In class yesterday I was having a discussion with some students about life, meaning and purpose. I don’t believe that our lives come with a ready-made meaning wrapped within. Finding meaning in our lives is not like going to the Christmas tree and picking up a “meaning package!” I suppose some people might wish it were this easy. But I don’t want it this way.
I believe meaning can come to us in a couple ways. In the first place, I do think we can “find” meaning. But meaning is not the Christmas package simply laying there waiting to be picked up, opened and, voila, we have our meaning. Meaning can be found, but even this finding process takes some work---sometimes hard work. Finding meaning presupposes that we are seeking.
This form of seeking can take us into many different venues. For example, we might find meaning by reading books. Reading is one form of seeking. We might also find ourselves in serious conversations with others who have traveled the spiritual path further than we have. This person might be a sage or spiritual guide. However, to get advice---even good advice---does not automatically translate into meaning in our lives. We have to figure out how to apply it to our own particular situation.
The other way meaning comes to us is by us creating it. I do believe we can create meaning in our life. This is a different approach and process than “finding” meaning. When we create meaning in our life, this presupposes that there is no original meaning to be “found.” Rather we create meaning.
We could use the image of a building when we think about creating meaning. First, it is wise to lay a good foundation. There are many good ways to lay the foundation. Again, it might be through reading. It can include many of the other classical spiritual disciplines, like prayer and meditation. Study is a great foundation because study brings some worthwhile knowledge. Ignorance is not a very solid foundation. Ignorance makes us vulnerable to the harsh winds of change.
On this solid foundation we build the structure of meaning. My particular way of making meaning includes a belief in God---a creative God. My meaning is structured around the notion that I (and you) am a child of God. I am alive with a purpose to love and to be loved. I am created to live and to love and to serve. We are created for each other. I call this community. In my meaning structure there is no place for the spiritual loner. Finally, it is not about me, but about “we.”
At the core of the spiritual journey is the notion of the true self. God created me to find and to create this true self. I realize the spiritual journey in its early segment usually is dealing with the false self that most people have come to be. My false self is not necessarily bad---it simply is not true. You can understand your false self when you examine your self-image. My true self is not the same thing as my self-image.
Put simply, I will be called to die to this false self in order that the true self be discovered and/or created. Jesus says as much in the gospels. He routinely talks about dying to the old self. Writers throughout the centuries have talked about it in similar ways.
I like how Richard Rohr puts it in a recent piece of writing. Rohr says, “I promise you that the discovery of your True Self will feel like a thousand pounds have fallen from your back. You will not have to build, protect, or promote self-image. Living in the True Self is quite simply a much happier existence, even though we never live there a full twenty-four hours a day. But you henceforth have it as a place to always go back to. You have finally discovered the alternative to your False Self.”
We notice that Rohr uses the language of “discovering” our true self. I can appreciate he understands it this way, although I still think some of us understand it more in the sense of “creating” the true self. In any case, we come to know that true self. And when we know this true self, we are free. We are free of the weight of the false self---that self image that must look just so, must behave perfectly, etc.
We are free no longer to build, protect or promote that false self. I cringe at the efforts I have made to promote my self-image. I am appalled at how much money, for example, some people spend on their self-image. Beauty products, clothes and so on can be huge expenses to look just right. Clearly I have nothing against beauty. But quite a bit of what we do to ourselves in the name of beauty is artificial. Some go to drastic measures to hide their true self.
The true self is always a beautiful thing because it is a God-given thing. My discussion with the students yesterday may have been about life, meaning and purpose. But the bottom line is, the discussion was about the true self. If you find that, you have found the treasure in our earthen vessel.