Sunday, 3 November 2013

D=S-M: Equations and Meaning

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

“The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry

These beautiful words touch me so deeply.

I do not think I am different to anyone else. Some days I despair at the world; some days I despair at all that is life; some days I despair at myself. I ask what is the point of all of this? Can I really make a difference? Is there a place for love in this cold, hard, unfeeling world? Some days I feel utterly gripped by despair. Thankfully I do not feel this way very often; thankfully when I do these feelings do not last very long.

I was visited by these feelings of despair, very strongly, only the other day as I was driving home in the pouring rain, tears rolling down my cheeks. I had watched the horrors on the news I had been in the company of people I love and who love me, but who are obviously suffering and it just seemed like too much. I got home and there was a knock at my door, it was the last person in the world I wanted to see. What did I do? Well I welcomed them in, I sat and I listened. I did not turn them away.

And then it happened. As I sat and listened something inside me changed; as we engaged in conversation something inside me turned right around; as I looked at this young man I remembered why I am here. Meaning began to emerge once again from the nothingness, from the emptiness.

The person left and thanked me for my time. I thanked them; I thanked them for reminding me why I am here.

Mathematics has never been my strongest suit. At primary school I was brilliant at mental arithmetic I think in all my time there was only one occasion when I failed to get 10 out 10 during a mental arithmetic test. I remember my cousin once telling that this was because I was the most mental in my family and in my school. She may well be right. What’s amusing is that the comment has stayed with me all these years.

So yes as a small boy I was brilliant at mental arithmetic, but when it came to mathematics and especially understanding and remembering equations, well that was a whole different kettle of fish. I struggled, it just didn’t make sense. I think even then there was a part of me that didn’t like the idea of reducing things down to simple equations. Never made sense to me; never been the way I have looked at life. Even when I studied history and politics I hated the way that economic and social history seemed so often to be reduced to equations. I would stand back and just think to myself, this just doesn’t make any sense. This is not what life is, what history is. What has this got to do with how we live, or used to live? Is life really made up of equations?

Thankfully the world in which we live is made up of very different people than myself; people who can make sense of such things and who truly know their value. Such things are essential to how much of life works.

Now you may well be wondering where the hummer I’m going with all of this. Well there is a point to my meanderings. There is an equation that does in fact make sense to me. You may have even heard of it.

The equation is D=S-M

Despair equals suffering minus meaning.

The equation comes from Viktor Frankl. In “Man’s Search For Meaning” he wrote “Man is not destroyed by suffering; he is destroyed by suffering without meaning.” He discovered that if we have a “why” to live for we can endure anything. More than that actually it is this that allows us to thrive, to be all that we are born to be. To not only improve our lives, but to serve our world.

The question this raises though is how do we uncover meaning? Where do we find meaning in our lives? What about those who tell us that life is essentially meaningless? Is there one meaning? Is there one truth?

Now Frankl would suggest that it is for each of us to discover our own meaning in any given situation. That this is our task; that this meaning may not be in the given moment but in some place in the future; that it is to be found in some purpose or meaning yet to come.

What are the things that hold us and sustains when life seems too much?

Wendell Berry's poem that opens this blogspot, speaks of this. It begins with the following words.

“When despair for the world grows in me

And I wake in the night at the least sound

In fear of what my life and my children’s life might be”

There is something universal in these words, I’m sure we have all shared this despair from time to time. It is so easy to look at our world and despair and worry about how things are going to turn out, not only for ourselves but those we love and those who will follow us.

There is more to the poem though. When he feels this way Wendell Berry says that:

“I go down and lie down where the wood drake rests

In his beauty on the water,

And the great heron feeds.”

He connects with nature when he feels despair, when life seems too much with him. It is this that allows him to reach beyond himself to something more.

I believe that the most destructive aspect of despair is that although it is a universal experience when it hits it is so powerfully isolating, it has certainly done so to me over the years. Misery and worry always turn me inward and cut me off from all that is loving and meaningful. To once again find meaning I need to be opened up to all that is, mentally, emotionally, physically and perhaps most importantly spiritually.

Wendell Berry is opened up by nature it is this that brings him that sense of connectedness. He says

“I come into the peace of wild things

Who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.

I come into the presence of still water.

I come into the presence of that stillness and that stillness calms my soul.

This brings to my mind words from Matthew’s Gospel ch 6 vv 25-34 and especially the lines “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
29 yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

I also hear echoes of the 23rd Psalm too:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever."

I find it hard to live by equations because for me they reduce life down to nothingness and there is danger here for me. I have found something that sustains me in the storms of life, something that gives me meaning in despair. I can’t really explain what that is. For me to even begin would require me to reduce it. All I know is that when I turn back and out beyond me I experience something infinite something beautiful, something that can only be described as pure love, something that makes me feel whole.

I experience it in nature. Especially for me in the birds, particularly those wild Canadian geese. I experience it with others, when engaged in meaningful and open conversation. I experience when walking round the streets of where I live and look at the faces of the people I meet. I experience it alone, when sitting alone in silence, contemplating the simple fact that I am alive and that I can draw breath. Finally I experience it in prayer when I reach beyond myself to that great mystery that I have come learn is at the core of life, even the aspects I don’t like so much.

In such moments “For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

Now some will say how can you? that life has no real meaning beyond physical sensation. How can you? Look at the suffering in this world. These are good questions and maybe they are unanswerable and maybe that is not good enough for some people, maybe it is not good enough for anybody. All I know is what I experience and that is the Divine Lure of love in my life, I never lose faith in this, even in those darkest moments. When I turn to it I feel my cup runneth over with abundant love. This tells that even in those darkest moments when despair is closing in I know “that this too shall pass.”

By the way I do not believe that this Great Mystery controls everything, all interactions in life, but I do believe that it is there to hold and guide all physical life. Our task is to turn to it and to be open to it. I know that the day I began to do so that my life has been deep and rich in meaning.

That though is me and my thoughts. What I would like to leave you with this week is something to ponder, something to take with you as you finish reading this and carry on with your life. What gives you meaning, what sustains you when you experience the suffering present in life? And what can you do to not only sustain what holds you in life, but also to develop it?

Remember Frankl’s equation D = S-M. Despair is suffering without meaning. How do we find and develop meaning in our lives, in spite of the inevitable suffering that will always be present?

Viktor Frankl explaining D=S-M

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