With flames all around us, the power shut off and the cold seeping into us, with family and friends threatened, with many homes burned to the ground again as before, we can be hit with a gnawing sense that we are far more vulnerable than we realized. We can lose touch with our feel for the meaning of life. At least I can. So it was some help when, just the other day, I came across a letter I wrote in 2013 to a friend from seminary who faced illness and debility. Here’s what I wrote:
Your letter said you are trying to find “meaning in life.” I have some idea of that myself. I think it’s probably a good thing to realize that’s what we’re trying to do. If nothing else, it indicates we have some interest in significance even as we increasingly feel insignificant. That sounds convoluted, doesn’t it? Too many years reading theology books can curtail one’s capacity for saying things simply and plainly, I’m afraid.
Two non-theology books have become important to me lately. One is Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. It features an old preacher, Rev. John Ames of Gilead, Iowa, writing down how his life has gone so his seven year old son will know something about the good reverend after he dies, which won’t be long. Rev. Ames may be the best minister in American fiction. So many are dolts or charlatans: Elmer Gantry comes to mind. But Ames is thoughtful, sensible, and his words convey a quiet composure. He’s sort of my imaginary minister now. I didn’t have an imaginary friend when I was a kid, so maybe I’m making up for it at this stage of things. Anyway, I’ve read the book three times and will soon read it again.
Robinson’s fictional preacher writes to his son, “Now here is the point I wish to make ... Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing.” I think he’s saying that meaning comes by taking the largest possible perspective. If all existence is holy, then whatever happens is holy too. That’s very preacherish, isn’t it, but worthy of attention, I believe.
The other book is Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss. A fine poet, Wiman was editor of the prestigious journal Poetry but left when invited to be on the faculty of Yale Divinity School. He tells of having lost the old-time-religion of his childhood, but in recent years he fought against a terrible cancer and at the same time married his soul mate. Though no longer an old time religionist, he finds that only the categories of faith give him language by which to take in the range of feelings that beset him, from despair to joy and back again. His way with words just digs in and builds toward something like significance. He says his renewed faith gave him to see where he was standing and the realization he “could feel a way forward.”
This reminds me of a little book I read decades ago called On Not Knowing How to Live by Allen Wheelis, a psychiatrist in San Francisco. He writes that our calling in life is to “bear spirit forward.” And we can’t not do that. It’s what we are doing all along, flowing like a river made up of whatever we do or don’t do, whatever happens to us and however we handle it. Handling it as best we can includes being upset or anxious or angry or despairing when life comes down hard. Our task, Wheelis says, is to observe and make our report.
Well, what a lot of bookishness this is. But Wheelis is right. Jotting down or recording in some way what is called a “life review” can bring a sense of meaning. It doesn’t have to be disciplined in any way, though my cousin Rosemary, in her 90s, set her life down in order from the beginning. She found it a good thing to do. And it doesn’t have to be for others to see, though many of us old duffers are deluded enough to believe people in coming generations will be interested in how it was for us. Actually, some of them probably will be.
I haven’t done a life review myself, but I write quite a bit about the characters I’ve met along the way. And I still dabble with poems. I wish I had worked harder on them. There are several things like that I wish. Perhaps this is a meaning in itself.
I do wish you well, and I mean it.
Bob Jones is the former minister of the Guerneville and Monte Rio Community Church.