Monday, July 23, 2012

BookPastor >> "The Search for Meaning"

TITLE: The Search for Meaning
AUTHORS: Thomas H. Naylor, William H. Willimon, and Magdalena R. Naylor.
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994, (224 pages).

This is one of the best books on the search for meaning. In the aftermath of the first bombings of Baghdad, a group of students from all walks of life, various religious beliefs, and different ethnic persons came together for a seminar at Duke University. The seminar was entitled, "The Search for Meaning" which is the same title for the book. Despite the multifaceted make-up of the students, all of them are interested in one single goal, What is the meaning of life?

A) Setting the Case

The authors begin with a grand tour of the different institutions of the world that have either collapsed or found lacking in providing answers to the question. Communism for all its high ideals has collapsed. Capitalism does not seem to offer solutions to the rich-poor divide. Colleges tend to focus overwhelmingly on markets and careers, without due understanding of the nature of human values, and what it means to be human. In a world that focuses more on meaning, the authors gently guide readers toward answering the more important question, "Who am I?" The Life Matrix is a concise depiction of the various states of meaning one can possibly be in.

Beginning with a fable of  deserted island, the authors pose a situation where one has everything he needs, except that there is no one around for him to share them with. A life of material abundance but a lack of relationships to share with. The authors propose a seven-step process in the search for meaning.

B) The Seven-Step Process
  1. LIFE HISTORY: "Review the most meaningful events in your life history."
  2. MEANINGLESSNESS: "Come to terms with the meaninglessness in your own life."
  3. SEPARATION: "Confront your separation from yourself, others, and the ground of your being."
  4. HAVING: "Contemplate the consequences of a life devoted to having."
  5. BEING: "Seek meaning through being - through your creations, love relationships, sense of community, and pain and suffering."
  6. PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY: "Formulate a personal philosophy, which addresses meaning, values, ethical principles, and social responsibility."
  7. PERSONAL STRATEGY: "Formulate a personal strategy, which includes an external environmental forecast, a situation assessment, objectives, goals, and strategies."

C) Four States of Meaning

The authors allocate a chapter each to the four states of meaning. The first one, "Meaninglessness" is a malaise that affects many people. Learning from Shakespeare, philosophers, as well as the biblical character of Job, readers are treated to four consequences of meaninglessness from a spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physiological points of view. Meaninglessness is like losing the glue of life when ideologies lose its significance over time. The conclusion is that world models fail to hold things together. Life leads to death. Meaninglessness leads to depression and despondency. The threat of nothingness looms large, as the hope for any meaningful future shrinks small.

The second state is "Separation" which can be manifested in three ways, separation from self, from others, and from God. Failure to connect is a root cause of meaninglessness. One reason is the overwhelming focus on self-actualization to the detriment of relationships. Freedom becomes self-centered focus. Isolation arises which makes any meaning more illusive. As a result, spiritually once gets detached from God. Intellectually, one gets alienated. Emotionally, one becomes easily anxious. Physiological, one lose sense of as one becomes disembodied in various ways.

The third state is "having" where people drown themselves in stuff and materialism. Partly to escape the boredom of life and the absence of relationships, hedonism reigns supreme. Legalism makes one more individualistic in outlook and people end up deceiving themselves that meaning can be found in having mammon.

The fourth state deals with the necessary state of "being." Of all the four states, this one comes closest to meaningfulness, but by itself is also lacking. Yet, there are good reasons to begin one's search for meaning through understanding the state of being. In cultivating creativity, one is able to "involve engagement, discipline, learning skills, mastering technique" to make life more livable and enjoyable. The Biblical model of love drives relationships, to learn that the world is bigger than our own. Pain and suffering is very much a part of life. The most potential for understanding meaning is in the biblical faith.

D) The Personal Search

After the four descriptions of the various states of meaning, it is time for application. Two suggestions are made. The first is a personal search for self understanding. The second is related to the world outside us. The authors pose ten questions to aid the inner search for meaning.
  1. Who am I? (Personhood question)
  2. Where am I going? (Destiny)
  3. How can I prevent my life from being a series of accidents? (Purpose)
  4. What do I want to be when I grow up? (Calling)
  5. How shall I overcome my separation from others, myself, and the ground of my being? (Relational)
  6. What shall I do to resist the temptation to have? (Against Mammon)
  7. How does one learn how to be? (Existential question)
  8. Can I find Meaningful Employment? (Vocation)
  9. Is it possible to experience real community? (Neighbourliness)
  10. How Can I die happy? (End)
One can begin by looking at one's life history, to get a snapshot. A personal philosophy can be developed with the four independent elements of "sense of meaning," "statement of values," "ethics," and "statement of social responsibility." The authors have also given lots of other suggestions for how to do strategic planning regard ethical decisions, and also based on age. Key to the decision to planning lies in the recognition of contexts and person's status at that time.

E) Beyond Self-Evaluation

Thankfully, the authors do not let the book become another self-help device. After giving ideas for personal search, they plunge the reader into seeking to participate in a community, in the workplace, and modern tools to facilitate search for meanings. Such tools include psychotherapy, bioppsychiatry, education, literature, fine arts, religion, and many more. The chapter on soul crafting covers the area of spirituality, which I find exceptionally helpful in our world of problem solving and techniques.  It deals with spiritual formation.

My Thoughts

Books like this is hard to find. After all, the search for meaning is not simply a Christian concern. It is a human need. I am thankful that the authors have shared their expertise and learning through this very insightful book. What is most helpful is the way the authors frame the Life Matrix, to give us an idea of where we are, or what kinds of holes we are digging ourselves into. In addition, their stepwise guide in helping readers search for meaning makes the book highly practical, and not simply a cerebral affair. I appreciate the way the authors weave in spiritual formation toward the end, reminding us again that just like the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, we can only find meaning when we point ourselves back to the Creator, instead of ransacking the world for answers.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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