Creatures Seeking Meaning

From RABBI RICHARD ADDRESS, director of the department of Jewish Family Concerns at the Union for Reform Judaism:

At a recent workshop that I was teaching on “The Art of Caregiving,” a participant and I meandered into a conversation about his recent retirement. He had worked at the same job for decades and was not quite used to his new stage of life. During a break, he asked to follow up on some of the workshop discussion on meaning. The group and I had been talking about the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who described human beings as creatures “in search of meaning” and emphasized the power of being needed in the world. As this 60-ish man stirred his coffee, he turned to me, looked me straight in the eye, and said: “That is the issue, rabbi, no one needs me now.”
I was struck by his honesty, and also, the comment touched me in a very profound way. What a lonely place it must seem to reach a stage in life and feel that you are no longer needed. What is it like to wake up every morning and look into a day in which you see no reason to get out of bed? Herein lies one of the challenges that will impact increasing numbers of people: With the longevity revolution now upon us, one of our more interesting discussions as a society and as individuals will be how to live our expanded lives with a sense of meaning and purpose. In an age of science and technology, the voice of religion must also be present in this search for meaning. Indeed, the impact and contributions of science and technology can be the means through which people engage in finding a sense of meaning; yet, the search is, by definition, an individual one and subject to increasing variables, such as health, family circumstances, and economic pressures. For many right now, the luxury of one’s search for meaning may be back-burnered by the necessity of having to work an extra job or postpone retirement so as to boost a floundering pension or 401K.
Every one of us wants to live a life that has meaning—I believe that completely—but meaning in one’s life cannot be scientifically measured. It is more a feeling, a sense, an emotion that what I do and who I am counts for something and contributes to a legacy of life. Often, like the gentleman at my workshop, we define that meaning through our work. “I am a dentist”, or “I am a teacher.” And what happens when that definition is removed? We are given the challenge of really finding an answer to our own predicate. This can be frightening and empowering, daunting and liberating, all at the same time. For in our society and our schools, we rarely educate for meaning. Rather, we educate for tasks.
Here, then, is a major challenge for religion in the coming years. Really, it is the same challenge that we have faced for centuries. How do we educate people for meaning? How do we teach that this life is a gift and that it is our charge to live it so that it has meaning and provides a legacy that can be lived through future generations? Religion has too often been corrupted by fanatical fundamentalism that uses God as a reason to promote political agendas. In doing so, the search for personal meaning is abandoned and subverted. In this age of growing angst and personal questioning, it is time for the leaders of religious communities to affirm the basic call of their faiths. Heschel is right, we are “creatures in search of meaning,” and too many of us now wander in our own wilderness in search of that “holy grail.”

Category: Expert Opinion


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