From the Dean: Trying to Make Sense in Times of Nonsense

March 22, 2017

Seattle University just completed its 9th annual Search for Meaning Book Festival, a smorgasbord of authors, readers, books, art and conversations about humanity’s most precious resource – the experience of purpose, meaning, and confidence in the worthwhileness of our humanity and creation.  The event is dedicated to the need to “make sense” in a world that often “lacks sense” and has way too much nonsense.  Over the past nine years, more than 10,000 people and 450 authors have flooded the campus of Seattle University to feast on ideas about living a good, ethical, purposeful and meaningful life.  In the last few years, a curated art show on human meaning has been added, and this year, a play, and a Town Hall lecture.  

Meaning and purpose sit on both a solid foundation and shifting sand.  There are certain parts of all our traditions – religious, social, and cultural -- that endure across generations and there are those that do not.  We live in a time of sea change for all traditions, perhaps at the same level of the Axial Age.  This is a term coined by the philosopher Karl Jaspers to describe a pivotal age of ancient history between the 8th and 3rd centuries B.C.E.  During this period, cultures throughout the world shifted simultaneously from obsession with local concerns to more “transcendent” interests.  The great religious traditions grew out of these centuries, as did the powerful ancient civilizations that awakened the human race to new understandings of reality and the purpose of our lives.

The Search for Meaning borrowed its name from the famous 1946 book by Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, which described his experiences in Auschwitz during the Holocaust, one of history’s greatest horrors that set in motion many of the dramatic changes of our times.  The festival also originated with the belief that nothing can stir a soul quite like a book.  Most attendees at Search for Meaning are in search of texts that awaken their search for greater depth.  I suspect these people are on the kind of quest that brought visitors to Monsieur Perdu’s floating book barge on the Seine, in Nina George’s charming novel, The Little Paris Bookshop.  Perdu could “see and hear through most people’s camouflage,” and “see all the things they worry and dream about, and the things they lack,” and like a skilled surgeon of the spirit, could prescribe the perfect book to address the unhappiness of their soul. 

People come to the Search for Meaning Festival for lots of reasons, but I suspect the most common motivation is a shared awareness among attendees that life is difficult, serious, complex, and dreadfully short.  In the midst of these sobering descriptors, and the dramatic changes occurring around us, people at the festival are driven by a desire to live well, with critical reflection, and without regret.  They desire making the most of what Mary Oliver has called this “one, wild precious life,” and I suspect most would agree with a statement once made by the engineer and industrialist Soichiro Honda, who transformed a small bicycle motor shop into the multinational Honda automobile company: “the value of life … (is) measured by how many times your soul has been deeply stirred.”  To maintain our bearings in times of great change, our souls need to get stirred deeply and often, and the book festival excels at both.

There is no other university in North America that has invested in an event like the Search for Meaning, which seeks to stir up the sediment in the souls of attendees in multiple ways over a two-day period.  It fits the bookish culture of Puget Sound.  But, it also plucks a resonant chord with a region of the world that has lots of people who realize that yesterday’s answers to the mysteries of life are often inadequate to make sense of the challenges and opportunities of our day and time.  Some people of faith from historic religious traditions are uneasy with such a comment.  But, as the popular Catholic writer, Fr. Ron Rolheiser says in his book, Prayer: Our Deepest Longing.  “God … is the author of everything that’s good, whether it bears a religious label or not.  Hence, God’s voice is inside of many things that are not explicitly connected to faith and religion just as God’s voice is also not in everything that masquerades as religion.”  The Search for Meaning is trying to help attendees look for God’s activity wherever it is occurring in the world.

Although the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University created and operated the Search for Meaning for its first five years, the festival has always been a completely different kind of book fair than one might expect from a theological school.  Although there are religion and spirituality writers at the event, most of the authors do not write about the subject of religion or spirituality per se. But, they do write about the haunting questions that religion and philosophy have explored throughout most of history, the questions that lead to the turf of the deepest and most sacred questions of the human condition.  Many of the festival’s writers are “philosophers and theologians from another mother,” using different constructs, literary genres, and methodologies in their writing to wrestle with those ancient questions of the human heart and mind, and looking at them through the prism of social or physical sciences, from the vantage point of various professions, like health care, law, or business, or through the creative lens of expression that arise from a collage of different forms of the arts. 

The authors in the festival explore our most fundamental and important questions like: Do I exist for a reason? Am I living a worthwhile life?  What is love and when do I know I’m experiencing the real thing? Why does suffering exist in the world?  Is it useful in some way, and if so, what can I learn from it? If we are so much alike, why are people so different and why do we have such a difficult time getting along with each other? Is it valuable to sacrifice, and if so, for whom and for what should I sacrifice, and how much should I sacrifice? Is it really possible to determine right from wrong, and why is the difference important in a world with so much unjust suffering?  How does one find or achieve happiness, and is it an end in itself or is it a by-product of living a certain kind of life? Is there anything on the other side of this life, and if so, are there things we can do on this side that prepares us for what comes next?

These kinds of questions are buried deep in the layers of our consciousness and unconsciousness, and course through the white and grey matter that are host to the miracle of our brains. The questions haunt some of us more than others, since some of us are amazingly skilled in filling our lives with distractions, but just living life stirs up these questions, and people who live the most contented and meaningful lives are those who are unafraid to take journeys into the center of such inquiries.  Although religious specializes in it, reading, and theater, along with music and the arts can also access and trigger our imaginations and carry us into the discomforting but simultaneously exhilarating depths of these existential questions of ultimate meaning.  It does by turning our imagination into a vehicle for engaging the recesses of our own soul in new thoughts and perspectives.

For many of us, a book displaying this amazing ability is George Saunders’ recent novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. In this quirky text, the author mixes snippets of historical narrative about the events surrounding the death of Abraham Lincoln’s 12-year-old son, Willie, and an imaginative journey built on top of a small historical notation in a workman’s logbook at Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, where the young boy’s body was entombed. The logbook notes as a fact of history that several days after his son’s death, Lincoln returned to the graveyard late at night to visit his son’s grave. 

Saunders allows us to experience that long evening in the graveyard through the questions and reflections of the spirit of Willie, and introduces the reader to dozens of other ghosts, as they all interact in the dark with a grieving Lincoln and each other.  Bardo is a Tibetan Buddhist concept for the place between life and rebirth in which a person resides for a specific period of time, depending upon one’s conduct in life and manner or age of death.  In some ways, Lincoln in the Bardo, is similar to C.S. Lewis’s famous, The Great Divorce, which explores human personalities trying to let go of the unfinished business of this life and move on to heaven or hell, and like Lewis’s book, the ghosts in the bardo are set free only as they learn to accept the meaning of their life, their own strengths and weaknesses, and release their need to cling to what they might have been or done. 

Like all good books, Saunders’ text took me into the depths of some of my earliest musings about life and death. I found myself thinking particularly about an uncle who died in an automobile accident in 1943, while training for submarine duty. Uncle Randall’s mythology in my family system was pervasive – a bright, athletic, musical and academic over-achiever who was loved and adored by all who knew him.  Randall went to a dance one night in Kingston, WA, because he loved to dance, even though he was a tee-totaling Southern Baptist. At the end of the evening, his friends pushed him against his will into a car driven by someone who was drunk. The car took a turn too fast, rolled over a hill, and threw everyone clear of the wreckage but Randall.  I have always found my uncle so fascinating that I managed to get his Navy records, and discovered surprisingly that he was really just a normal young man, not the great mythical character of my youth.  He probably died in the middle of the night as a scared kid, unprepared for an unexpected death, with no time to even finish a final prayer. 

While reading Saunders’ book, I was present to an entire lifetime of being spooked by Randall’s memory, and the questions he was asking in the weeks and hours and minutes and seconds before he took his last breath at the tender age of 19. Lincoln in the Bardo had me thinking about the issues Randall might have struggled to resolve in his bardo, if he had one. It forced me to think about any bardo I might have to encounter someday.  Not bad inner work for the season of Lent in the Christian calendar, a liturgical season that begins with someone rubbing the sign of the cross in ashes on your forehead as the minister says the disturbing words, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  An imaginative journey through a story can take you through your inner world, and leave you more authentic, more attuned with your depths and your humanity, more fully alive, and more sensitive to how preciously short this life is. This is what a book can do to us, and why some books call to us. 

The Search for Meaning is a celebration of the power the written and spoken word can have on a reader. The event has shown that there are many serious human beings throughout the world who are attempting to find new ways to be more deeply human.  As for Lincoln, it is only when Willie moves on to the next stage of his existence that the president is also set free from wallowing in the grief of his loss to return to responsibilities in the midst of a bloody Civil War. In the president’s pain, and his evening of unconscious communing with the spirits of those who had died, including his son’s, the president discovers a new form of unity with others.

“His mind (Lincoln’s) was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact.” 

Although Lincoln’s sorrow is nearly overwhelming, the president is also aware that he leaves the graveyard freer, “less rigidly himself through this loss,” and made more free and powerful, paradoxically, because he had been “broken, awed, humbled, diminished … reduced, ruined,” but also remade into a person more “merciful, patient, dazzled.” This is what the deep questions of meaning do to us, if we are willing to live in them and learn from them. They reshape us for the challenges ahead.

In some ways, Seattle University’s Search for Meaning is providing attendees a “bardo,” an in between place in the deep greyness of a Seattle winter to ask deeper questions of themselves, their lives, and their world, in search of a new perspective. The festival rides the crest of the wave of a different kind of spirit in the world: a spirit that recognizes the things we have in common as human beings are more fundamental and important to our personal and collective identities and the nature of our existence than the things that are different. It is an event that believes we connect with our commonalities primarily through the questions that drive us to search and seek and hunt for something more.

The mystical traditions of all of the world’s historic religions share an awareness that we are closest to the Spirit of God when we are searching, seeking and hunting. The humbleness and interdependence of the seeker places us in our proper position as creatures, not creators. And, whether it is through finding a shared sorrow like Lincoln in Saunders’ book, or discovering a new author to guide you on your quest, or getting lost in an imaginative afternoon in the soul struggle of a dead uncle you never knew, we become more real when we seek together. Perhaps this is why in an age of so much nonsense, a sense-making event like Search for Meaning can become just what a doctor of the soul ordered.