Psalm 127: Family and Work Give Meaning to Life

Psalm 127

Literary Classification, Outline, Historical Background or Setting

Psalm 127 is classified as a Wisdom Psalm, which usually teaches a moral or spiritual lesson, or both, about a life well-lived in communion with God.1 In particular, Psalm 127 teaches that, ultimately, “the Lord is responsible” for every successful activity or undertaking of human beings and that, whether they are aware of it or not, they are dependent on him ‘in every phase of life.”2 It takes the humility of wisdom to realize that in life itself, nothing worthwhile is accomplished by human effort alone. Whatever human activity is of value is due, ultimately, to the grace of God.3 In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “all that we have accomplished you [God] have done for us” (Isaiah 26:12b, NIV).

The psalm may be outlined as follows: The Value of Labor or Human Work, verses 1-2, and the Value of Family-Life, verses 3-5.4 The content or subject-matter of Psalm 127 is not connected with any kind of concrete, historical setting, but rather with a general lesson about life, labor, family and living in spiritual communion with God.5

The Value of Labor or Human Work (verses 1-2)

What the Psalmist Does Not Mean by “Vain”

Sacred Scripture teaches that there are two kinds of meaning. The first kind is secular, that is, of or related to the world. In other words, there is a daily, here-and-now, temporal meaning to life. There is also a sacred kind of meaning; one that belongs to religion. That is to say, there is an Ultimate Meaning to life, which is related to an Ultimate Being, namely, God.

The psalmist mentions three kinds of labor in verses 1 and 2: Building a house, guarding a city and tilling a field.6 The poet has in mind, though, any kind of undertaking or building, any human endeavor. By “vain”, the biblical poet does not mean nihilism. As Viktor Frankl, the “philosopher” of meaning, writes, “Nihilism … states that everything is meaningless;”that existence or “being has no meaning;”8 that, ultimately, life is nihil, “nothing.” Nor is the poet teaching that for a person who does not believe in God, life is meaningless. The non-believer still lives in God’s world, which is invested with all kinds of meaning by God the Creator. Life itself is a gift from God, whether a person believes in God or not.9

Therefore, in verses 1 and 2, the psalmist is not saying that having a job to provide an income for oneself or one’s family is useless, a waste of time, without any value whatsoever.10 On the contrary, work or human labor is a gift from God. For example, from the very beginning of human existence, even before the Fall – the sin of the first human couple and its negative consequences on the world – “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15, NIV). Work, therefore, is willed by God for human beings. As Koheleth or the author of Ecclesiastes says,

“A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This, too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25, NIV).11

Therefore, work, human labor, fulfills a person, giving his or her life meaning, even if that person does not attribute such meaning to God’s design. That is to say, humans, even without believing in God, can know the value of the effect, namely, labor or work, without believing in its cause, namely, God.

The Meaning of “Vain”

What, then, does the psalmist mean by “vain?” Two things. First, apart from a personal relationship with God, daily living by faith in the Creator, work, as good or as wonderful as it may be, leaves a person with the sense that something is incomplete, lacking in his or her life. Second, without God, that is, without his blessings to “crown” human activities, no kind of work could ever succeed.

The God-Invested Value of Family-Life (verses 3-5)

The psalmist teaches that children and family-life have meaning. They are good in themselves, being gifts from God. As the poet says, “Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward” (127:3, NASB). For instance, when Joseph’s father, Israel, saw Joseph’s sons, Israel asked, “‘Who are these?’” (Genesis 48:8b, NIV). Then Joseph answered his father, “They are the sons God has given me” (Genesis 48:9a, NIV). Similarly, when Boaz had conjugal relations with Ruth, the Moabitess, Sacred Scripture says, “the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son” (Ruth 4:13b, NIV). Likewise, the prophet Isaiah says to his people, “Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me” (Isaiah 8:18a, NIV). Thus, for the psalmist, children are not merely biological material; nor are they things, objects, that their parents possess. Rather, children are human beings, sacred persons.

The family is God’s creation. The poet teaches that as parents become old, children are to parents what arrows are to a soldier in war, providing protection to the family (verses 4-5).12 God designed the family to be a community of persons, loving and being loved, supported and being supported, by each other. That is why family-life can be meaningful. As with work or human labor, even if such meaning is not ascribed to God, nevertheless, it comes, ultimately, from him.

Ultimate Meaning

Therefore, the psalmist, while recognizing the value of temporal, here-and-now or day-to-day meanings of a person’s life, such as work and family-life, presupposes that there is a meaning that is even higher than the temporal meanings of life, namely, an Ultimate Meaning. It is a meaning which gives greater meaning to all other finite meanings in life.13 Such a meaning is related to religion or faith in an Ultimate Being, namely, God. Of course, life itself is a great good. But life in spiritual communion with God is even a greater good. It is the summum bonum, because a person is spiritually related to God, the “Highest Good.”

Endnotes

1 Roland E. Murphy, “Psalms,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, et al. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968). The edition from which I am quoting is the one book in two volumes, Vol. I., p. 599.

2 John T. Willis, Insights from the PsalmsVol. 3, in The Way of Life Series, no. 133, ed. J. D. Thomas (Abilene, TX.: Biblical Research Press, 1974), p. 93.

3 Clyde M. Miller, Studies in the Psalms (Nashville, TN.: Miller Publications, 1976), p. 64.

4 Ibid.

5 William A. VanGemeren et al., “Psalms,” in The Expositors’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1991), p. 793.

6 Clyde M. Miller, Studies in the Psalms, op. cit., p. 64.

7 Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 152.

8 Ibid., p. 131.

9 Cf. Ronald Allen, “Living Life to the Full,” Moody Magazine, January-February, 1998, pp. 29, 30.

10 William A. VanGemeren et al., “Psalms,” in The Expositors’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, op. cit., p. 794.

11 For the theme of the value and enjoyment of human life, cf. Ecclesiastes 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:8-12:1.

12 John T. Willis, Insights from the Psalms, Vol. 3, op. cit., p. 93.

13 Cf. Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1952), p. 47. “Ultimate Meaning” is similar to Tillich’s “ultimate concern.”

Mother Teresa’s Doubts

Mother Teresa

Intellectual Doubt

Did Mother Teresa have doubts? Did she have questions about God, even agonizing over why the Creator allows suffering, poverty and evil? Of course she did! So do many saintly or godly women and men. However, doubt is not necessarily an enemy of faith in God. Actually, an honest, sincere kind of doubt is rooted in the search for truth, being open-minded to finding satisfactory answers to questions about one’s faith. I do not think that Mother Teresa, with her “rich” theological and philosophical heritage, was suffering from intellectual doubt. In what follows, I will explain why.

Feelings of Distance from God

Sometimes, Mother Teresa had felt as though she were only “going through the motions” of being a Christian, of serving others. For example, in one of her letters, she confessed,

“If you only knew what goes on within my heart. – Sometimes the pain is so great that I feel as if everything will break. The smile is a big cloak which covers a multitude of pains.”1

At others times, she had felt as if her faith were contradictory, desiring to be near God but feeling repulsed by him. In another letter, she admits,

“There is so much contradiction in my soul. – Such deep longing for God -– … a suffering continual – and yet not wanted by God – repulsed – empty – no faith – no love – no zeal. … Heaven means nothing – to me it looks like an empty place – the thought of it means nothing to me….”2

However, note well: Mother Teresa is experiencing the feeling, not the reality, of the absence of God. Faith is not a feeling! Rather, faith proceeds from the will. It is a decision, a firm, lifelong commitment to God. As such, it is not reducible to feelings about God. If it were, then a person’s life would, indeed, be contradictory, for on one day a person may have faith; and on another, he or she may not.

Emotional Doubt

Mother Teresa may have been suffering from emotional, not intellectual, doubt. C. S. Lewis explains what goes on inside a person suffering from emotional doubt, saying,

“I have no rational ground for going back on the arguments that convinced me of God’s existence: but the irrational deadweight of my old sceptical habits, and the spirit of this age, and the cares of the day, steal away all my lively feelings of the truth, and often when I pray I wonder if I am not posting letters to a non-existent address. Mind you I don’t think so – the whole of my reasonable mind is convinced: but I often feel so.”3

Similarly, in still another letter, Mother Teresa, now a saint in the Latin or Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, expresses her emotional doubts. It reads, in part,

 “Where is my faith? — even deep down, right in, there is nothing, but emptiness …[and] darkness. … [H]ow painful is this unknown pain. It pains without ceasing. – I have no faith. — I dare not utter the words … [and] thoughts that crowd in my heart … [and] make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me.”4

Elsewhere, she writes,

 “In my soul I feel … that terrible pain of loss – … of God not being God … of God not really existing. … I have no faith – I don’t believe.”5

Prolonged stress adversely affects a person’s emotions.6 That may be why Mother Teresa, constantly caring for men, women and children in poverty and homelessness; in starvation, suffering and death, questions God. For certain periods of time in a believer’s life – some lasting longer than others – he or she may feel frustrated, at a loss for answers to his or her questions. That applies, in principle, to Mother Teresa. However, it does not mean she had rejected her faith; that she no longer believed in God.

That Mother Teresa’s questioning of God is not a denial of her faith is evident from the example of Jesus himself, the Founder of Christianity. While undergoing excruciating pain and suffering, as he approaches his death, he cries out to the Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46b, NIV). Those are also the words of the psalmist or biblical poet, another believer in God, yet questioning God (cf. Psalm 22:1, NIV).

Living with Unanswered Questions

If many, if not most, questions about life and its problems find answers by believing in God, then it is prudent to live by faith. Not having all the answers does not mean that a person’s faith is wrong. Rather, it means that he or she is a finite creature or finitum non capax infiniti, that is, “the finite cannot grasp or contain the infinite,” the creature cannot comprehend the Creator. After all, if every question has a rational explanation, one which reason alone can settle, then faith would no longer be faith; rather, it would be reducible to reason.

Mother Teresa did not abandon her faith in the Lord! Likewise, there are times in a believer’s life, when he or she may have a kind of psychological ambivalence, a mixture of belief and doubt, which says, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24b, NASB). Faith is a process, a pilgrimage, a journey to God. In that journey, there will be struggles, emotional “ups-and-downs,” questions and even doubts. But by the Lord’s grace, trusting in his providential guidance of a believer’s life, doubt eventually gives way to faith; belief eventually overcomes unbelief.

Endnotes

  1. Mother Teresa, “Letter to Archbishop Perier, July 15, 1958,” in Mother Teresa – Come be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta,” ed. Brian Kolodiejchuk (New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 2007), p. 176.
  2. Ibid., “Letter to Archbishop Perier, February 28, 1957,” p. 169.
  3. C. S. Lewis, The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (1914 – 1963), ed. Walter Hooper (New York, N.Y.: Collier/Macmillan, 1986), pp. 398-399.
  4. Mother Teresa, “Letter to Jesus, Undated,” in Mother Teresa – Come be My Light, p. 187.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Cf. Frank B. Minirth, In Pursuit of Happiness: Choices That Can Change Your Life (Grand Rapids, MI.: Fleming H. Revell/ Baker Book House Company, 2004), pp. 68-83.
 

Minute Meditation on Viktor Frankl: Choosing Hope over Despair

Viktor E Frankl’s Book Man’s Search for Meaning

In his Preface to the 1984 edition of Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, the eminent psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, explained why he wrote his book:

“I therefore felt responsible for writing down what I had gone through, for I though it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.”

Despair is the temptation, even an overwhelming feeling, when physical or emotional suffering becomes too severe, to give up on life, to doubt its meaning, even, at times to prefer death to life. The way out of despair, though, is not a feeling but a choice, a conscious decision, to believe that life has meaning, despite its hardships and sufferings; that tragedy can be transmuted by choosing to turn it into a triumph.

I have experienced despair. I have tasted its bitter herbs and, in their place, I have decided to “feed on” faith, hope and love, and to seek a Higher Power, a belief in God, for the strength to face life and its vicissitudes.

 

The Fading Glory of Human Beings

Genesis 3:19

[D]ust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19b, KJV). Quite often, a human being, “intoxicated” by a false notion of bodily immortality, needs to be reminded of the fact that he or she is a creature or created being, and, as such, will die. Thus, Yahweh, the Lord, declares through the prophet Isaiah,

“A voice says, ‘Cry out’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
‘All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever'”
(Isaiah 40:6-8, NIV).

Why, then, O human being, do you succumb to the vice of arrogance, being filled with pride by your wealth, fame and power? Without God, O earth-bound creature,

You are a flower that shrivels,
a mist that vanishes,
a breath that expires;
grass that withers,
beauty that fades,
water that evaporates
and strength that dwindles.

Apart from your Creator’s eternal, immortal, life-giving power,

You rise up, only to be brought down;
increase, only to decrease;
begin, only to end
and live, only to die,
with your body turning to dust and ashes.

All human glory fades; therefore, O finite, dependent, human creature, walk humbly before God, with an awareness of your mortality and need for immortality from your Creator, for everything that is not God is death.

Attitudinal Values: What Cannot be Changed Must be Endured

Viktor Frankl: Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor

The Tragic Dimension of Life

At birth, human beings inhabit a “wounded” or damaged world. Humans themselves are also wounded, finite creatures, limited by their natural imperfections. Since imperfect humans live in an imperfect world, it cannot always be changed, despite all the advances of science.

If science had a solution for every human problem, could fix everything that is wrong with the world, heal ever kind of disease and prevent death itself, then science itself would take on a savior-like or divine-like status, virtually making it into God. However, since science can neither cure every disease nor conquer death itself, then science is neither God nor Savior of humankind.

Therefore, in an imperfect world with human imperfections, it is not always possible for every condition to be changed; nor for all diseases to be healed. As psychiatrist Viktor Frankl writes,

“Caught in a hopeless situation as its helpless victim, facing a fate that cannot be changed, man still may turn his predicament into an achievement and accomplishment at the human level. He thus may bear witness to the human potential at its best, which is to turn tragedy into triumph.”1

Challenged by Life to Change Oneself

Sometimes, perhaps many times, a person “overcomes” a difficulty or problem only by enduring it. In Frankl’s words,

“Facing a fate we cannot change, we are called upon to make the best of it by rising above ourselves and growing beyond ourselves, in a word, by changing ourselves.”2

That is to say, if a person’s problem cannot be changed, after exhausting all possible attempts to change it, then he or she must change his or her attitude toward it and, thereby, become better, that is, a changed person.

Rethinking the Notion of a “Victorious” Life

The “cure,” then, for an incurable disease may be living with it, enduring it. Coping with the problem, having the right kind of attitude toward it, is, in a way, the “victory” over it.

Of course, when life’s problems or difficulties can be changed, they should be. In short, when things change for the worse, a person is challenged to respond to them by making a change for the better in his or her life.

Endnotes

1. Viktor E. Frankl, The Unconscious God (New York, N.Y.: Washington Square Press/ Pocket Books/ Simon and Schuster, Inc., English ed.1975, 1st Washington Square Press printing 1985), pp. 125-126.

2. ———-, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning (New York, N.Y.: Insight Books/ Plenum Press, 1997), p. 142.

An Example of the Social Effects of Suicide

Image of the Clouds Blocking the Sun

While quoting statistics about suicide in teaching a course on medical ethics, my nursing students asked me to move from the abstract to the concrete, from general data to a concrete, specific example of the social effects of suicide. The following letter is one such example, revealing just how much a loved one’s suicide can hurt others, even possibly “wounding” them for life. For example, “Rachel” (whose real name has been disguised) was hurt emotionally and saw a therapist, because her husband “Mark” (whose real name has been disguised) ended his life. To express her deep pain and help her heal, the therapist had Rachel write Mark a letter, which reads, in part:

—————————————-

Dear Mark,

How could someone I know so well deceive me? Your note said, ‘I’m sorry, I am not well, I’m no good.’ This is what you left for a legacy for your loving wife of thirty-five years and three beautiful children who respected, adored, and loved you, a big brother who called you his best friend, and so many others I couldn’t begin to count. All the good you did in your life is now shadowed by the way you ended your life.

None of us understands what happened to the faith you had in the Lord. As your wife, I want you to know that I feel you threw away my love. I have no sense of belonging. I have no one. You have left me empty, with no desire to do anything but mourn and grieve. I have literally lost all the hair on my head due to the trauma and shock. I have been constantly sick because the stress has torn down my immune system. I have horrible nightmares and flashbacks of your body lying in a pool of blood, and I can’t sleep much of the time. I don’t cook and have no desire to eat. You have broken my heart and my spirit.

I want you to know that our first born was married almost a year ago, and it was so painful to sit in that first row without you. It was so horrible watching your son give his sister. The most important day in a young woman’s life and our beautiful daughter had to endure the pain of not having you there to hold her hand and give her hugs and encouragement. Your only son has been so brave and has given up his career as a basket ball coach just to be closer to our family. You had so much love and compassion for each of your children why did you do this to them? Our youngest daughter just graduated from college. It was so lonely watching her walk across the stage. I needed you to share this wonderful time in her life. I was angry and I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, ‘Why did you do this to your family?’

You gave us no warning. You hid your plan so well. I am shocked by your deceit. You knew that I would be the one to shoulder the burden of finding your body. It doesn’t make sense. Didn’t you know I and the children would suffer this tremendous pain and emptiness?

I am angry because you lied Pastor John and the psychiatrist asked you if you had considered suicide. Your response, ‘I thought of it but I would never do that to my family,’ made me trust in you. You lied and deceived all of us. I have forgiven you, Mark. I will end this letter by saying: ‘You were the love of my life as well as the greatest disappointment in my life.’

Your grieving wife,

Rachel

—————————————-

There are many reasons for a person to stay alive, but there is no good reason for him or her to end his or her life, not even in a state of depression and despair, which can often be treated with psychotherapy and medication. The letter above is another good reason for a person to stay alive; and, in particular, to live for others, finding meaning in being loved and loving family, friends and other kinds of social relationships. As psychiatrist Viktor Frankl teaches, just as the clouds may hide the sun from shining, the sun, nevertheless, is still shining. Objectively, the sun still exists; it is really there. Likewise, meaning still exists; objectively, it is still there. Life is really worth living, even when the dark “clouds” of depression and despair may — at the moment or for a while — block a person from “seeing” or perceiving life’s meaning.

If you know someone in crisis, I suggest calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Endnote

I have quoted excerpts of Rachel’s letter in the form of a complete letter. For the original letter in its entirety, see Gary P. Stewart, “Suicide’s Companion: A Trail of Tears,” in Suicide: A Christian Response – Crucial Considerations for Choosing Life, eds. Timothy J. Demy and Gary P. Stewart (Grand Rapids, MI.: Kregel Publications, 1998), pp. 430, 431, 432, 433. Italics are mine.

 

Minute Meditation: Love as the Ultimate Human, Moral and Spiritual Value in Life

It is both a religious truth and fact of human experience that love gives meaning to life! However, many people suffer from love-deprivation, which is living without giving and receiving love. Being without it is one of the greatest tragedies in life. Persons deprived of love experience a loss of meaning and, therefore, cannot really experience human fulfillment or happiness. Pope John Paul II rightly observes,

“Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.”

In other words, human beings do not really live, rather they merely exist, without love. The tragedy about that is stones, trees and houses exist, but humans are meant to live and they do that, making their lives complete, by experiencing love.

Viktor Frankl, the eminent psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, discovers that love givev meaning to life, while imagining his wife’s beauty in the very midst of suffering in a concentration camp. He writes,

“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

Therefore, the greatest virtue, that which makes life worth living, is love. In the words of Scripture, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:13, NIV).

Endnote

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), pp. 48-49.

 

 

Concerning the First Presidential “Debate” of 2020: Speaking without Listening

The Debate between President Trump and Joe Biden

Listening to the Speaker without Interrupting Him or Her

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19, NIV).

When two persons are communicating, one person should be be ready and willing to listen while the other speaks, not interrupting him or her. After all, how can an understanding of the speaker be reached, when he or she is constantly being interrupted? First, then, listen to the speaker with the intention of understanding him or her. 

Replying without Inflammatory, Personal Attacks of the Person’s Character

A person should be “slow to speak.” The reason is that it often takes time to understand what it being said, to process it mentally, and to select the right words to reply to the speaker. Then — and only then — after an understanding has been reached, the person may respond the speaker. Speak the truth, but speak it “in love” (Ephesians 4:15), for it is not enough for a person to know what to say; he or she must also know how to say it. In other words, how a person responds to the speaker, the manner of the reply, may adversely affect the communication process itself. 

“Communication Breakdown”

James, the sacred author, uses the example of an angry reply. However, the how or manner of communication may also apply to insults or name-calling, ad hominem attacks, “assassinating” a person’s character, often resulting in an argument which spirals out of control. When that happens, two persons are talking at, not to, each other. Such a “heated” exchange between them is also indicative of a lack of respect for each other, with each reducing the other to an “it,” a thing or object to be manipulated or abused for one’s own advantage, political or otherwise.

Therefore, in two respects, it takes wisdom, which is developed by experience, to communicate effectively. First, there must be a willingness to listen to the speaker or, to paraphrase Gabriel Marcel, to receive another person’s words into oneself. Second, a person’s mind must carefully choose the right words to reply to the speaker, so that (agree or disagree with each other) an understanding exists between both persons.

 

Viktor Frankl: The Difference between Real and Apparent Meaning in Life

Viktor Frankl, Psychiatrist, Holocaust Survivor and Founder of Logotherapy

The Difference between Real and Apparent Meaning

“What is meant by meaning?”1 Usually, the answer is: “That which is fulfilling to each individual.” However, real fulfillment must be distinguished from apparent fulfillment. What about the person who believes that stealing money is fulfilling to him or her? That is apparent, not real, fulfillment. The object of fulfillment must be morally right or, at least, morally neutral. It cannot be morally wrong. What about the masochist who feels fulfilled in inflicting suffering or pain on others? That is apparent, not real, fulfillment. What about the drug dealer who feels “fulfilled” in selling cocaine and crack to kids and teenagers, who, in turn, kill themselves or others. That is apparent, not real, fulfillment. A person who is addicted to drugs may feel fulfilled in taking them. So may an alcoholic feel fulfilled in drinking. But it is not real fulfillment. There is a true fulfillment or meaning in life, which is really good for a person; and a false or apparent fulfillment or meaning in life, which seems to be good for an individual but, in reality, is not.

Nihilism

Does meaning in life really exist? According to the philosophy of nihilism, life is really meaningless,2 but despite that, one must choose for life to be meaningful. Each person must imagine that life has meaning, even though it has none. Meaning, then, is an illusion, a deeply held wish for something to be real but is not.

However, nihilism is contrary to common human experience. It is evident from experience that human beings desire something to fulfill them, something to keep their lives going, even if what they thought would fulfill them, actually, did not.

Problems in Perceiving Life’s Meaning

Problems in perceiving life’s meaning does not mean that life is meaningless. Meaning is a “given,” a starting-point, a first principle. It is a fundamental premise, which is basic to life itself. A person may question the meaning of life. He or she may even despair over life’s meaning. But that does not mean life has no meaning. Rather, it only means that the person fails to perceive his or her meaning or is blind to it, because of existential problems (i.e., problems related to living) in his or her life.

Existential problems include personal frustration; mental confusion; depression; various kinds of addictions (e.g., alcohol, sex, drugs, etc.); emotional problems, related to personal failures; or grief, related to the death of a loved-one or a personal tragedy. A person’s psychological or spiritual condition may prevent him or her from seeing the meaning of his or her life for either a short or long period of time.

For example, the sun really exists, even though it may be covered by clouds for a while. Eventually, however, the clouds pass and the sun can again be seen. Likewise, the “clouds” of life — such as drug addition, suffering physical or emotional abuse, the loss of hope or despair — may cover or obscure the reality of meaning, but that does not mean there is no meaning to life. It is there, whether a person perceives it or not.

Objective or Real Meaning in Life

Meaning is objective. It is real, that is, outside or independent of the human person. In other words, meaning is “out there” in the world to be found by each individual. Meaning is discovered, because it is real. It is not invented by each person.3 The outside dimension of reality fulfills something inside the human person. There is a direct or one-to-one correspondence between the subject, that is, each human person, and the object, that is, the person or thing out in the world, which fulfills him or her.

A Real Need for Meaning in Life

Human beings really need meaning. In other words, there is a “hunger” or “thirst” in the human heart for meaning in life. For example, human beings desire food and water, which do, indeed, exist. Humans also desire meaning in their lives. Hence, it is reasonable that meaning really exists in order to fulfill the object of their desire.4

Of course, a person may miss his or her search for water and food and die from dehydration or starvation, but that does not prove that food and water do not exist. Rather, it only demonstrates that the person has not found the object of his or her search. In other words, the food and water were not in the place that the person had sought for them.

Similarly, if a person does not find meaning in life, that does not mean it does not exist. Rather, it means that the individual missed the object of his or her search. He or she may have been mistaken or misguided in the search for meaning. Therefore, a human being really needs meaning in order to make sense of his or her life, that is, to believe that life is worthwhile or worth living. Meaning gives a person a reason to stay alive, to live for someone or something worthwhile or both.5 It is because a human being has meaning in life that he or she can truly say, “Life is worth living.”

Self-Transcendence

The same point may be stated somewhat philosophically as follows: Human beings find meaning when they transcend themselves, that is, go out of themselves or beyond themselves to someone or something. When they take the focus off themselves and place it on someone or something, they find true fulfillment and, thus, meaning in their lives.6

Of course, human beings can live without meaning, but their lives are not fulfilled. They may not immediately sense that something is missing from their lives. However, because meaning is necessary for a good, fulfilling life, they may, sooner or later, sense or feel a void within themselves, an inner emptiness or, in the words of psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, an “existential vacuum.”7

A person must be persistent in attempting to discover the meaning of his or her life. He or she must keep on asking in order to find the answer to life’s meaning. He or she must keep on seeking in order to find a meaning to life. He or she must keep on knocking until the “door” of the meaning opens for him or her.

Ultimate Meaning

There is an existential or day-to-day meaning to sustain a person in the here-and-now, in this life. There is also an ultimate meaning, which gives meaning not only to a person’s overall life but also his or her moment-by-moment life. Ultimate meaning infuses the day-to-day meaning of a person’s life. In the words of Paul Tillich,

“The anxiety of meaninglessness is anxiety about the loss of an ultimate concern, of a meaning which gives meaning to all meanings. This anxiety is aroused by the loss of a spiritual center, of an answer, however symbolic and indirect, to the question of the meaning of existence.”8

For religious persons, the ultimate meaning of life is grounded in the “Eternal Thou,” a “Higher Power” or “the Ground of Being.” That is to say, ultimate meaning comes from believing in God: knowing, loving and serving the Creator. That kind of being, an Ultimate Being, is worthy of a person’s ultimate commitment in life.

Atheists and agnostics have a need for meaning in their lives, just as much as Christians, Jews, Muslims or any other religious group that believes in God. However, atheists fulfill their need for Transcendence in different ways, such as being filled with a sense of wonder at the vastness of the universe; deriving meaning from loving others, from the enjoyment of music and art; and experiencing the beauty of nature.

Endnotes

1. Viktor E. Frankl, The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy (New York, N.Y.: New American Library, 1969, 1st printing 1970), pp. 50-79. In fact, the title of the section of Frankl’s book from which I have developed my ideas in this paper is “What is Meant by Meaning?”

2. ———-, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 152; cf. p. 131.

3. ———-, The Will to Meaning, op. cit. pp. 60-61.

4. Ibid., p. 95.

5. ———-, The Unheard Cry for Meaning (New York, N.Y.: Washington Square Press, 1978), p. 38.

6. ———–, Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1967), p. 11.

7. ———-, Man’s Search for Meaning, op. cit., pp. 110-111.

8. Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1952), p. 47.

 

Applying Wisdom from the Jewish Scriptures to Consumerism during the Coronavirus Pandemic

In the Jewish Scriptures, there is much wisdom that applies to the Coronavirus pandemic, as people rush in fear to supermarkets or grocery stores to “stock up” on food and other supplies. Those who have the financial means to purchase their goods are, of course, at a distinct economic advantage, because it is possible for them to deplete the shelves of stores, leaving the poor with little, if anything, to care for themselves. That, in fact, is precisely what is happening in not a few places in the United States.

However, the problem I am describing was addressed thousands of years ago to the Jewish people in the Torah, where Yahweh, through Moses, Israel’s great lawgiver, instructs the people to care for the needs of the poor or economically disadvantaged, saying,

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:9-10, NIV).

Elsewhere in the Torah, Moses gives a similar moral and economic principle to Israel, saying,

“When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow” (Deuteronomy 24:19-21, NIV).  

In other words, those who have the financial means, the economically advantaged, while caring for themselves, should not deplete the land of all its natural resources, leaving nothing for the poor. That moral-economic principle also applies, say, to Costco and BJ’s. Food and other basic human necessities should be available to all people, regardless of their socioeconomic status. It would be well, then, for those who own and manage wholesale stores and supermarkets to keep the Mosaic principle in mind, limiting the consumption of goods, so that those who are less fortunate may be able to care for their basic human necessities.