The Common Good
July-August 1995

No Easy Answers

by John Schramm | July-August 1995

The search for meaning is hard work.

Many people would agree that this society is filled with a general feeling of malaise and despair. We carry on an almost frantic search for meaning in life. But do we really need another book on the topic?

The Search for Meaning, by Will Willimon and Thomas and Magdalena Naylor, has several things to commend it. The context from which it originates is interesting in itself. A Duke University seminar offered the occasion for two of the authors and 15 students to meet over a period of 14 weeks to discuss "the search for meaning." The first gathering started 10 minutes after the bombing of Baghdad began on the evening of January 16, 1991. The world situation gave heightened intensity to the questions: Why are we here? What does it all mean? The book was conceived in genuine discussion.

(Impressively, two of the authors changed their lifestyles significantly after writing the book. They moved to Vermont to begin to live consistently with the values that were clarified through the seminar.)

A commitment to honest realism marks the book as significant. The authors admit that colleges and universities are ineffective in helping students find meaning in their lives. Too often, students learn how to pass tests, not how to live.

The authors also acknowledge that much of popular psychology suggests that meaning can be found only by turning inward. It is also noted that in contrast to the 1960s, when many Americans were genuinely concerned about social issues, our attention in the 1980s turned toward ourselves and our immediate family. Our society has shifted away from social and community values to individual and family values.

There are many warnings about hoping for easy answers. The Search for Meaning asks hard questions instead.

The book's format makes it especially valuable. As difficult as it is to do, the authors have succeeded in conveying the lively seminar discussion to the pages of a book by a well-conceived use of quotes, questions, assignments, strategies, and even the inclusion of employee benefits of Ben & Jerry's ice cream company. (If the reader wants to go further in making the search a personal one, a workbook is also available.)

Elaborating on the nature of our problems always allows for more eloquence than the more helpful task of suggesting ways to find meaning. Solutions often seem to be prescriptive or reduced to maxims for a refrigerator door. The suggestions in this book are more provocative.

For instance, the reader is challenged to consider that to "die happy" may well be our most adequate articulation of the purpose of life. Even belief in God involves coming to terms with death. When we have accepted death, the problem of God will be solved-not the reverse.

This book is not for the casual reader who wants a few lively quotes. But if one is presently engaged in a search for meaning, this volume is a helpful companion.

JOHN SCHRAMM is a retired pastor living in Leavenworth, Washington. With his wife, Mary Schramm, he runs a Third World craft store there.

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