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January 30, 2012

Up on Hawthorn Hill: Making sense of things

— A book I have been reading investigates the various ways over time that we have made sense of the world. It carries the reader through to the present via several seminal classical texts and ultimately aims to suggest a strategy for “ finding meaning in a secular age.”

I am about half way through the book and am in no hurry to finish since the journey is as intriguing as it is thought provoking. The authors describe the age we now live in as secular. Their assumption seems to be that the current predominance of secularism is ill prepared to provide us with the spiritual buoyancy we require to feel as if our lives are indeed meaningful.

Socrates has famously instructed us that, in essence, an unexamined life is really no life at all. I tend to agree with that. Although, I would attach one important caveat: do not delve too deeply into things for fear of losing yourself in a vortex of unsolvable psychic mysteries that will cause chronic spiritual dyspepsia and do little for your soul or self-esteem. I give some thought from time to time to why I act or think in a certain way. For instance, it is my nature to want to understand why, with respect to a volatile political issue, I feel a certain way. Each of us comes to our conscious lives informed by a platform of assumptions that most of us have layered up without ever giving their genesis conscious thought.

That sort of indifference works to a point. So, for me the issue of finding meaning necessarily involves asking myself why I have thought or behaved in a particular way. My beef with some people is the extent to which they appear to cling to inherited beliefs without giving much thought to their validity. Even more disturbing is the tendency of many to arrogate to themselves the right to belittle or denigrate those who have chosen to take what Robert Frost describes as the road less traveled. I have trekked that trail often in my life, but never out of a sense of rebellion or wanting to be different for the heck of it. The fact is that meaning is elusive, varies from culture to culture, and what the goose find palatable is not necessarily tasty to the gander. The legitimate quest for meaning aside, much tension exists within our own culture due to the conviction of some that they have the answer and the rest of us just do not get it.

Arrogance is destructive no matter its guise. Being human means being, well, human. As far as I can tell, the possibilities, insofar as making sense of things is concerned, are illimitable.

The book’s authors seem to be suggesting secularism is doing us a spiritual disservice because it denies the possibility of meaning residing outside of the self. This may seem rather an abstract discussion to some. But if one has paid any attention to the current political posturing of presidential candidates, it is clear that some feel they have access to the Truth and the rest of us are treading water, hoping not to sink down deeper into one of Dante’s infernal pits. The arrogance of power has its equal in the arrogance of belief.

So, where does one go to make sense of existence? One can experience feelings of joy or comfort or contentment in any number of ways. It might be found in a grandson’s smile as his swing flies up toward the heavens. A granddaughter’s first steps. The peace of mind after prayer or meditation.

It can be something as simple as watching a pair of ravens fly effortlessly over a snow covered valley. It can happen as the by-product of a daily ritual or the result of feeling a sense of accomplishment after doing some sort of community service. Or, it can come about as the result of a chance phrase in a poem or novel one is reading. Life is an evolving mosaic of significant experiences that taken together mean something. We live in the present always. It is the small things that count.

RICHARD DEROSA’S blog address is