In attempting to answer the question of human meaning, it is often helpful to turn to story because we are essentially relational beings whose meanings are found in a narrative way. This is how we function: stories and the narratives we are building, allow, or otherwise envision hold the keys to the meaning of our lives to some degree.
Just think of how you talk to yourself in a narrative way about your own story. That is all I mean to say.
I am not personally suggesting, as some do, that we have complete control over these personal narratives. What I would like to suggest is that we can be deliberate in how we contribute to each other’s stories and therefore, potentially, the meaning of other people’s lives and, in some ways, the value of our culture as a whole.
We also can deliberately effect our own story with ourself; with others; and possibly even with God – I think, so long as we remember and respect that they all have wills and narratives of their own.
An Unusual Airplane Dream
I think we all love flying dreams (one’s without airplanes) so it was an unusual dream to be riding back on an airplane from a foreign city after surviving a near fatal airplane accident that had been averted due to the deft handling of the craft by our pilots. As with many dreams, some aspects were just as you might expect, and others very unusual – but in the dream nothing seems odd or out of place at all.
So there was nothing odd about the fact that those journeying back to the US and the same onboard crew and chosen myself and my mentor to deliver two thoughtful “gifts” to the commander of the flight and his crew in thanks for their heroics. I had already delivered my “book” to the crew – a book of meditations for various hours on a long flight at strategic hours with prayers for guidance. I now had the large leather-bound book in my lap that my mentor had delivered to me (he was not ready to make the return flight) to give to the captain and crew.
The head steward looked at me and she said “I delivered yours an hour ago…what was it?”
Even though we were on a plane, suddenly it was more like a round-seated lounge on something like Air Force One – or maybe it was a flashback to those group encounter sessions from Fearless – I don’t know. But she was emotional. The landing in Manila had been very touch and go. We probably should have all died.
“It’s a book of meditations that I reworked for pilots,” I said. “I made sure to have specific Psalms chosen for specific hours of need like 9, 10 and 11 p.m.; then 1 a.m.; then three.”
She started to cry. I could tell that she was thinking about when those times had been scary for her and when she needed solace and a Word from God – some real connection. Suddenly I wished I had done a book for her too.
I looked down at the book Kevin had done. I had suggested he take a few quotes from a Thomas Merton Book but he had gone a little overboard – doing a small outline on rich thick parchment paper and a beautiful font. Following that, he has pages of quotations that dealt with fear, love and life. It was very beautiful, touching…unique.
I passed it around to the others to look at and someone asked me what I thought.
“Well, it goes way beyond what I suggested and may be too much in a sense – but you see that is not for me to say at all. One aspect of a group of people like us going through an experience where we all could have easily died is that it somehow makes all the small stuff irrelevant for at least a time – and makes each other so very precious – doesn’t it?”
There were tearful nods.
The fact was the incident had awakened us to the question of meaning and relationship – just as it does in fictitious renditions like Peter Weir’s film Fearless (about airline crash survivors) and Walker Percy’s character Will Barrett in The Second Coming – who is living like a zombie until a stray bullet careens around his garage one day barely missing him.
“I think so long as you don’t make any assumptions and trample anyone’s borders there is a lot of room. I think you do that by making sure what you do is always an offering – a true gift. What Kevin has pulled together here is really a gift and only that.”
Then a few others spoke up for a while on their own experience of seeing others as more meaningful and caring so much less about superfluities. They also felt a greater need to express love nd gratitude for others – but they also felt hurt and somewhat misunderstood because they had a variety of complex feelings as well.
“I guess that is why we will be in a group together for a while when we get back,” I said, “I cannot imagine what it is like for those groups where they actually lose people.”
Why do I think I had the dream? I think it was about “gift-love” (agape) and its relationship to meaning. It is just a guess, but I have been asking questions about human meaning before I go to sleep. This allows both my subconscious, and God a lot of room to go to work if they wish.
I do not have all the answers by any means. I know that human meaning is something we all seek and that it is, at the core, relational – because we are relational at the core. I know that many of us seem to respond to similar themes and narratives in books and films – all of which have to do with meaning, love, heroism (of a kind), dealing with death and evil and also have some true draw tpoo beauty (of a kind).
It is from these common human questions that we dialog and explore.
I can say that (in the dream) it is significant that in response to being given more life both my mentor and I were working at producing art as a gift in return. And it was personal. It was not meant to hung in a museum or sold. It was meant to bless actual people daily in a loving way. It was meant to be meaningful person-to-person in a non-utilitarian way; in a way that says “you are important and we have a connection.”