Message 14, Up in the Air, 3-14-10

For any of you who have seen Up in the Air, you might relate with my reaction to it.  I both laughed and felt like I was punched in the stomach.  For me, the movie was visceral in how it affected me. There is a lot of subtle commentary in the movie about contemporary challenges like unemployment, corporate insensitivity and downsizing as well as how technology dehumanizes and isolates us from each other.  But, as I found with the movie Avatar that we discussed last Sunday, these are the easy messages to draw from the film.  What I found most profound – and what hit me in the gut – was the protagonist’s search, George Clooney’s character, to find significance and meaning in his life.  We watch him face a kind of mid-life crisis in which everything he had dedicated his life toward achieving, all of sudden seemed to him small, insignificant and ultimately worthless.  As I saw him flounder in a life he no longer completely understands, I also squirmed.  We all face this deeply personal question, at some silent moment – perhaps in the dark of night – when we ponder our lives and ask ourselves “What is the meaning of my life?  Why am I here?  What use am I to the world?  Does anything really matter?”

As I have said before, I think we will also face these questions some day in the future – when we know that our lives are close to the end.  Our answers to those questions are likely determined by what we do in the days, months and years leading up to that point.

On his deathbed, W.C. Fields was found to be furiously thumbing through the Bible, frantically skimming it for some insightful word.  When asked what he was doing, W.C. replied, “I’m looking for a loophole!”  And, on his deathbed, the noted 18th century philosopher Voltaire was asked by a Priest if he would like to renounce Satan.  To which the ever sharp Voltaire replied, “Now, now my good man, this is no time for making enemies!”

In our movie to be considered today, however, George Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham has spent his adult life working for a firm euphemistically called “Career Transition Counseling”.  He is, in reality, not a transition counselor but a travelling corporate axeman hired to fire people whom corporations lack the courage to face.  And, being in great demand, he travels the country spending 340 days a year on the road.  Bingham takes pride in his work and considers himself an angel of mercy to those who are fired. He tells his erstwhile, laid off clients that being fired is an opportunity, a wake-up call and the first day in building a new life.  Using simple platitudes and understanding words, he softens the blow.  The film poignantly uses actual laid off people – not actors – to portray many of those whom Bingham fires.  They provide real words and real faces to the anguish, anger and sense of betrayal in being let go from a job and career.

If this part of the movie showcases the human side of the main character, his personal life is anything but normal.  Living as a single man with no children, little family contact, few possessions and a plain, undecorated white box of an apartment which he rarely sees, Bingham revels in his life spent in airports and airplanes, unremarkable hotels and bland restaurants.  He proudly lives an unattached life. And the main goal of that life is to become one of only seven people to amass ten million airline frequent flyer miles.  He does not care for the resulting perks, upgrades or possible free trips.  He just wants the elite status and the knowledge of having achieved such a dubious milestone.

But things begin to change for him when he is asked to train a young protege who advocates using remote video conferencing to fire people.  He meets a woman with whom he begins to have a romantic relationship.  He is also asked to attend his younger sister’s wedding and thus reunite with family members – many of whom he has a distant if not indifferent relationship.  These three human interactions cause Bingham to begin to see his life in a new light and to re-evaluate his priorities.  The movie does not provide a simple or facile conclusion.  While Bingham comes to see the utter insignificance of his life, he is not able to so easily change it.  He finally becomes a victim of his own indifferent and casual treatment of others.

As some of you know, I turned 50 last September and it was a mildly traumatic moment for me. Age is just a number, I continue to tell myself and I intellectually believe that.  How we act and how we acquire wisdom while retaining youthful exuberance for life is what really matters.  But the term, “half a century old”, still does not sit well with me.  A big reason for that is my anxiety over what meaning my life has had and what purpose and value I can still bring.  I don’t want the answers to my questions of meaning – when I am on my deathbed – to lack conviction or to be devoid of importance.  I want to live a life that matters to at least one other person.  I want my life to have meaning and purpose.

For those who are conservative Christians, the sole purpose of life is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.  That is the plainly stated Christian purpose of humans in one of the standard creeds – the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  As much as I personally disagree with this view of life, I marvel at the passionate adherence to the idea of glorifying God that many Christians have.  For me, however, this view ultimately does not answer my questions about suffering, significance and love for people.

Jews define their lives through adherence to the Torah and God’s commands for right living.   That, combined with worship and with acts of love towards others is the Jewish purpose for humankind.

Muslims see life as a test in how we obey and serve Allah.  Whether or not we ultimately enter Heaven is the answer to our questions about meaning and purpose in life.  Those who enter Heaven, therefore, have lived a meaningful life.

For Buddhists, the goal is not to find meaning in life but to end suffering by detaching oneself from earthly desires.  A successful person then reaches the state of nirvana – which is freedom from suffering and endless rebirth.

Incorporating spirituality in our lives does offer a level of significance to many people.  As much as we are rational and thinking beings, contemplating the mysteries of life are important.  That is, I believe, one of our purposes here at the Gathering – to collectively search and inquire the spiritual realm.  Whatever our beliefs are, we acknowledge both an inner and exterior power that is beyond our physical and mental worlds.  In this search, we are looking for meaning and purpose.

I believe spirituality recognizes the mystery at work in humanity – and this moves us ever onward toward creating goodness and perfection.  As we just heard, each world religion has that as its end.  But the final goal, in my belief, should be the well being of humanity and of earth itself.   As I have said many times, we yearn for and we work to build heaven here and now.  I believe that was Jesus’ true mission.  Salvation and redemption come not through belief in him as a God, but in living out his ideals.  Joy, peace, compassion, and justice are such ideals.  To that end, therefore, I believe our life meaning must be self-defined and it is, ultimately, a matter of choice in how we live out the ideals of Jesus and many others throughout history who have taught them – like Buddha, Mohammed, Abraham, Gandhi and Martin Luther King.  We are who we make ourselves to be.  Our world is what we create it to be.  The meaning of life is shaped by what we choose to make relevant – love or hate, peaceful contentment or bitterness and self-pity. 

Victor Frankl, a holocaust survivor and author of the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, writes that our meaning is defined in every moment we live.  Far from encompassing one unifying life theme, we are an amalgam of life experiences each of which have meaning and purpose.  This moment by moment living finds meaning not in the collective whole of our lives but in everything that we experience.  Calling it “De-Reflection”, Frankl writes that from his time in concentration camps he came to realize that the endless pursuit of life meaning ultimately leaves one chasing an ethereal and impossible goal.  Instead, he encourages a celebratory and joyful grasp of life’s every moment – even when we suffer or are in pain.

In a Library of Congress poll, Frankl’s book was selected as one of the ten most influential books of the twentieth century for his insights on meaning and suffering.  He describes his experiences in Aushwitz when death seemed near and when sadistic Nazi guards harassed and tormented prisoners unmercifully. In the midst of such experiences, Frankl found that both his faith in a future and his deep love for his wife gave him meaning and purpose in those moments.  Far from degrading him to the point of insignificance, which was the dehumanizing goal of the Nazis, Frankl held onto his own soul and the meaning that he alone gave it.  He was determined that only he would provide the meaning to his life by the choices he made in reaction to his suffering.  Instead of allowing himself to be reduced, to feel the sharp stings of torture and to allow them to affect him, he instead soared.  He imagined his wife, he pictured her face and saw her looking upon him.  He says that as he gazed at the rising sun one morning during a forced time of fasting – when he was literally starving to death – he saw his beloved wife as a vision that shone in his mind brighter than the sun.  He concludes that such love, such passion for his wife, gave him meaning in that moment and in many other moments of suffering.

Frankl writes about this moment, “In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way  – an honorable way  – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory….”

He later adds this insight, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Frankl sums up his belief about how we can discover meaning.  First, we can be defined by our deeds and our work.  Or, second, we can be defined by our experiences and encounters with people.  Finally, the third alternative for finding life meaning is through our attitude when we suffer.  For me, these three choices for finding life purpose ring as true as anything I have read or heard on the subject. We choose who and what we are by our reactions to the world and people around us.  We are defined by how we act and how we interact.  In our world there are women and men who define their lives by hate, greed, intolerance, deception and arrogance.  The human race also contains those who are defined by peacemaking, joy, compassion, advocacy for human rights and love.  Each set of lives has meaning.  Each set has purpose.  And yet, which group exalts and lifts up the human condition?  Which group do we celebrate and whose work continues the eternal work of Divine love?

The Biblical book of Ecclesiastes tells us the following about our purpose and the attitude we are to have.  I quote from the NIV translation: God has made everything beautiful in its time. God has also set eternity in the hearts of humans. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in their work—this is the gift of God.

In my previous work as a Pastor, I regularly visited a woman from our congregation who became so sick and weak that it was necessary for her to move to a nursing home.  Loureide used to be a beautiful woman who, when she was much younger, had modeled for local TV and print ads.  She raised a family of several children and had lived a happy and fulfilled life.  Before her stroke, she was active, and very cheerful.  She always had a broad smile and an easy and friendly demeanor.  Near the end of her life, though, she suffered a series of strokes which left one side of her body paralyzed.  One side of her face drooped and the side of her mouth hung open.  She was often unable to stop drooling.  Confined to a wheelchair and only able to talk with difficulty, Lou nevertheless would visibly brighten whenever I came to visit.  She had a raspy laugh when I told her something funny about an incident at church or when I talked to her about my girls.  She always asked about my life and how I was doing.  The nurses who cared for her came to love her deeply.  She would pat their hands whenever they assisted her, offer hugs to them with her one good arm and thank them for their help.

I could not help but feel sorry for Lou – even though she did not feel sorry for herself.  I had seen a fairly vibrant woman become a shadow.  And yet she was a joy to visit.  She truly never complained about her condition or her final lot in life.  It did not seem fair to me that she ended up this way – forced to sell her home and become dependent on Medicaid, living two people to a room and suffering the indignity of being fed and bathed by strangers.  She told me a few months before she passed that she was quite happy and not afraid to die.  She was content with her life and felt that she had been immensely blessed.

When I think about the meaning of Lou’s life, I cannot help but think of her spirit and her happiness –  up to the very end.  She had been a homemaker, a proud mom and loving grandmother.  Lou had never run a business, been published or made millions of dollars.  From outward appearances, there was nothing extraordinary about her life.  But her life still has resonance and meaning.  Just as Victor Frankl refused to allow the Nazi death camps to defeat him, Lou chose to live joyfully and thankfully in each and every moment.  She chose to always extend herself to others in her cheerful way instead of sinking into her own problems.

In the film Up in the Air, Ryan Bingham chooses a life of detachment from other humans and from being present in a world of personal interaction.  He lives literally in the clouds – above, aloof and removed.  His few moments of connection are when he offers a human face and a human touch to other people. These are the epiphany moments for him when he finds genuine meaning – when he calms a laid-off employee, when he looks into the eyes of the woman he falls in love with and when he convinces the intended groom of his younger sister to go through with the wedding.  He finally reaches the conclusion, near the end of the film, when he says, “When you remember the most important moments of your life, you realize you weren’t alone; everyone needs a copilot.  Life is better with someone.”

Our lives are bookmarked by our experiences and interactions with other people – from when we are born and descend into the waiting arms of our mothers, to when we take our last breath and walk the journey into eternity with loved ones in our hearts, we are in the company of others.  Even as we experience the depths of pain, there are others with us – either in our mind’s visions – or literally present with us to hug, care and comfort.  I want to choose a life and a meaning that embraces other people, celebrates love, laughs in the face of adversity and cherishes every second.  Let me pray to the heavens above and to all the angels of the universe that I might grow to be such a person.  My meaning and my purpose is to choose each moment of life to serve, to love and to celebrate people.

What a tremendous joy it is to be here right now – with all of you.  We entered here and smiled a greeting to each other, we sing, we share, we give and we hug in moments of great pleasure.  This is life itself – here and now.  This has depth and purpose.  Let me exult in it.  This time.  This place.  All of you.  In this beautiful and loving and wondrous and eternal moment with you, I find meaning.