At my synagogue, and in the liberal Jewish community at large, there’s been discussion lately about the search for meaning: that the previous generations came to religion for peoplehood and community, and the current generation is looking for meaning. But I don’t know what they mean by “meaning.” Alternately they use words like “spirituality” and “purpose.”
During my latest social work class, I read an article (Wong and Vinsky, 2009) about the use of the phrase spiritual-but-not-religious in social work. Its authors argue that the word spiritual, as we use it, reflects a Euro-Christian, largely Protestant mindset, just stripped of the trappings of religion. The authors of the article come from Buddhist and Jewish backgrounds, and both see spirituality, as they’ve experienced it, as based in the history and community they come from. They feel that when you try to divide spirituality from that history, it loses a lot of its power.
We want to believe that finding meaning in life is an intellectual pursuit, and a solitary pursuit, but usually we are searching because something has been missing from our relationships.
My journey to find meaning in life has been pretty literal. I needed to go through every event and person in my entire life, and find out what the hell happened. Was this person really as mean as I thought, or was I exaggerating? Was I a melodramatic kid, or was my life actually as dramatic as I thought it was? I had to work at organizing and parsing my life, so that the chaos I experienced the first time around could come into focus. I looked for paradigms and frameworks and theories, to help make all of those relationships become clear.
David Brooks recently wrote an article in the New York Times, arguing for the value of covenantal relationships among communities, and societies. With all of the globalization technology has brought, he says, many people have lost the social bonds they used to live by. People live more fragmented and isolated lives than they used to. The idea of a covenantal relationship is that it’s not a choice you make each day, it’s a choice you try to live up to each day. Brooks talks about a social fabric, which resonates for me, because my mom is a quilter, taking scraps from everywhere and sewing them together to make something new, and whole.
In a world where we have Tinder, and swipe-left-if-you-like-the-looks-of-him, we forget that relationships are about time and effort. It’s not that you should stick with a synagogue or religion or marriage that is wrong for you, or hurts you. It’s that you should make sure you’re not giving up on a good thing too quickly, or because it requires more input from you to keep working.
When both of the rabbis at my synagogue went to Israel for a conference two summers ago, just as the Gaza war began, many of us were holding our breath, wishing they would have stayed home. The conference was a way to give Liberal American rabbis a sense of the current tensions within Israel, between men and women, between ultra-orthodox and liberal, between Arab Israeli and Jewish Israel, and between Israeli and Palestinian. As soon as our rabbis returned, even though it was a Friday night in the middle of the summer, when we usually get twenty people at services at most, the room was filled to bursting with emotions and hugs and delayed fear – and we made meaning together. We brought our offerings into the soup of community and each took home what we could use.
For dogs, meaning comes from their relationships too. They are dependent on their people for food and walks, yes, but it’s more than that. They depend on us for attention and structure and the basic feeling that they matter. We humans like to think of ourselves as independent, and able to take care of ourselves, but it’s a sham. Just ask Cricket. She can have a warm place to sleep, plenty of food, and frequent trips outside, but if Grandma isn’t with her, she becomes deeply unhappy. She can pull herself up to mildly unhappy, by spending extra time with me, leaning against me on the couch, following me from room to room. An outsider might even think she was fine, but that’s because they’ve never seen the absolute joy she can feel when Grandma returns, or the peace on her face when she can fall asleep on Grandma’s lap.
Brooks, D. (April 5th 2016). How Covenants Make Us, New York Times, Op. Ed., A27.
Wong, Y. & Vinsky, J. (2009) Speaking From the Margins: A Critical Reflection on the ‘Spiritual-but-not-religious’ discourse in social work, British Journal of Social
Work, 39, 1343-1359.
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