Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ultimate Meaning in the Universe?

I gave a lecture recently at Benedictine Academy, a Catholic girls’ school, in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  I talked about my parents there and what they went through in the concentration camps during the war and what their lives were like after the war.  Near the end of my presentation, I read a poem that I posted recently on OpenSalon.  The poem is called "What The War Taught Her"; and it’s a bleak poem. 

One of the things it talks about is my mother’s sense that all of the suffering she and the other people in the camps experienced was finally “worthless.”  She believed that none of it did anybody any good.   During the question and answer period afterward, one of the high school girls asked me if what happened to my parents strengthened my faith or weakened it.   

It's a question that I think about all the time, but when you’re standing in front of a couple hundred young people and you know they have to get to their next class and that nobody’s got time for the long answer, you give them the short answer.   That’s what I did.  I told that student that I didn’t have any faith.   

I’ll never see that student again, and I’ll probably never get to Benedictine Academy again, but I wish I could.  It would give me the chance to give that student the long answer, and here’s what I’d say:     

When I posted “What the War Taught My Mother” at OpenSalon, one of the bloggers, Laurel, Not Lauren, asked me a similar question about my faith.  She said, "Tell me, in sifting through the rubble of so much evil and misery, have you come away with a sense that life has ultimate meaning, or are you a nihilist?"

“The ultimate meaning?”

When I look at the kinds of things that have happened and continue to happen, I have to wonder if there is an "ultimate meaning" and if that ultimate meaning is a good thing.

I came across a quotation by the Chicago novelist and Nobel prize winner Saul Bellow a while ago, and he seems to express for me the dark vision of that ultimate meaning. Here's what he says:

“You think history is the history of loving hearts? You fool! Look at these millions of dead. Can you pity them? Feel for them? You can do nothing! There were too many. We burned them to ashes, we buried them with bulldozers. History is the history of cruelty, not love, as soft men think. We have experimented with every human capacity to see which is strong and admirable and have shown that none is. There is only practicality. If the old God exists, he must be a murderer. But the one true god is Death and history is made by madmen and butchers.”

When I read that, I think that maybe the ultimate meaning is that you and I and billions of others should be dead and the sooner the better. The ultimate meaning is that the only meaning is that we are here for a brief moment and it doesn't matter whether we suffer or not.

I consider that, and then I consider what my father and mother felt. My dad spent four years in a concentration camp, and he came out of that experience thinking that he had an obligation to be kind and helpful. I've written about this in my poem "What My Father Believed." You can hear Garrison Kellior read it online.

My mother, on the other hand, was a skeptic and a cynic. 100% of the time when I would ask her if there was some kind of ultimate meaning in the universe (and you can be certain I did ask) she would say, "No priest has ever come back from heaven to tell me if what the church says is true."

Despite this, she had a spoonful of optimism in her--A hopefulness that kept her going past the deaths she witnessed in the war, past the suffering in the camps, past two cancers that left her crippled for the last 4 years of her life.

When I once asked her after her second surgery for cancer how she could go on, she said, "Optimism is a crazy person's mother."

I think that optimism is my mother too.


Ron Slate said...

Fascinating. To live between the choices of faith or nihilism is like trying to grow crops between warring armies. Best to move (emigrate) to safer grounds with a nice view of the war below. I don't mean to be glib about the topic being addressed, as I'm sure you know -- since once a person has been exposed to the terrors or the griefs of those who survived them, much remains to be encountered and decided upon. It's a question of whether one lives in the aftermath alone -- or also lives in a prelude. It's a question of whether one allows one's "beliefs" and "faith" to overrule the ambiguities and complexities of actual experience. It's also a matter of choosing where to find consolation ... Please write some more about this some time soon.

Urkat said...

The problem with meaning is that we want to be able to say what it is, but those who suffered are not in the best position to do that. Naturally their meaning would be less sanguine than someone else's.

I have to say that meaning is what we take away. What the young people took away from your lecture is also a part of the meaning, and some will draw hope and courage from it, will resolve to stand as the Poles stood, against tyranny. So, the ultimate meaning isn't ours. It belongs to all of us.

off kilter said...

Lovely post. I'm also the child of a crazy mother...someone once told me I could be intelligent or optimistic like I had to choose one or the other. They were wrong, IMO. Today at my Unitarian church I learned that our faith's origins began with the Polish brethren of the 1500s. I'm very proud.

John Guzlowski said...

Dear Ron, Urkat, and Off Kilter, thank you for your comments.

What you suggest is what I try to suggest in my presentations, that meaning is complex, that different people respond to similar experiences in different ways. My father becomes a man sitting alone in a back room praying over a holy book he can't read; my mother becomes a woman railing against priests, mocking their dreams and promises; and I become a child listening to the voices of my parents and trying to be true to their complexity.

Urkat said...

It's painful to live with constant ambiguity, but I feel it's a measure of our own complexity.

ParisMaddy said...

What a powerful quote from your mother.

~ Optimism is a crazy person's mother. ~

Those words encapsulate a personality succinctly with vivid imagery. I don't know your mother but feel like I know her by those words. When I read Doors to Madame Marie by Odette Meyers there is a passage about keeping your heart swept clean of the dirt (prejudice, racial and ethnic intolerances ) than can accumulate.

"Dust doesn't announce itself." she says as she likens our hearts to the apartment house of the next century.

Some words resonate for a long time after hearing them.