Looking back to my late teens and early 20′s and thinking about my conversation with young adults and even high school students tells me that the concerns expressed in my conversations with older men (and women for that matter!) aren’t just an expression of a “mid-life crisis.” Human beings are foundational meaning making creatures. Superficiality, sentimentality, meaninglessness are not natural to us—these all belong to our “second nature,” that is to say they are the learned habits of sin. The quest for a meaningful life and the creation of social and cultural institutions that foster, sustain and reward meaning are all natural to the human being and the human community, it is nihilism is learned behavior and the product of social forces.
One of the chief ways in which we create and sustain meaning is through work. Many men will look at my life as a priest and say that what I do is meaningful. This is certainly true and fine as far as it goes. But often what prompts our conversation is the felt lack of meaning in their lives. This is especially so as work and the economic demands of daily life and family become more pressing as they do at mid-life.
Certainly a busy and demanding schedule can distract us from seeing the deeper meaning of daily life. For many people life can feel like “One damn thing after another” in both the affective and (sadly) theological senses. As I said a moment ago, one reason for this is simply the stress and pressures that come with the myriad challenges of life. In a deeper sense, the problem isn’t one of schedule but of virtue—or rather of the absence of virtues. While part of this is the fault of the individual however the decisions the person make are only one small part of the whole.
The largest measure of blame rests, well, with me and people like me—the clergy. Too often clergy ignore, minimize or dismiss the value of work. This is especially the case when clergy look at the business world. Our failure as clergy is a failure to take seriously the teaching of the Scriptures. In Genesis we learn that men and women are called both to a conjugal life, that is to marry and procreate, and to a life of work. The latter to be sure is at the service of the former but work still has its own integrity, its own deeply human value that we ignore at our own peril.
In my next post I want to look a bit more closely at business and the meaningful life.