Priorities

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We live in a world of uncertainties, yet every day we make choices that will lead us to our destiny. The factors we consider as we contemplate our choices may be many or few. We can be overwhelmed by life’s complexity, or we can establish a framework that allows us to create a life—and lives—that deliver to us meaning and bring forth from us purpose.

Here is one secret: there is not one meaning that is satisfactory for all beings. And there is not one purpose to your search. As there are at any moment choices more than we can imagine, there are purposes more than we can fulfill. Here’s the reassurance: our purpose will reveal itself by the choices that we make.

Here’s a quote from Albert Camus that you may be familiar with: “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” It strikes me with more than usual resonance today, because I found out two days ago that a friend of roughly my age in Boston lost her son this past week, most likely due to suicide.

I’m not sure of the age of the young man, but I expect that he was in his late twenties. I don’t know the thoughts and feelings that led to him making this decision, but it’s not hard for me to imagine the emotional and spiritual impact that it is having even now on his mother and father and sister and brother and on their wide circle of friends and acquaintances.

I think the Camus quote is worth considering. It starts at the most fundamental level–the level of life vs. death—and posits that the outcome of that choice allows a wide range of life-affirming choices– if one makes the most fundamental choice– the one to live at all. Of course, that decision is rarely made in the matter-of-fact logic that the quotation implies.

When Franklin (not his real name) made his life-or-death choice, one assumes that it was the result of being caught in a state of depression that showed no promise of ever lifting. I expect that some of us in this room have felt themselves caught in that “slough of despond.” And if you have not, I expect that your capacity for empathy allows you to know something of that pain and compels you to commiserate with those who survive this kind of trauma.

The family will make their way through this spiritual challenge, one way or another, based on a number of factors, not least of which will be the love they have for one another and the love they feel from those in their spiritual community, whether they be relatives, friends or fellow church members. There will be, we hope and expect, a “network of mutuality” which will support and help to reestablish cohesion in the family. So, as part of that larger network, let us hold them and others like them in the warm embrace of our care.

In a very real sense, all our actions are, indeed, within that frame composed of our birth and our death. The record of our choices is what constitutes our destiny. And, as the quote by Gandhi in our order of service states so succinctly, our actions express our priorities. Some actions are well-considered, some appear sometimes as not having been considered at all. The purpose of today’s talk is to investigate some of the factors that influence the choices that we make and to see how those choices indicate what our priorities are, whether we consciously make them or not.

Several years ago, a number of us spent time together over a period of weeks reading and discussing a book called The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. I confess to being surprised by his definitive statement, “I believe that the purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think the very motion of our life is towards happiness.”

Howard Cutler, the co-author and editor of the book, says that what most impressed him about the Dalai Lama was that he “had learned to live with a sense of fulfillment and a degree of serenity that (he) had never seen in other people.” This sense of fulfillment and this serenity are, I think, the marks of a life well lived. It seems that it would be worthwhile, in the name of encouraging our spiritual growth, to investigate the conditions under which we live and that influence our choices, and then to see where they lead, whether to a sense of fulfillment and serenity or to some other place of our desiring.

Each of us, of course, is, at least in part, the product of our environment, and for each of us, the elements that make up that environment and the experiences that derive from it are at least somewhat different. Certainly, there is a social environment which we largely share. Those of us who grew up in Kentucky have been formed, in part, by that environment. Those who grew up in Boston or New York or Memphis or Lubbock, Texas, or Russia or France or Tunisia, as two of our guests last week did, have been formed in large part by the cultures and social mores of those places, which vary from Kentucky’s in small ways or large.

Those of us who grew up in the forties and fifties were subject to different influences than those of us who grew up in the fifties and sixties, to say nothing of the seventies, eighties and nineties. Generally, we are quite aware of those differences, as the culture that we live in these days has become so self-conscious and self-referential that it would be quite difficult to remain ignorant of the differences between generations.

Most of us grew up in a family, and each family had its own rules, styles, preferences, joys, disturbances, tensions, and challenges. The variety of life experiences we’ve had is manifold. The choices that we make have been shaped in a significant way by the options that were allowed us and by our willingness or lack of willingness to live within those limits.

Some of us were shaped by a home environment that encouraged fear and anxiety; some of us experienced an environment where love was expressed in a way that felt almost suffocating. Some of us felt marginalized. Some grew up with a sense of insecurity because the parents could not always find adequate employment. Some moved frequently because Mom or Dad’s job demanded that; some adapted well, others still have difficulty bonding to a secure sense of “place.”

From all of these contingencies and many others, we have been challenged to form a “world view” of sorts, some sense of what the world is, how it operates, and a sense of how we fit into the larger scheme. For some of us, the world as “it is” (or appears to be) is enough. For others, the plenitude of possibilities continue to provoke and stimulate our meaning-making.

For most of us, maybe all of us, there is a sense that we have a role to play in the world. Some of us can name it quite concretely. “Provider.” “Conciliator.” “Entertainer.” “Stabilizing presence.” “Provocateur.” “Academic.” “Successful athlete.” “Pastor.” “Teacher.” “Social worker.” “Linguist.” “Musician.” For others, the search for definition is a continuing process, a process of excitement sometimes and of anxiety and dread at other times.

No matter how we define ourselves, we are challenged to change. Those who define themselves narrowly as “providers,” are greatly challenged when the children grow and move out of the home and establish their own identities and become providers for others. Some of us look forward eagerly for the transition from “parent” to “grandparent.” Some of us dread the change. It’s important to have a sense of identity, but claiming it on too narrow a basis by the role or roles we play at various times can lead to a crisis in identity when it’s clear that the role must change.

When Dr. Cutler describes the Dalai Lama as having “learned to live with a sense of fulfillment and a degree of serenity” that (he) had never seen in other people, it prompts the questions, “Does that sense of fulfillment come from the man’s sense of himself as the Dalai Lama or from some other source? And that degree of serenity, is it available to others or a select few?”

The Dalai Lama, I think, is subject to the same temptations, distractions and derailments as any of us. We make choices that are in line with our priorities whether deliberately or by virtue of succumbing to whatever distractions are placed in front of us. And our priorities are set in order to reach a goal. Sometimes we’ve named that goal, other times we have not. Sometimes goals claim us and we are taken unawares. So, the question I ask you today, is “What is your goal in life?”

If it is, as the Dalai Lama suggests, to seek happiness, what is the method that you use to seek that happiness? Where does the quality of your spiritual health enter into your considerations? What are some of the things that you do on a regular basis in order to establish the path that you follow when seeking whatever it is that brings happiness into your life?

The serenity that Dr. Cutler finds in the Dalai Lama is sometimes referred to as equanimity, the sense that no matter what life throws at you, you have at your core a place of peace, a place where tranquility has found a home. One of the things that leads to this kind of happiness, I think, is feeling assured that the life you are living is meaningful.

Sometimes, that means that there is a felt sense of meaning in the relationship that you maintain with just one other person. Almost always, I would venture to say, a healthy sense of meaning derives from the relationships we establish with other persons rather than things or abstract goals such as fame or widespread recognition.

A sense of meaning, I’ve come to believe, is dependent on one’s sense of purpose. If one’s actions are purposeful, and that purpose is in line with the meaning that has made itself apparent in our life, we have achieved both purpose and meaning, and so we reside in happiness.

This oversimplifies things, of course. No matter how satisfying we find our job, we find that there are many things which “need to be done,” which do not seem meaningful of purposeful in themselves and yet are necessary for weaving the net that in the breadth of its casting creates a meaning that is satisfying.

What leads us to this meaning? I believe that it’s a sense of responsibility. We may be responsible for raising children to healthy, well-integrated selfhood. We maybe responsible for a garden that we plant, knowing that the vegetables or flowers need our careful tending to be productive. That sense of responsibility, whatever it is, is sometimes referred to as a “calling;” we feel “called” to respond to some inner imperative.

But, we also can get called away. And that realization is what makes us recognize that we are called, often, to make choices and the degree to which we are successful in making those choices is the degree in which we are faithful to the priorities we believe will give significance to our lives.

It’s important to have a well-formulated world view. And it’s important to be able to make adjustments when necessary– when we recognize that our ideology is not comprehensive enough to include the wide variety of understandings we come into contact with in the adventure of becoming human.

A definition of “ideology I find helpful is “partial truth presented as if it were universal truth” (Dictionary of Theories). It’s fine to live one’s life generally according to an ideology, so long as we don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s a universal truth.

Our world view gives us a framework for choice-making and value formation. But, our world view is open to change; we cannot fit “happiness” into a definition tailor-made for us at a particular stage in life. We grow. And for some of us, that two word sentence, “We grow,” sums up the purpose and meaning of life.

But, in order to grow in a healthy way, we need to do so according to some rules. When we are children and inexperienced in the ways of the world and in need of protection and the skills for “fitting in,” we learn through rules that have been prepared for us. As we grow, if we mature in a healthy enough way, we are given permission (or we give ourselves permission) to make our own rules. If we are to live a life that is satisfactory and which brings us satisfaction, we learn to make our own rules. But, for the rules to be meaningful, they must be responsible, and we must make ourselves responsible to them.

In order to set priorities that are meaningful, we need to set priorities that are responsible. It is within the tension of responsibility and short-term gratification that we often find it difficult to name or to stick to priorities. Sometimes, the temptations are quite mundane. It’s common for me to see a Saturday Facebook posting from one of my minister friends that says, “It’s sermon-writing day. Boy, is my house getting clean!” There is a responsibility that has been set for us and our difficulty in meeting it makes us subject to distraction. (And, boy, what a distraction Facebook can be!)

What are some of the things that form our sense of ourselves—and therefore the priorities that we set in order to fulfill that sense—to bring about that happiness?

For some (maybe many), it’s a sense of guilt: “Don’t be moved by temptation– you’ve got a job to do!”

For others, it’s fear: “I better do this or I’ll lose my job and then what will happen?”

For some it’s social pressure: “What will others think of me if…?” The benefits of immediate gratification need to be measured against the more substantive sense of self derived from meeting our goals and successfully fulfilling our priorities.

I’m reading Mornings on Horseback these days, David McCullough’s

account of the early life of Theodore Roosevelt. TR was famous for what appeared to be his boundless energy and his voluminous accomplishments. One priority that allowed him this high level of achievement was his determination to be aware of the transitory nature of time and to use his time wisely. (His fragile health as a child may have convinced him that a shorter life than normal was in store for him, fixing his attention on using his time well.)

When we set priorities, we do so in service to a cause we are willing to serve, a higher purpose, a meaning enhancer.

Take a moment now to answer these questions.

  • What is your highest value right now at this time in your life?
  • What are the steps that you take on a regular basis (or can take) that will lead you towards that goal?
  • What are the obstacles that must be overcome in order to reach this goal?
  • What do you expect the be the fruit of that achievement?

In my own life, I value most highly that sense of equanimity that Howard Cutler so prized when he saw it displayed by the Dalai Lama. In order to achieve it, I know that I have to find balance in my life each day—a balance between work time and leisure time; a balance between seriousness and light-heartedness; a balance between physical activity and correspondence and study; a balance between time spent in solitude and time spent in companionship.

But, I also know that the sense of serenity that the Dalai Lama exhibits does not derive from a self-centered desire to be at peace for the sake of oneself. By developing a sense of compassion for others, one emerges, as it were, from the skin-encapsulated ego and finds a stability in trusting the oneness of things. One experiences a sense of commonality among all beings in the interdependent web in which we live. And one learns to extend the courtesy of kindness, a bridge between the person that I now am and the person I could so easily have been if life circumstances were different.

Priorities. What are yours?

Sources:

  • The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D. Riverhead Books. NY, NY. 1998.
  • Dictionary of Theories by Jennifer Bothamley. NY, NY. 2002.
  • Words I Wish I Wrote by Robert Fulgham. Cliff Street Books. NY, NY. 1997.

 

Presented by the Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, on May 15, 2016

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