The Search for Meaning
My Mother’s Teachings
I may not have understood it in the adult language I use now, but one of my earliest memories of my mother’s teachings was that regarding what I now call meaning in life: My mother taught me to seek meaning in all my experiences, to seek meaning in the things I saw, in the events surrounding us.
The sense that there is meaning in life is an issue of faith. In other words, it is a spiritual issue, since to believe there is meaning presupposes that there is some sense of natural order in the universe. The search for meaning in our experiences, in the events surrounding our lives, is an act of faith. A common occurrence in Western society today, that of death by car accident — this happenstance appears as one very common example of events which defy the faith that there is meaning in life. After all, what meaning can we garner from a pedestrian being run over by a car whose driver failed to see her in the street?
In my second year of college, (1971), Muhammad Ali came to speak. He had time to come and speak at college campuses because he had been banned from working at his profession — boxing — by the U.S. government, because this government claimed he had violated its laws. What U.S. laws did he violate? He refused to join the army, and he denounced the war then being prosecuted by the U.S. government against the people of Vietnam. I came to hear his speech, guided by my mother’s precept to seek meaning in life.
There was deep meaning in the life of Muhammad Ali. What he did, he did with deep forethought and conviction. Yes, he did what he did with great faith in what it meant. His speech that day was on the subject of “Purpose in Life,” that is, the same subject I am addressing here. He said that if you are unable to identify a purpose in your life, then you are no better than a walking zombie. He said that some people avoid addressing the issue head-on, publicly or honestly, because they have a purpose, and their purpose is evil — such as greed, power-over, dominating others, inflicting pain and grief onto others, all the while bringing personal profit to one’s self. These are all purposes in life, and they are evil.
Ali told us that he had a great skill as a boxer, one for which he credited Allah. He said, however, it was the will of Allah that he must utilize this skill in this art form, boxing, in the service of a higher cause: Ali told us that in his career, and in his life, it was his mission to promote peace and justice in the world. He said he is famous, so people listen to him. That gives him a certain responsibility. His sense of purpose in life led him to take responsibility to be a fighter for righteousness and a fighter for the oppressed. He said that he could not go and kill Vietnamese who had never harmed him or his in any way, for the purpose of further enriching corporate scoundrels in the United States.
He told us that we all must seek purpose in life and further that we must ask ourselves everyday whether or not the purpose we have chosen is furthering the cause of peace and happiness among the people of the world.
Ali’s message made sense to me because of what my mother had taught me about meaning. From earliest childhood my mother read world literature to us and with us. She read to us from poetry and plays. She took us to the theatre and she had us watch what she called “serious” shows on TV. She reviled sit-coms and the soaps, but she religiously watched the news.
We went to see Cyrano de Bergerac, and we read together Man of La Mancha. Yes, both of these stories depicted bourgeois heroes. But my mother translated them for us into her own experience growing up in an impoverished working class Italian American household. She also promoted to me the poetry of Kahlil Gibran and Langston Hughes, the prose of Richard Wright, Willard Motley, Steinbeck, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and the political writings of revolutionaries like Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and George Jackson of the Black Panther Party. These writings had a big effect on my sense of meaning.
The music which inspired my mother, and which she in turn wanted to inspire her children with was music with a message. Today, I very much understand the need for beauty in sound, and for that matter, feel-good music, and music that makes us want to move, dance, jump and shout. The message in the music is the bottom line. Of course, in the period of my mother’s raising of me — the 1960’s — the music reflected a time of deep social meaning, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movements, and the anti-war movement were all raging. But, just as the revolution in Jazz (late 1950’s — early1960’s) prefigured the uprising that was the Black Liberation Movement –mid ‘60’s through ‘70’s — so there was also a protest movement in White folk music which predated the Vietnam War. One of my mother’s favorite groups from that genre was the Seekers:
There’s a new world somewhere,
They call the promised land,
And I’ll be there someday,
If you will hold my hand
I need you there beside me,
No matter what I do
For I know I’ll never find another you
If they gave me a fortune
My pleasure would be small,
I could loose it all tomorrow,
And never mind at all,
But if I were to loose your love dear,
I don’t know what I’ll do,
For I know I’ll never find another you
Our parents influence our emerging value systems. Ma turned me onto Guantamera by the great Cuban revolutionary, Jose Marti, and she made sure I understood it:
It is with the poor people of this earth
That I choose to cast my lot
The streams in the mountains
Please me more than the sea
It was this influence that attracted me to look for the message in the song. I’ll never forget the feeling that came over me when Like a Rollin’ Stone first hit the airwaves. I was eleven years old in my aunt’s house in Philadelphia, and Dylan came over the radio: I pressed my ear to the speaker so I could hear the words better, because I sensed that this guy was saying something important, and I wanted to know what it was.
Ten years later I heard the Spinner’s, How could I let you get Away for the first time, and I had tears streaming down my face — I didn’t know what the song was about, but the sincerity in the singer’s voice let me know that it was not some syrupy emotionally manipulative love/romance-gone-wrong song. I played it over until I got it — the song is about a father mourning the loss of connection to his son, a loss caused by the father’s failure to be there for the son during his childhood. This is an important message.
When Bob Dylan, in Mr. Tambourine Man, spoke of crazy sorrow, that is, not merely the run-of the-mill sorrow, but a sorrow that challenged our sense of order in the universe, I already had a context for placing this image against a faith that this order did in fact exist. “Crazy sorrow” is B-52 raids during which were dumped “payloads” of dozens of tons of bombs on Vietnamese villages, one after another, incinerating all men, women, children, infirm, disabled, and elderly. It takes much faith indeed to find meaning beyond sorrow like this. “Crazy sorrow” is digesting the image of a U.S. army sergeant raping a fourteen-year-old girl in Baghdad [who he has been sent to “protect”], and then burning her and her entire family alive in an effort to cover up his “mistake”. “Crazy sorrow” is coming back to your village in Fallujah, after the U.S. marines have sent heat-seeking drones (robots) in to annihilate all living things, to see if any of your loved ones are still alive, only to find that the robots are still there…, and they annihilate you. “Crazy sorrow” is one of your best friends, with no warning, and after determining for himself that there is no meaning in life, committing suicide. I believe that we, the surviving living, have no choice but to search for meaning in these events.
Jazz speaks for life… When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument… Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith… Martin Luther King, opening address to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival
Today, as I try to explain the affect of this adjuration which my mother bestowed upon me, I can break it down into simple values:
I want to be a good son, brother, husband and father.
I am a lover of humanity; I try to help people; I try to bring people together, to build community so that together we can make a better world. I am a devotee of the people’s cause.
I am a lover of Mother Earth — therefore, I try to be clean, not wasteful. I avoid, as best I can, contributing to the harm done by humans to Mother Nature. I love her fruits, and I grow and eat organic food.
I am a lover of the universe. In this connection I meditate and pray. I do so out of a recognition of the universe-in-great-order, with which I aspire to be in harmony. I do so to express my gratitude for this great order.
The meaning of my life and the meaning I find in life reside in my search for the aforementioned guiding principles, and in my continuing search for other principles to guide the way I live. My mother taught me this.