Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Search for Meaning

By Elliott Joseph

Copyright 2011 Elliott Joseph
October 2011

When I was teaching at The College of Marin in Northern California I gave a course called, "The Search for Meaning." While the other courses I gave were popular, I was surprised that over 60 people registered and showed up for this one, making it necessary to book an especially large room to accommodate the participants.

I should also tell you that the course was part of an adult education program at the college.

I had a good relationship with the participants (it's hard to call these adults students, considering their age and education). And so I didn't mind opening the session by saying, "It's remarkable that in only two or three hours we are going to learn the meaning of life." This got a bit of a laugh, as you might expect.

The reference I used for the course was an anthology from a series called Discovery Through the Humanities, sponsored by The National Council on the Aging, Inc., with the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The cover of the anthology was "The Thinker" by August Rodin.

The course engendered a great deal of discussion of the essays, articles, stories, poetry and photographs in the anthology, copies of which I was able to distribute to the class for use during the session.

So how does one find meaning? Actually, according to the compilers of the anthology, there are some interesting ways.

Foremost is Personal Relationships. And then there is being part of The Social Whole, being One With Nature, being aware of Truth in the Unseen, Accepting the Inevitable, and for some the concept of Life After Death. And finally, Creating Meaning through Art and Science, and Creating Meaning through Sacrifice and Service.

Some of the texts used to illustrate the authors' points were: "A Death in the Family" by James Agee, "I Have a Dream" by Martin Luther King, Jr., "Renoir, My Father" by Jean Renoir, "The Republic" by Plato, "Courage" by Anne Sexton, "Death Be Not Proud" by John Donne, "The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters" Francis Darwin, editor, and "Out of My Life and Thought" by Albert Schweitzer.

Magnificent writing to help us think about ways we might find in our lives for our own search for meaning.

For me, my search for meaning has primarily been Personal Relationships. I have had many friends and a rather large family with many cousins, aunts and uncles, a brother and a sister, and of course my parents. My parents divorced and my mother's new marriage was very successful with a man who adored her.

It was easy making friends growing up. Where I lived there were many boys and girls close to my age. We played many games indoors and outdoors and were very athletic. As I grew older more intellectual matters added to my development under the influence of my teachers and more mature friends.

I had several girl friends through the years, a couple more serious though I think it was my sexuality that was a driving force.

As my education proceeded, there were many other subjects of meaning, such as I have described previously in The Search for Meaning course I gave at The College of Marin.

Some of my friendships were very close and have lasted for many years from my neighborhood, my schools and college and my experience during World War II.

Meeting the woman at The City College of New York whom I married has been a profound source of meaning and happiness for me, a relationship of now 63 years.

Creating meaning has helped me as a writer and the appreciation of the mysteries of existence, through reading in science, religion and philosophy. I have also been influenced by Martin Buber's I-Thou concept, the antithesis of the I-It where one recognizes people are not things to be used. A relationship is not a separation but a meeting of the other, a give and take dynamic matter with rewards, surprises and perplexities. Physical intimacy, too, contributes deeply profound human feelings and meaningful understanding. Who can doubt this?

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