Search for Life's Meaning

By George Emerson Haynes
 The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit. -— Romans 8:16

It began with me as a boy when again and again I found myself saying: "If I could only find out what life is like!" As the years passed this urge expressed itself with increasing seriousness. Literature, poetry, philosophy, religion, science, sociology, history, were explored for what light they might cast. Meanwhile experience furnished the intellectual problem with the basic commentary of living. Home, school, ambition, friendship, death, romance, marriage, war, life work, parenthood, illness, unemployment, economic despair, have each added to the extent and intensity of the problem and also to the conditions of its solution.

Out of such background of experience I came to feel that acute frustration may actually prove most rewarding. In analyzing more closely its cause, it focused itself on three basic contradictions: Life should be a unity; it is complex and confusing. Life should be harmonious; it is conflicting and discordant. Life should be expansive and creative; it is restrictive and destructive. If the extent and quality of the frustration is severe, we may suffer despair and even the temporary breakdown of standards. On the other hand, its culmination could be the stimulus which awakens us to start a final desperate search for the purpose and satisfaction we feel inherently that life should possess. As with the Prodigal Son, faith in the positive meaning of life (plenty in "my father's house") may be joined with a resolution actively to pursue that meaning ("I will arise and go to my father"). Faith and action work together to produce progressive success in the endeavor. The very mood in which the quest is pursued brings out the qualities in us which we believe are in the universe. This, then, is the initial step.

Difficulties, however, come up tempting us to postpone the effort, on the ground that after all the nature of current conditions is such that it does not warrant our attempting to carry through. We may find compensation in the thought that sometime, somehow, we shall undertake the quest in earnest. For the present, though, it must be a struggle for "each man for himself." In no long time we start making a distinction between an ultimate philosophy and one that is expedient — although it is evident that the two are in conflict. The danger is that by holding the one inactive, that of expedience may become dominant, with the result that our search for meaning is arrested.

It is painful to note the seesawing between hope and despair that often follows. It may not seem to make too much difference whether in the practice of selfish advantage a fellow man is harmed because it can't be helped (life will have its frustrations); or because it doesn't matter anyway (we might as well get what we can while the getting is good). Of course, the intensity of the cruelty, and the compunctions felt against occasioning it, may vary, but unfortunately the difference is not enough to prevent sincere people from joining hands with admitted materialists in raiding the common good.

The bright side of the picture, however, is that both the mood of frustration and that of arrested search stand in unstable equilibrium. Each reflects the attraction of the two poles of hope and despair, so that every person has continually to make a choice among these alternatives: to continue to waver in middle ground; to accept frustration completely; or to resume actively his original search.

A consideration of deep satisfaction is that, life being what it is, the balance lies in favor of the eventual victory of the creative forces. Even frustration, to which uncreative living and thinking invariably tends, brings the individual by the very negation of all things face to face with the need to do something productive with himself. Thus the door is opened to the increasing revelation of the Creative Spirit which is universal, and of which it was once said. 'I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.'

Apart from me there is neither wisdom nor knowledge nor understanding. Into every state of knowledge do I enter, into false knowledge as well as into true, so that I am not less the ignorance of the deluded than the wisdom of the sage. For what thou callest ignorance and folly is my pure knowing, imperfectly expressed through an uncompleted image of my divine perfection. Woe to them who condemn these my works unfinished. Behold they who presume to judge are themselves incomplete. Through many a fiery trial of sorrow must they pass ere the clear beauty of my wisdom may shine out from their hearts like unto a light burning in a lamp of alabaster. . . .
I am the doer of all. . . . My presence is the substance of all things. . . . See me and regard me equally in all, and thou shalt see me indeed. . . .
Know then that all thy sense of conflict is but the shadow-play of ignorance. Wait with patience on me, thy Lord, and in my appointed time shall I make clear what now is dark, and show before thee straight and true a path of safety to the very place where now an abyss of terror seems to open at thy feet . . . Behold, I am with thee always, and I never sleep. -- The Book of Tokens

Too great to compass within the bounds of human intellect, one feels the appropriateness of using the neuter pronoun, for the majesty of its motion takes it beyond the limits of ordinary personality. For a still further comprehension, I want to turn aside from the usual theological expressions and attempt to give an impression in less specialized terms. It seems to me that the forms in which it is described should be functional rather than static, all-penetrating rather than restricted to locality, universal rather than confined to specific and competitive revelations. Such an approach would enable us to identify and appreciate its actuality everywhere and give the basis for a new cultural and social unity.

In keeping with this, the universal Spirit shows the characteristics of interiority, inclusiveness and integration. By interiority I mean that it appears to be immediately accessible to consciousness, intimately related to it as if it were the fount of that consciousness. The implications of this are rather tremendous. They suggest that wherever consciousness is found there is an access to and an outlet from the cosmic Spirit. As we value the basis of our own consciousness, we shall likewise esteem all other conscious beings as proceeding from that same most precious Source. In such a relationship between ourselves, our fellow men, and our common root, lies the ground for sympathy, understanding and communion. Otherwise, we must forever be shut off from our fellow humans by the rigid wall of separate individuality in miserable little universes of our own. In the recognition of this shared interiority, we may then find the resolution of the paradox of the many and the one, revealing an organic relationship of parts with one nature: 'I am the Vine, ye are the branches."

By inclusiveness is implied not only that each thinking being, whether black or white, rich or poor, ignorant or learned, sinner or saint, is contained within the creative Potential, but that there is nothing that is not a manifestation, a motion of its being. "Without him was not anything that has been made." With Henri Bergson we can say "God sleeps in the stone, dreams in the animal, and wakes in man." Thus the "whole creation . . . groaning in travail" is Deity in evolutionary activity.

By integration as an aspect of unfolding nature I mean that process which is ever at work completing the incomplete, assimilating the differentiated, harmonizing the conflicting, all the while imparting itself in germinal, imperfect, and self-directive forms. Were there not some provision for the reassimilation of these derived forms, the result would be a cumulative chaos. We actually find, however, within the universal process a continuous integration which carries the derived forms eventually back (really forward) into a growing unity with the Source. Though the way be infinitely long, it is this reuniting quality of life which, consummating all the long grief of spiritual travail, brings the climax of creative joy.

As we behold with the inner eye, different figures come to mind. Perhaps the most usual is that of water, whose completed circuit returns the stream to its source: "The water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into eternal life." Or the unfolding life of a plant is also characteristic: "The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed." Again, a radiant center of life and light, redeeming the surrounding darkness: "The Sun of righteousness (shall) arise with healing in his wings." . . . "In him was the light and the light was the life of men."

It is in such an all-encompassing Presence that we live, with an expanding sense of original derivation from it, present dependence upon it, and eventual identification with it. Truly its nature is the source, the substance, and the goal of our existence.

From this cursory examination it seems obvious that the only safeguard for any person or group, desirous of maintaining a forward direction, is to seek continuously a clear expression of that inner Spirit which is ever striving for manifestation within each of us as well as within all associations of men. Yet in our world today, beneath the strife of nations, races and ideologies, lie the conditions that appear to be fundamentally at variance with its purposes. Misunderstanding, resentment and hatred accumulate with tragic portent, so that the natural good of our common life has become so distorted by lack of integrity that it threatens to pull the whole social structure down about our ears.

What, then, is the status of the Creative Spirit in the universe? Is it an inconsequential element in an otherwise disposed order of things? Is it one of two irreconcilably opposed forces which divide the world between them without hope of harmony? Is it an arbitrary force from outside only, holding itself in reserve against a day of catastrophic conquest? Or is it a germinal force which is not victorious now but which some day will grow to be?

It is none of these. It is rather the continuous, organic, and triumphant nature of the universe itself as we find it today, and as it has always been, and as it always will be.

But how can that be? Is not the world full of oppositions, grievous ignorance, imperfections, conflicts, willful wrong, and death? It is true that such oppositions do exist, but it is equally true that through the endless ages those oppositions are being constantly redeemed. That with which we have to do is not a static condition or a principle of restricted nature. It is with the universal process itself, showing in all its parts and members varying stages of development which, of necessity therefore, give the appearance of incompleteness and of conflict. However, it is the very presence of the transient imperfections and disharmonies which calls forth the eternal operations of the creative and redemptive nature of the universal process. In the perception of this nature which is central to its being, we find the import of George Fox's experience in Nottinghamshire, England, in 1647:

I was under great temptations sometimes, and my inward sufferings were heavy. And I cried to the Lord, saying, "Why should I be thus, seeing I was never addicted to commit those evils?" And the Lord answered That it was needful I should have a sense of all conditions: how else should I speak to all conditions? And in this I saw the infinite love of God. I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness; and in that also I saw the infinite love of God; and I had great openings.

I doubt if Lao-tzu of China in the sixth century before Christ was referring to any different theme when he said:

There is something, chaotic yet complete, which existed before Heaven and Earth. Oh, how still it is, and formless, standing alone without changing, reaching everywhere without suffering harm! It must be regarded as the Mother of the Universe. Its name I know not. To designate it, I call it Tao. Endeavoring to describe it, I call it Great. Being great, it passes on; passing on, it becomes remote; having become remote, it returns.

Expanding limitation by self-giving, overcoming conflict by sacrificial meditation, transforming death itself into a testimony of triumphant living, the eternal process of the Creative Spirit reveals itself increasingly to those who seek its nature.

Every individual consciousness offers an immediate and continuous access to its universal, redemptive and regnant presence. Antiquity, medievalism, or modernity; paganism, Judaism, or Christianity; priesthood, laity, or secularity; culture, literalism, or ignorance — none of these offers either exclusive advance or impassable bar to its mystic appreciation, its vital appropriation, its practical mediation. A waiting heart of humility, a mind of disciplined openness, a will to continuous and careful submission, offer the true conditions to its growing revelation and realization.

 (From Sunrise magazine, December 1970; copyright © 1970 Theosophical University Press)


 x