Happiness or Meaning?

I have often benefitted from the writing of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Although he is now deceased, I continue to receive excerpts of his writing from the Rabbi Sacks Legacy, which shares his teachings and writings.

The piece that appeared in my inbox this morning was titled The Pursuit of Meaning. It began by referencing the Declaration of Independence’s statement of the right to the pursuit of happiness, and suggested that more fundamental to the sense of a life well-lived is, meaning. I thought the piece did a good job of distinguishing happiness and meaning, and explalining why meaning is more fundamental.

The two seem similar. It’s easy to suppose that people who find meaning are happy, and people who are happy have found meaning. But the two are not the same, nor do they always overlap. Happiness is largely a matter of satisfying needs and wants. Meaning, by contrast, is about a sense of purpose in life, especially by making positive contributions to the lives of others. Happiness is largely about how you feel in the present. Meaning is about how you judge your life as a whole: past, present, and future.

Happiness is associated with taking, meaning with giving. Individuals who suffer stress, worry, or anxiety are not happy, but they may be living lives rich with meaning. Past misfortunes reduce present happiness, but people often connect such moments with the discovery of meaning. Furthermore, happiness is not unique to humans. Animals also experience contentment when their wants and needs are satisfied. But meaning is a distinctively human phenomenon. It has to do not with nature but with culture. It is not about what happens to us, but about how we interpret what happens to us. There can be happiness without meaning, and there can be meaning in the absence of happiness, even in the midst of darkness and pain.

The piece gives the example of Viktor Frankl, as someone who brought the question of meaning into modern discourse. Frankl understood that life could have meaning even in the unhappiest of circumstances.

Frankl used to say that the way to find meaning was not to ask what we want from life. Instead we should ask what life wants from us. We are each, he said, unique: in our gifts, our abilities, our skills and talents, and in the circumstances of our life. For each of us, then, there is a task only we can do. This does not mean that we are better than others. But if we believe we are here for a reason, then there is a tikkun, a mending, only we can perform; a fragment of light only we can redeem; an act of kindness, or courage, or generosity, or hospitality only we can perform; even a word of encouragement or a smile only we can give, because we are here, in this place, at this time, facing this person at this moment in their lives.

“Life is a task,” he used to say, and added, “The religious man differs from the apparently irreligious man only by experiencing his existence not simply as a task, but as a mission.” He or she is aware of being summoned, called, by a Source. “For thousands of years that source has been called God.”

As I was reading this, I recalled that a close mentor wrote in my grade school graduation album the wish, not may you be happy but “May your life have meaning.” And that is my wish for all of us,


Learning from Jesus’ Encounter with the Woman at the Well

The late Michael Himes has a book titled Doing the Truth with Love, a phrase I’ve always loved. And I think that it is a good way of describing what Jesus consistently models in his encounters.

To be clear: Love doesn’t mean anything goes.  Love doesn’t mean there is no sin.  Love doesn’t mean acceptance of all behavior.  And love doesn’t mean that we don’t speak and live out of our truths.  But love does affect how we respond to people who have missed the mark, who have strayed from the path. 

Today’s Gospel records Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.  At the outset she is shocked that this Jewish man would even speak to her – a woman and a Samaritan woman at that.  But something in their conversation touched her deeply and John’s Gospel tells us that she left her water jug, ran into town and started telling people about Jesus.  Because of her witness, many began to believe in him.

It is the way Jesus speaks to her that matters.  Imagine how she would have reacted if his opening line had been something along the lines of, “You are such a sinful woman – you have had five husbands and you are now living in sin with someone who is not your husband!  Disgraceful!”  How open do you think she would have been to anything else he had to say?

Instead, Jesus talks to her about his being living water, explains that the water he gives will lead to eternal life.  And only after she asks for this water, does he say “Go call your husband,” and when she admits she has no husband, he tells her what he knows of her situation.  He says it without rancor, without condemnation.  And we see the result.

We are sometimes quick to reproach or condemn others.  May we instead find ways to encourage others in a more positive fashion – to speak truth with love.

[Cross-posted from the reflection I wrote for University of St. Thomas’ Lenten Reflections]

The Temptation of Good People

This past Sunday I preached at Lake Harriet United Methodist Church on the Gospel account of the temptation of Jesus. I used the three temptations described in our scripture as a way to talk about how people trying to lead good lives can be tempted into acting in ways that do not give glory to God.

Re-reading Walter Ciszek’s book, He Leadeth Me brought up another form of temptation for people trying to follow the call of God in their lives. In the context of discussing his own temptation to find a way to leave Russia and return to Poland when the ministry there was not what they expected, he says this:

And though our situation may have been somewhat unique, the temptation itself was not.  It is the same temptation faced by everyone who has followed a call and found that the realities of life were nothing like the expectations he had in the first flush of his vision and his enthusiasm.  It is the temptation that comes to anyone, for example, who has entered religious life with a burning desire to serve God and him alone, only to find that the day-to-day life in religion is humdrum and pedestrian, equally as filled with moments of human misunderstanding, daily routines, and distractions as the secular life he left behind in the world.  It is the same temptation faced by young couples in marriage, when the honeymoon is over, and they must face a seemingly endless future of living together and scratching out an existence in the same old place and the same old way.  It is the temptation to say: “This life is not what I thought it would be.  This is not what I bargained for.  It is not at all what I wanted, either.  If I had known it would be like this, I would never have made this choice.  I would never have made this promise.  You must forgive me, God, but I want to go back.  You cannot hold me to a promise made in ignorance; you cannot expect me to keep a covenant based on faith without any previous knowledge of the true facts of life….

It is a temptation that comes to every man and women, sometimes daily.

I’m guessing most of us can resonate with his observation. Surely we have all faced times when we questioned continuing on a path we felt called to. Perhaps Jesus did as well during his human life.

Temptation, of course, is a normal part of our humanity. The question is do we face it with the commitment to God’s plan Jesus (and Ciszek) did, or do we walk away?

PS You can watch my sermon on Lake Harriet’s website here. (It begins at about the 35 minute mark.)