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The Search For Meaning

 

At my synagogue, and in the liberal Jewish community at large, there’s been discussion lately about the search for meaning: that the previous generations came to religion for peoplehood and community, and the current generation is looking for meaning. But I don’t know what they mean by “meaning.” Alternately they use words like “spirituality” and “purpose.”

During my latest social work class, I read an article (Wong and Vinsky, 2009) about the use of the phrase spiritual-but-not-religious in social work. Its authors argue that the word spiritual, as we use it, reflects a Euro-Christian, largely Protestant mindset, just stripped of the trappings of religion. The authors of the article come from Buddhist and Jewish backgrounds, and both see spirituality, as they’ve experienced it, as based in the history and community they come from. They feel that when you try to divide spirituality from that history, it loses a lot of its power.

We want to believe that finding meaning in life is an intellectual pursuit, and a solitary pursuit, but usually we are searching because something has been missing from our relationships.

My journey to find meaning in life has been pretty literal. I needed to go through every event and person in my entire life, and find out what the hell happened. Was this person really as mean as I thought, or was I exaggerating? Was I a melodramatic kid, or was my life actually as dramatic as I thought it was? I had to work at organizing and parsing my life, so that the chaos I experienced the first time around could come into focus. I looked for paradigms and frameworks and theories, to help make all of those relationships become clear.

David Brooks recently wrote an article in the New York Times, arguing for the value of covenantal relationships among communities, and societies. With all of the globalization technology has brought, he says, many people have lost the social bonds they used to live by. People live more fragmented and isolated lives than they used to. The idea of a covenantal relationship is that it’s not a choice you make each day, it’s a choice you try to live up to each day. Brooks talks about a social fabric, which resonates for me, because my mom is a quilter, taking scraps from everywhere and sewing them together to make something new, and whole.

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Butterfly is working on a new design.

In a world where we have Tinder, and swipe-left-if-you-like-the-looks-of-him, we forget that relationships are about time and effort. It’s not that you should stick with a synagogue or religion or marriage that is wrong for you, or hurts you. It’s that you should make sure you’re not giving up on a good thing too quickly, or because it requires more input from you to keep working.

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Relationships take work? Or more treats, at the very least.

When both of the rabbis at my synagogue went to Israel for a conference two summers ago, just as the Gaza war began, many of us were holding our breath, wishing they would have stayed home. The conference was a way to give Liberal American rabbis a sense of the current tensions within Israel, between men and women, between ultra-orthodox and liberal, between Arab Israeli and Jewish Israel, and between Israeli and Palestinian. As soon as our rabbis returned, even though it was a Friday night in the middle of the summer, when we usually get twenty people at services at most, the room was filled to bursting with emotions and hugs and delayed fear – and we made meaning together. We brought our offerings into the soup of community and each took home what we could use.

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Where’s MY soup?”

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“I like soup.”

For dogs, meaning comes from their relationships too. They are dependent on their people for food and walks, yes, but it’s more than that. They depend on us for attention and structure and the basic feeling that they matter. We humans like to think of ourselves as independent, and able to take care of ourselves, but it’s a sham. Just ask Cricket. She can have a warm place to sleep, plenty of food, and frequent trips outside, but if Grandma isn’t with her, she becomes deeply unhappy. She can pull herself up to mildly unhappy, by spending extra time with me, leaning against me on the couch, following me from room to room. An outsider might even think she was fine, but that’s because they’ve never seen the absolute joy she can feel when Grandma returns, or the peace on her face when she can fall asleep on Grandma’s lap.

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“Grandma!”

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“You’re home!!!!”

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All better.

Brooks, D. (April 5th 2016). How Covenants Make Us, New York Times, Op. Ed., A27.

 

Wong, Y. & Vinsky, J. (2009) Speaking From the Margins: A Critical Reflection on the            ‘Spiritual-but-not-religious’ discourse in social work, British Journal of Social

            Work, 39, 1343-1359.

 

p.s.   Kristina Stanley, fellow author, blogger, and dog Mom, has written The Author’s Guide To Selling Books To Non-Bookstores, which is both a how-to on how to be more pro-active in selling your books, and a good friend spurring you on to more success. Her expertise in this area is hard won, and she wants to share it. We all dream of the perfect writing buddy who’s there with us for the journey and prodding us along the way, well this book is your marketing buddy, giving you advice and encouragement and letting you know you’re not alone.

https://kristinastanley.com/

 

 

 

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

84 responses »

  1. Thought provoking … as your posts often are.

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  2. Important to matter to somebody… even a furry somebody.

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  3. I hope you have had a great sabbath. G-d bless and keep you.

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  4. Great post Rachel – I think the world is looking for meaning these days as they try to make sense of so much nonsense! I know I am on that quest every day!

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  5. In the last picture, that is a look of sheer bliss on Cricket’s face. 🙂

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  6. Great post, Rachel, and a lot to think about. I think my aim is captured best in your very last photo–“all better.” You and me both, Cricket. Is that too much to ask?

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  7. You are so right about our need for community, and the way it binds us together. It is something that has been lost to many in our society. Great post!

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  8. Phenomenal post Rachel! It coveys so many things in a concise yet thought provoking manner. Many of your words resonated with me as I am Catholic and it seems our religion is changing and evolving in a different direction.

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  9. I wish you lived down the street from me, even though I know that my cat and your dogs would never get along. I feel like we would have lots of conversations where we would be saying stuff like, “See? Exactly! That’s what I’m talking about! The animals get it! Why don’t the humans???”

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  10. Thank you, it’s a great post, will give me something to think about on my morning walk 🙂

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    • Let me know what you come up with!

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      • I thought about it from my (dogs obsessed) perspective. I often hear people saying the world is bad, they don’t want to know about what happens because they get depressed. Maybe the meaning is imprinted in us: we do what we do because we can’t not do it. So, for me, not knowing (about bad things) is losing my chance to have a purpose. I do need escape techniques to keep my sanity (my dogs and people I love) but without the sense I change something (anything, doesn’t matter how little) my life would have no meaning, there would be no justification for my existence.
        There’s nothing worse than a meaningless existence.

  11. Great post once again and some lovely shots of the rat pack 😀😀😀

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  12. Lovely pictures of the girls Rachel. We all mean something to someone, it’s the interpretation that gets a little screwed up in the process sometimes.

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  13. Funny how messages sometimes arrive at just the right time. When we moved, we left what was the perfect church for us. We can’t go back…the pastor has moved, too, and so much has changed. But moving forward, we hold every congregation to that lovely, warm standard, and find them wanting… As you say, we may be giving up too quickly.

    LOVE the last photo! Have a great week, Rachel!

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  14. Love this post! I like them all actually, but this one has me questioning “meaning” and where one gets it or creates it.

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  15. I would like to say Bravo! but that seem to be woefully brief for such an exquisitely crafted piece on the status of our relationships with each other and our dogs. How about Brilliant?

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  16. I enjoyed this post Rachel! You are such a great Momma to those sweet pups! 🙂

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  17. I’d respond with something thought provoking, but I gotta check my phone.

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  18. A very profound post. Thanks for writing. Just an aside – dogs have an advantage over us: they don’t use the internet or social media. The anonymity of the two promote the churlishness that has contributed greatly to the isolation and the breakup of community and commonality that you write about.

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  19. Oh, that face in the last photo. Enjoyed reading this. Thank you!

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  20. Your post title immediately triggered memories of reading Viktor Frankl’s work, so you are right up there. You are right about dogs and many other animals. They don’t struggle to analyze, they just form bonds or avoid those not good to bond with if they can help it. Even after humans selectively bred them to be servants most domestic animals find their meaning in the relationship, not the job. Humans might suffer less if they followed that example.

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  21. I think you summed it up nicely with this: “Relationships take work? Or more treats, at the very least.”

    Yes! 🙂

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  22. Very interesting. There are a couple of things you quote that I question. It seems to me that spirituality is something that can be sensed in people not all of whom are formally religious. Conversely, there are people who follow the dictates of their religion loyally, but who seem to lack spirituality. I said that once in a discussion and a Catholic priest present gave me a sort of “I know just what you’re getting at” look. Now when I sense this spirituality in someone not professing any religion, I can’t see that it flows from history and culture. They’ve just been touched by God.

    Certainly I find the rejection of religion and embracing of spirituality on the intellectual level to be unsatisfactory. It seems to be based on a caricature of religion. People particularly reject “organised religion” and while I well know what evil religious organisations have promoted, such as the Spanish Inquisition, they’ve promoted good too. If you imagine three or four people who find they share some spiritual experience, as soon as they arrange to meet regularly, agree some ground rules for the meetings, discuss the implications of their insights for decisions in their lives and do things like setting up a kitty with donations to help someone poor get to the meetings – you already have organised religion.

    It would be perverse for someone who has become aware of their spirituality not to learn from those who have gone before and in order to do that to any depth, and to share in mutual support, you must choose a tradition. Being Christian or Jewish or Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist should not mean not also learning from other traditions, but I don’t think you get far treating religion like a salad counter. But there is a choice. After all, the vast majority of Buddhists in Europe or the Americas were not brought up Buddhists or their parents weren’t. That doesn’t stop them learning deeply from Buddhist traditions. What people who make a choice that takes them away from their background mustn’t do, I think, is reject everything in that background. They must have found something in it unacceptable or unsatisfactory, but it can still teach them things.

    Also I don’t think I’ve ever seen a search for meaning in life as solitary. We’re social beings and we find meaning through and with other people.

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    • My rabbi was talking this weekend about how national holidays, like Memorial Day and Thanksgiving in the U.S., are a form of cultural religious observance. So, you don’t have to be in a formal religion to get the religious and/or spiritual feeling that can come from being in a community.

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  23. That last picture is definitely the picture of pure joy and contentment. This post reminds me of the song, “No Man is an Island” by Joan Baez.

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  24. This is an amazing post. I’m feeling very alone lately…and not liking it.

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  25. I just love love love love the last photo. Makes my heart happy.

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  26. What a great post- it resonated with me. Your photos of Cricket & Butterfly were exceptionally cute this week too ❤

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  27. I love this one Rachel. So spot on and with such a sweet ending! Wish I had crafted this line, as it is perfection, “We brought our offerings into the soup of community and each took home what we could use.” Hugs and doggie kisses from Jello!

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  28. A meaningful post! Lovely pictures, too 🙂

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  29. Beautiful post, Rachel. The “All Better” photo is my favorite. ❤

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  30. One of the best books i ever read was Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. He wrote it when he was at interned at Auschwitz, I believe. A very provocative book. I think meaning is up to the individual Rachel. Meanwhile never forget, God is dog spelled backwards.

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  31. A beautiful and well written post, one that I enjoyed very much.

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  32. I really enjoyed this, thank you xx

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  33. Lovely post. I recently heard a radio program about people describing themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. That could mean anything from New Age waffle to a deep sense of connection with others in a meaningful universe.

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    • Exactly! I met a teenager who calls himself a “secular Jew” even though his Mom is a rabbi!!!! I had to wonder what he meant by secular, or what he thinks it would take to actually be religious.

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  34. What a delightful read! You explained meaning ! Relationships give us meaning!

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  35. I have experienced something similar… related to purpose and spirituality.. and poochi my little pet made things more clear to me… your post is really nice

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  36. It’s swipe right if you like the look of him =P Tinder is terrible, I know. I often think religion is sought ought for the social aspects, of bringing a community together. This post touched upon that, I think.

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  37. “It’s not that you should stick with a synagogue or religion or marriage that is wrong for you, or hurts you. It’s that you should make sure you’re not giving up on a good thing too quickly, or because it requires more input from you to keep working.”

    Nice words of wisdom here as well. Thank you for this well-said reminder!!

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  38. As usual, a most interesting piece, Rachel! I consider myself a very spiritual person yet I do not belong to any ‘organized’ religion mainly because I always have issues with the associated dogma. If I had to select a religion or religious philosophy I’m most comfortable with following I cannot pick just one. I suppose the Judeo-Christian philosophies are close but then so are pieces of Buddhism,Hinduism, Wicca and others. What guides me in this life is a belief system borrowing from all the aforementioned and more but is especially built upon the commonalities between these philosophies. I see so many common themes in the foundations of the above and this perception only fuels my belief that my ‘spiritualism’ is indeed ‘right’ for me. I would never try to convert someone to my beliefs as I suspect what I’ve adopted, while apparently ‘right’ for me, could easily be totally wrong for someone else. More than anything it is the sense of being tied to everything around me, even what is still considered ‘inanimate’, at a deep conscious/unconscious level that helps me maintain the balance I so desperately need. I also whole-heartedly believe in the axiom; “To perceive light one must be receptive to light”; this drives me to try to keep an open mind. It is a lot of continual work to even begin to honor this concept so I just ‘keep on keepin’ on’ and try hard to see positives in my many failures. Loved the perspective from our canine friends! They worship at the altar of routines when dealing with humans and each other; as such when I begin to notice one of my pals appears a bit unsettled I try to insure my routines are as close to impeccable as I can make them. In my experience this can and does help them settle down. They are such a joy to behold as their actions/reactions to the world around them are based upon living in the moment; this is something I also strive to emulate but have such a difficult time. I honestly believe all of humanity could take a lesson from our four legged friends with regards to living only in the ‘now’. To pursue this concept I’ve discovered the Ennegram and have tried to use the tool to further my spiritual growth. In watching my canine companions I often believe they could teach the graduate course…

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  39. savoryspicysweet

    Have you ever read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning?” This author posits that meaning making is what we as people do. If there is no meaning, we fall into despair. I like how you have linked social connection to finding meaning here. And not just casual connection, but true community.

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