some type of appeasement, usually a sacrifice or penance of some sort.  Chaos results in life because humankind is constantly offending spiritual beings.  The work is to somehow keep them happy.  Other religious strains portray these spiritual beings as capricious and outside human influence or control.  Thus, one can only hope to offer some type of offering that will please the immaterial beings so that they will leave the material beings alone.  But there is no guarantee.

These two existential attitudes reflect the “flight or fight” approaches that humankind takes towards most threatening things. It should not surprise us, then, to find them evident in its worldviews or world religions.  We all seek to escape our troubles or wrestle some kind of meaning out of them.

Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. “Mark Twain”) remarked that existential meaning may also be determined by class. He noted that the Christians had one god for the rich and another god for the poor.  Taken another way, this may also mean that there was, and perhaps still is, one kind of theology for the rich and another kind of theology for the poor.

When one is born into privilege or arises to privilege, it is easy to assume that it must be because of some sort of “manifest destiny.” However, it is hard to come to that same conclusion when one is born underprivileged or descends into want and poverty.  It beggars the prosperity gospel message of American Evangelicalism to think that God would destine some to affluence and some to poverty even though it fits seemingly well with American Calvinism.

For example, Forrest Gump knew his mental condition effected his life. Was it a part of his destiny or just an accident of nature?  Visiting his mom just before her death, he asks, “What’s my destiny, Mama?”  Mrs. Gump responds lovingly, “You’re gonna have to figure that out for yourself.”  In other words, it is not something that is handed to you.  One must figure it out as he or she moves through life.

When one is born into a low class, it is easier to accept that life is simply what you make it than it is to accept that it is your destiny. No one faces life’s tormenting trials and failures and says to their self, “I was born for this!”  No.  Rather, one accepts it as one of the capricious circumstances of life.

Even Job, in his unfailing faith in God, when struck with heart rending and life altering tragedies, declared to his embittered wife, “Should we accept only the good things that come to us as from the hand of God and not the bad things that come to us also?”  Or, to put it as Mrs. Gump did, “You have to do the best with what God gave you.”  This view lends itself towards a self-determinism that supports an Arminian approach to one’s destiny.  We may not be able to control what comes our way in life, but we can control our own choices and outcome.  At least, we hope so.

I have often argued that the tired and worn out Calvin versus Arminian debate is attempting to make too simple what is really very complicated. I do not think proper theology fits neatly into all of our categories and systems.  So narrowly defining whether our meaning and purpose in life is divinely determined or self-determined attempts to remove life’s questions and mysteries when, instead, we should probably leave them alone.  As Forrest answered, “I think maybe it’s both.  Maybe both is happening at the same time.”  And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg Jr. (2010)

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The recent ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has reawakened in me a conundrum about evolution, the meaning of life and the ultimate end of all things. This often rises up in my mind during these man-made tragic events or other natural catastrophes.  I am left wondering, from a purely evolutionary ideal, “What’s the big deal?  Isn’t this just the natural working out of our evolutionary and natural development?”  As far as I can see, it is humankind’s evolutionary destiny as well as right to attempt to subjugate nature.

Radical environmentalists decry the abuse of nature. They claim that humans are too anthropocentric and need to have greater care for other creatures – right down to the microbial level.  They throw around the word “speciesism” or “specism” to prompt guilt among bipedal humanoids for considering our species as more important or of greater worth than other species.  As a result, they claim, our needs and selfish desires have threatened the existence of other species.  According to them, we should take more care.

This begs the question as to why it matters whether one species lives or dies – exists or ceases to exist. What moral compass guides us in our decision making to even consider the value and worth of another species however big or small?  If one argues that it is because all species are interconnected and that their survival as a species is ultimately linked to our own survival as a species, then this seems to only end in the same selfish anthropocentric concern.  When humans become concerned for other species out of worry for their own survival; it seems to only be a back door return to speciesism.

After all, the evolutionary principle that continual improvement is necessary for the survival of a species seems to me to necessitate that one species is going to survive or thrive at the cost of another. The idea of balance in nature would seem to conflict with evolution since species are ever contending for the same room and resources within a biosphere limited with both.  Not only are species at war with one other for the same resources for survival, but they are all vulnerable to disease and natural disasters.  The survival of the fittest takes on a new level of urgency and importance in such a hostile environment.

So, are not humans simply fulfilling their evolutionary destiny by exploiting to the best of their abilities the natural resources surrounding them? Can we not call the massive struggle to fight against disease and natural disasters just part of our evolutionary duty towards our own species?  Should we not consider when a portion of humanity falls to natural disasters or diseases that these adverse events are simply a part of our own struggle to survive?  And, sometimes we come out the winners and sometimes the losers?  What makes us care or have compassion for others of our own species, let alone the condition of another?

If humanity is evolved from an impersonal mass of biological material, what moral guidance really regulates our care for the rest of creation? There are all sorts of competing philosophies and religions among our species.  However, if we are the result of an ongoing evolutionary cycle, then they are all meaningless.  Humanity only finds its meaning, like the rest of nature, in its own survival and thriving.  It seems that nothing else is really pertinent to the discussion.

As such, evolution does not really satisfactorily answer the question of neither what it means to be human nor how humanity should relate to the rest of creation. Evolution, after all, is an unfeeling and meaningless force moving all species toward the final existence of one specie’s domination over all others.  Humans would be dismayed to wake up some morning to find out that the planet had been taken over by apes (as in the movie “The Planet of the Apes”) or lions, tigers or bears (Oh, my!).  Therefore, according to our evolutionary mandate, we must continue to evolve, dominate other species and, if necessary, eliminate them when necessary; right down to the microbial level.

White Wild Flowers, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010

White Wild Flowers, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Confidence in the evolutionary path of humans, let alone all creatures, may be misplaced if we expect some form of higher-enlightenment to guide us into empathy for all species. Thousands of years of human evolution has shown to us that nature is very brutal and humankind as much or more so.  Not even considering our survival as a particular species, we divide ourselves up according to language and cultural groups and then seek to dominate one another by slavery, war or total annihilation.  We do not seem to be overly concerned with our own survival!  Granted, we do seem to care more about those who have the same skin pigmentation, language sounds and cultural similarities, but even that is no guarantee against our warring amongst ourselves for dominance and survival.

If humankind is a higher evolved animal, then there does not seem to be too much hope for all of creation. We are bent on our own destruction, the demise of all other species and the ultimate destruction of our biosphere.  There must be a greater guiding principle for us to pursue.  There must be, somewhere, a larger purpose for existing and caring for the rest of creation.  Otherwise, we are no better off than the fruit-fly.  We hatch, live, breed and die; albeit longer than the fruit-fly’s seven days.  However, the end result is the same.

If we are only the sum of an evolutionary process, then the conundrum it must answer or deny is, “Why should we care?” The logical conclusion is that we should not care or that the question itself is meaningless.  Then, why do we feel this tension and need to care for our own species as well as other species as part of our human consciousness and being?  What drives us – most of us anyway – to be empathetic towards the vulnerable, whether other humans or other species?  I think the answer must lie somewhere deeper than just bio-chemical evolution.

Is it possible that humans, as well as all of creation, is endowed with something greater than just chemical interaction? Do our existential questions stem from something that lays latent within all of us?  Is it possible that something we cannot see or measure actually is the cause and guidance creation’s existence?  Could our concern, broadly speaking, for the care and well-being of all creatures point to something imparted to us at the nexus of our beginning?  I think that an affirmative answer to these questions guides us to a more reasonable conclusion for humanity’s care and concern for the rest of creation.

Of course, this is a jump into the unknown and unexplained. It is a “leap of faith” of sorts.  However, our faith so far in what we have been able to observe, measure and reduplicate does not seem to be adequate either.  The hard sciences do not help us too much with existential questions.  They require their own “leap of faith” of sorts for us to connect the dots.  So, the question then becomes, do we keep them in two isolated spheres or do we attempt to bring them together to find meaning and answers?

The answer to that depends upon who you listen to in philosophical and scientific circles. The simple answer is that evolution at any level – biological or social – does not adequately address such questions.  To solve such a large conundrum, we must turn to larger answers beyond what we can see, hear and touch.  It may turn out that our very existence lies beyond the physical world.  The evolutionary conundrum answered by what is least expected in a world of physical sciences.  It may just be wrapped in mystery.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Twig in the Surf, Neskowin Beach, Oregon, Summer 2009

Twig in the Surf, Neskowin Beach, Oregon, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

6’2″ and eyes of blue
curious about you
wond’ring about life
and meaning in my strife.
does the crown go
to the strong so
the rest of the best
get left at the crest
or is the way level
for each one’s travel
and the help of heaven
sprinkled like leaven
upon humankind
sighted or blind.
can you reach across
the great divide’s abyss
to touch another’s soul
with what’s beautiful
from out of your heart
the innermost part
of you?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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The first decade of the 21st century is quickly fading behind us in the rear view mirror of our lives. Isn’t it amazing how one 10-year period can bring so much change?  How quickly it can come and go?  How terribly swift its events can over take us?  International disasters from earthquakes to tsunamis.  Horror’s from 9/11 to the Swine Flu pandemic.  The list of events just from this last decade is almost endless.  On a global scale we have seen it all.  We have been amazed at the rise and fall of the world economy and the rise and fall of our cultural heroes.

It makes one wonder what the next decade will bring. What surprising discoveries await humankind?  How will world governments and rulers navigate this next decade’s international events and crises?  What tragedies and human horrors lurk in the next 10 years?  What scientific or medical breakthroughs hide from us just around the corner a few years from now?

On a more personal level, there is no doubt that our own lives will continue on and change.  We cannot avoid it anymore than we can avoid getting older.  As my grandma Stalnaker would always say, “Time and tide wait for no one.”  Some of us in this next decade will watch our children grow and graduate from High School and/or college.  Some of us will bury our parents and/or grandparents.  Some of us will marry and begin families.  Some will go through “the valley of the shadow of death” and others will enter the decade “sowing tears” but leave it “reaping a harvest of  joy”.

Who knows what the future holds for us. I believe the most important question for us is, How are we equipped to deal with the circumstances and changes we will face?  Some of us have prepared and are preparing our lives well – spiritually, financially, emotionally, relationally, etc.  Others of us, I suspect, have neglected to even think about the future; choosing, instead, to face it with a ‘que sera, sera’ attitude.  Whether you face the future with a sense of self-determination or fait accompli, you cannot avoid the on-rush of the next decade.

Sunlit Leaves BW, Howard Amon Park, Richland, Washington

Sunlit Leaves BW, Howard Amon Park, Richland, Washington ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Looking back over the past decades of my life, I have come to appreciate just how small a decade really is in the scheme of life and especially eternity.  My grandparents lived 7, 8, or 9 decades.  My parents just entered their 7th decade of living.  Put in those terms, that doesn’t sound very old does it?  In Methuselahn terms, they are just children.  I am only 4, getting ready to turn 5.

Just this past decade, my family and I have moved from Washington State to North Dakota and back again.  Two of our children have graduated High School and left home.  My wife, Kelly, earned a Master’s Degree in Education.  The last of my and my wife’s grandparents have gone on to their eternal reward.  Now, our parents are the remaining grandparents to our children.  I have had the joy of pastoring and leading two great congregations.  I also had the privilege of traveling to Albania and India.

The decade before this last one, the 1990’s, my family and I moved from Washington State to Springfielf, Missouri, and back again.  I earned a Master’s of Divinity degree in Springfield, Missouri.  Our two youngest children were born.  I pastored and led two great congregations (the last one from the 90’s into the beginning of this last decade).  We owned six different vehicles.  Our two oldest children began their school years.

And these are just the highlights from only the last two decades!  Looking at all that has happened, it is no wonder that I am exhausted.  The decades before those were even busier.  It is amazing how much can be packed into 10 years.  One has to wonder about all that will happen in the next 10 years.  As I stand on the edge of beginning my 5th decade of earthly existence (I’ll be 49 this Spring), I am more cognizant than ever of the fact that I do not and cannot control the  future.  After all, many of things I have experienced over this past 10 years was not on my “To Do List”.  They were not even on the radar screen of my forecasting abilities!  Some of the biggest events were complete surprises to me.

Perhaps each decade should come with a life journey sign that says, “Caution:  Sudden Changes Ahead!”  One thing is for certain, how we face this next decade and the personal “tools” and preparation we go into it is very important.  No wonder the wisdom of King David is still so appropriate.  It must have been in his old age when he sang the prayer, “Lord, teach us to number our days.”  He knew, as we are all discovering, that they pass too quickly.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Fall Leaf in Howard Amon Park, Fall 2009

Fall Leaf in Howard Amon Park, Fall 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Every once in a while
someone needs to help me
define reality.

Blinded by urgency
I cannot see outside
my space time.

Figures move too quickly
events come and go swiftly
right by me.

Someone who’s been here
sees from another perspective
my experience.

A view from where they stand
clearly enables me to better
define reality.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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Old Barn in BW

Old Barn in BW ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

My mind’s eye
helps me to see
what is beyond me.

My mind’s eye
sees hope
beyond my helpless gaze.

My mind’s eye
sees beauty in you
beyond my ugly view.

My mind’s eye
sees friends
beyond my fearful glance.

My mind’s eye
provides potential
for me to see
beyond reality.

My mind’s eye
is essential
for me to see
beyond me.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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Harvested Wheat Fields

Harvested Wheat Fields ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

What I see
blindly pleas
what I smell
does compel
me to believe
that all
of consequence
is physical.

What I hear
does endear
what I touch
pulls much
my heart toward
all that
my senses tell
is material.

What I taste
gives feast
what I feel
makes real
to my soul
that all
I consume
only matters.

What blindness!
What deafness!
What blandness!
What madness!

I failed to perceive
the deepest part of me that
reaches beyond
body, soul, and mind
touches eternity and divinity.
It is my awakened spirit.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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