I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.
– Ezekiel 37:14
This I know. That the only way to live is
like the rose which lives without a why.
– Meister Eckhart
I have an addiction to the “why” questions of life. I admit it. I wake up pondering. I shower pondering. I make my breakfast pondering. I walk pondering. I ride the bus pondering. Needless to say, I have been caught in more than one embarrassing “absent-minded professor” moment as a result of this habit (“How did the dish cloth get in the refrigerator?”)
Given what we now are learning of the vastness, the intricacy, and the complexity involved in the formation of our Universe, coming up with an answer to the “why” question of human existence seems not only to be a significant challenge, but also to border on supreme arrogance. Nevertheless, I do find it helpful in summoning the energy to get out of bed in the morning to at least have some sense of what makes it worthwhile, to know what gives my daily activities meaning and purpose. So, I ponder.
While I readily admit I still do not have a definitive answer to the “why” question of existence, I do believe that in my reading and reflections I have uncovered a few clues to help lead the way. I carry these thoughts in my awareness and rely on them when life seems difficult.
To begin with, we must see ourselves the way we really are: marvelous creatures that are the product of some 13.7 billion years of the unfolding of our Universe. This very long – in many ways unfathomable – process brought us into being along with all the rest of Earth’s treasures. In other words, and this is my first point, we are becoming aware that we are of Earth, not just on it. We were not plunked down here by some master toymaker. We emerged out of the same processes that created everything else. This is useful information, because it can help us find meaning in those processes.
Nature is not just something for us to observe, or merely a resource to be utilized, it is us. We are Nature. The first place to look for clues for why we are here is in the Nature that surrounds us and includes us. All around us, then, there are clues to why we are part of this Earth community.
One of these clues, as anyone who has spent time gardening or raising a child knows, is to grow. We are here to grow to our full potential, just as any acorn is meant to grow into an oak tree.
One of the unfortunate patterns in our old way of thinking has been the myth that once we reach a certain chronological age, we stop growing, or stop needing to learn. Evelyn and James Whitehead, in their book, Christian Life Patterns: The Psychological Challenges and Religious Invitations of Adult Life, suggest that we have a myth in Western culture that “adulthood” is a stage of life you achieve, like a plateau. Once you arrive, you are done.
Seeing myself reflected in nature, I only recently have come to realize that we humans do not stop being embryonic once we pop out of the womb. We may achieve a certain physical limit on our growth, but our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth seems to have no bounds, both individually and as a species. The most recent research into the human brain is revealing that we never lose the capacity to grow our brain if we keep introducing ourselves to new experiences.
Every day we live is a new opportunity to learn more about ourselves, our God, and each other. This is part of what it means to be truly alive and to have a purpose.
At the same time, we are not meant to grow just for growth’s sake. One of my favorite passages from Christian Scripture is Jesus’ comparison of the reign of God to a mustard seed. The passage reads: “a mustard seed, which, when it is sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on Earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:31-32). I believe this parable tells us we are all mustard seeds. If each of us is to reach our full potential as a human being, we must find a way to grow like that mustard seed until we can offer shelter to those in need. We must each follow through on our potential, which means we must work at becoming more and more aware of what that potential is for us.
In 13.7 billion years, our Universe has produced nothing to compare to the likes of you and me. We are each unique, right down to our fingertips. Our purpose is to become the unique persons we are by integrating our experiences and developing our gifts. As we do so, we can offer ourselves back as a gift to the ongoing unfolding of a Universe still evolving into something more.
There is another fabulous thing about seeds, if you only take the time to ponder it. Those tiny, lifeless looking things, some no larger than a speck in the palm of one’s hand, are amazing packets of potential.
We take so much of the natural world around us for granted, but imagine what it would be like to witness (in fact we can now do it through the benefit of time-lapse photography) the unfolding of that tiny seed into a tree. All the potential for becoming that tree is right there in the tiny seed. It only needs the right soil, sun, and moisture to start it on its journey. Then, season after season, the seed keeps releasing its potential and becoming more and more the tree. Scientists even have discovered that a seed can lie dormant for centuries, and still sprout when conditions are right,.
Just like the mustard seed, we, too, are a bundle of potential that, with the right environment, the right encouragement, the right care and nurturing, can become all that our hidden potential will allow. Even if the environment is not a very good one at the start, the potential never leaves us. We can choose to heal ourselves and let the power of Life help us to become who we were meant to be.
I don’t believe that some people are born good and others are born evil. I believe that, like the seed of the mustard tree, we each have the potential to become what we were meant to be, a being that offers fruit in abundance to the world. The responsibility for providing the right environment for our reaching our potential lies first of all with our parents, or whoever cares for us in our infancy, but eventually it becomes our own responsibility. It is up to us to consciously choose for ourselves an environment that will allow us all to grow well.
The sin, I think, is to choose to stop growing. Worse yet, to not even choose, but to just let the chance to become ourselves slip unconsciously by us while we stagnate in whatever wasteland we have created for ourselves.
I remember very well a day in my mid-twenties when a friend stopped by the house to chat. In the course of our conversation as we sat together on the front porch, one or the other of us made the lazy observation that another year had gone by. Then we both sadly agreed that neither one of us had much to show from that year’s passing in our lives. Our days seemed to be all the same. We could name nothing of significance to measure or mark the year.
I never forgot that conversation. I think in that moment I made a commitment to never live another year like that one.
A few years later, I came across these words in the Bible from Psalm 116: “I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” Yes, I said to myself, that is the choice I want to make: to be among the living, not the walking dead, for whom life has no meaning, no purpose, no growth, no change, no benefit to others.
The seed is a powerful image for me in choosing Life. What images or favorite passages help you find answers to your questions of meaning and purpose?