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Antidote to Absurdity: “Build a life as if it were a work of art.”

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In 1972, NBC interviewed Rabbi Abraham Heschel—one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 20thcentury—just ten days before his death. At the close of the program, the interviewer asked the Rabbi if he had a special message for young people. He said:

“Let them remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every deed counts, that every word is power, and that we all can do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments. Above all, let them remember…to build a life as if it were a work of art.”

What is your view of the world?

Here is Heschel’s view: Yes, there is much absurdity in the world. There is randomness, maddening injustice, heartbreaking suffering, mindless repetition plus a lot of BS. And the death rate is still 100%. (It’s okay to tell it like it is because that’s the way it is!)

But look deeper, says the Rabbi: There is something beyond the absurdity.

There is you. Your humanity. Your thoughts and words and actions. Your tears and laughter. Your successes and failures. Your joy and wisdom and love. Your irreplaceable one-and-only life.

Picture a small child scribbling on a piece of paper. At first, the picture looks random, meaningless. Then, with her mother’s help, the child writes “I love you, Daddy” on the paper and gives it to her dad. Now it is full of meaning.

Our humanity gives us a way to respond to the absurdity of the world. It gives us a way to create meaning.

Heschel is saying that the appropriate response to absurdity is not despair or resignation or denial. It is to remember that we matter—and what we do each day matters. It is to remember the human qualities that make life worth living.

It is to tap into your invisible palette, the colors of your humanity, the colors of the soul—joy, compassion, kindness, courage, wisdom and aliveness—and use these hues to help create, one day at a time, that unique work of art: your life.

Made For Joy!

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Guest post by Landon Saunders

 

Today, let me tell you what I believe about joy: I believe joy is the deepest thing in the universe. If it’s possible, I think it’s even deeper than love. I also believe it is the deepest thing in the human heart.

Joy in a turbulent life is like the stillness of the ocean’s depth during a horrible storm. It is there. It is untroubled. It is unthreatened. Joy is powerful

And I believe it is why we are here.  I believe you are here to enjoy. You are here for joy.  You are here to fulfill your life in joy.  Don’t be afraid.

An overflowing universe surges toward the heart of a human being, and the human being is afraid of being overwhelmed, so he brings in the corps of engineers to build a dam.

Human beings have populated their interior with anxious little Dutch boys pacing back and forth looking for leaks in the dike.  We’ve got to stop that, and joy will let us do it.

Joy will let you break the “self” barrier.  Come up.  Come out.  Life is not a small, stale place of recycled fears and dreams.  Open the floodgates of your life. It’s time to enjoy your life.

Human beings were made for the joy of it!

“The Great Opportunity Is Where You Are”

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Where will you find your greatest opportunity in life? John Burroughs, the naturalist, thinks it’s right under your nose—naturally:

“The lesson which life repeats and constantly enforces is ‘look under foot.’ You are always nearer the divine and the true sources of your power than you think. The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are. Do not despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars, every place is the center of the world.”

A wonderful quotation. Several things strike me.

  • “The lure of the distant is deceptive.” It’s tempting to think life could be so much better “somewhere else” or “someday when.” But when we read the fine print of our own life’s experience, we begin to realize that is not the case.
  • “Do not despise your own place and hour.” We are bigger than our circumstances. As Abraham Lincoln said during the Civil War: “The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion.”

Human beings are made to rise! And we’re made to rise right where we are, like the bit of yeast who, finding herself smothered in a lump of boring dough, said, “I suppose this is as good a place to rise as any!”

  • “The great opportunity is where you are.” If I am to find flourishing life, I must find it in the here and now, even with its problems. If I am to experience the extraordinariness of life, I must seek it in the midst of the ordinary. If I am to love life, I must learn to love “the near” rather than escape into “the far.”
  • “Every place is under the stars, every place is the center of the world.” Today you are facing the incredible adventure and predicament of being a human being in this beautiful, tragic world. It’s the same adventure and predicament faced by every person on earth—yet, you have a place to fill that no one else can fill.

And yes, we are “under the stars.” The word “disaster” is from a Latin word meaning “to be disconnected from the stars.” The stars represent the higher call to a life worth living, a life that overcomes the Law of Gravity—where everything is weighed-down and overly serious—and rises with the Law of Levity, of joy, lightness and celebration of life.

The great opportunity we have right where we are—even in a time of disaster—is to aim for the stars and realize: I am closer to the divine and the true resources for my life—resources like Wisdom, Courage, Joy, Compassion and Aliveness—than I think I am.

As Martin Luther King said, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”

A Quiet Word

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Guest post by Landon Saunders

 

I woke up this morning thinking about the question that has guided my life and work most: What does it mean to be a human being?

It’s Tuesday morning, January 12, 2021. It’s early. The temperature outside reads 18 degrees. I sense stillness. I’m letting the ravens sleep in a bit; I’ll rouse them in a little while and throw out some egg yolks—I eat the egg whites!

I’ve spent a few moments aligning myself for the day—what kind of human being I want to be, what kind of words I want to say, what kind of feelings I want to nurture.

I’ve checked in with several newspapers across the country. I, first of all, look for stories about human beings—their loves, struggles, failures, successes, stories of what children are going through, stories of the inevitable injustices suffered. This helps connect me to what matters most to me—the deep humanity I share with every human being in this country and around the world.

I won’t recount here the events of this past week except to note how perilous it feels, how difficult conversation is, how challenging it is to be—what word should I choose here—I’ll choose the word discerning, yes, I think that is the right word. The word suggests thoughtfulness, showing good judgment, using care in complicated times and situations.

To that end I am examining my own heart.

I ask, what does it mean to be a discerning human being in a nation of three hundred thirty million and a world of over seven billion.

The ancient prophet, Micah, who also lived at a time of great peril and upheaval, asked something similar. He wondered about what was required of a human being. His answer was majestic in its brevity and profundity: a human being should do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.

These words, repeated thousands and thousands of times in social, religious, and political speeches, still provide guidance for us now. Who should we be? In all my thoughts and feelings, in the words that I say, in the actions I take—let them all reflect the chosen desire of my heart to do justice, to be kind, to walk humbly in this perilous moment in our complex world.

Indeed, what does it mean to be a human being?

Your Soul Is Your Prize

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In 1943, a young German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had recently gotten engaged, was arrested and jailed for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler. (The Nazis would hang him in April, 1945.)

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about something Bonhoeffer wrote while in prison:

“It will be the task of our generation, not to ‘seek great things,’ but to save and preserve our souls out of the chaos, and to realize that is the only thing we can carry as a ‘prize’ from the burning building.”

Bonhoeffer is saying that in uncertain times, when the ordinary foundations and routines of life feel threatened—in times when it seems there is so little we can do—there is one important thing we can do: “Preserve our souls out of the chaos.”

I believe this is an important perspective. But what does it mean?

Soul is an interesting word. You can find it in most religions and even some psychologists talk about it—notably, James Hillman, the father of depth psychology.

What do you think of when you hear the word “soul”? (Besides music and food). In a workshop where this question was asked, people called out words like: Peace. Joy. Meaning. Love. Compassion. Wisdom. Courage. Creativity.

When we think “soul”, we might think of Lincoln’s line: “the better angels of our nature”. I might think of my core self, my essential humanity, my uniqueness.

I think Bonhoeffer is suggesting that in a noisy, anxious, chaotic time (like ours), it’s important to spend some quiet time listening to our souls, learning to tap into our deep inner resources, getting better acquainted with our “better angels”.

And here’s the thing: your soul is always on your side. No matter what has happened (or hasn’t happened) in your life, your soul never puts you down. Beyond failure and success, it reminds you that you are a person of worth and dignity.

Your soul tells you there is always more to your story; that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood; that you can overcome anything; that you have a unique place to fill.

If you and I come out at the end of this year with a deeper, richer sense of who we are, more in touch with our inner resources of wisdom, courage, compassion and joy—what a prize that will be! It will nurture us, and nurture those around us.

That’s what I’m seeking this year, and I’ll be sharing any thoughts I find with you.

(Note: If you find this blog worthwhile, would you help me spread the word? Thanks.)

An “Untravelled World”

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Guest post by Landon Saunders

 

In Tennyson’s poem, “Ulysses” he says, “And yet all experience is an arch, where through gleams that untraveled world which forever moves when I move.”  The beginning of a new year is, in many ways, a call to an “untraveled world,” a call to a new adventure

As a little boy in the hills of West Virginia, we had a “near barn” and a “far barn.”  The near barn was maybe 100 yards from the house.  The far barn was over the hill and down the valley and on that distant hill.

As a little kid, I can remember the lure of the far barn, the magic. You didn’t know what might lurk there, and the first time that you go alone to the far barn, you’re nervous but excited. That first time or two you might not make it.  You might only make it over the hill before you turn back, but, the next time you try, you make it to the valley…until, one day, you make it to that far barn and finally open that door. It’s exciting for a kid. It’s the appeal of the unknown, the exhilaration of discovery.

All the unknowns of what lies ahead in this next year may make us apprehensive and nervous.  That is understandable. We do not know what this “untraveled world” before us will bring, but I hope that we will still set out with an adventurous spirit, ready to experience the exhilaration of discovery.