Thursday, January 28, 2010

Muller's 4 questions - basic foundations for a simple life of purpose

Wayne Muller, in an attempt to strip life down to its basics, wrote the book “Four Simple Questions That Reveal the beauty And Meaning of Our Lives.” This book is one of many that try to lead us down the path to a simple life. These 4 Questions will also be the basis of my Unitarian Universalist congregational retreat. Upon the answers to those questions we will weave a path to the next year. The questions are as follows: Who am I; what do I love; how shall I live, knowing I am to die; what is my gift to the family of the earth?

These are the four questions; how do I answer them? These are the kind of questions that most of us dread to ponder and even more so to answer. They require us to give precise form to vast ideas and subtle distinctions, to distill the noble and bestial aspects of our lives, and to sum this up in the space of a few sentences. Moreover, these sentences, these fragments of meaning and language must stand up to scrutiny from ourselves and others. They must stand alone in a world of perfect expectations and imperfect performance and present your view of truth to the world. That is a daunting task, but one should try and so I shall.

The first question before us is: who am I?
Leaving aside all the biographical and biological trivia, who am I? I am a son and a brother, nephew and uncle, and I used to be a grandson. I suppose that sounds trivial also. But that is the role that I have played throughout all the interrupting parts of playmate, friend, lover, ally and opponent. Through all the acts of my life, the one role that remains unsundered is that of family member.

I do not mean that in the mechanical aspect of one who dwells under the same roof and eats common meals. No, and it is probably not wise to assume that the examples I gave – son, brother are the whole of what I mean. I am a family man, in that when I was born into a family like that of my parents and siblings, it assumed a connection of meaning and love and spirituality that is not to be likened to a mere membership. I would open that definition to include an example that I have not yet given. I am also a friend. Mind you, I speak here of real friends, those that bear the Aristotelian covenant of mutual love for the soul (or good) of the other. When the bond of family is formed, whether through biology or experience, I honor it; it defines and colors my life. I feel, think, hope and act as a family member – that is who I am.

So, now we come to the second question: what do I love?
Well, I have to say this is an uncomfortably phrased question. It is a challenge for precision issued in language that is imprecise. Love has so many meanings, some spiritual and altruistic, some physical and ultimately selfish. But, for the sake of brevity, I will put aside that inquiry and make an honest guess as to the intended meaning. For the purposes of this question, I will assume love to mean that which provides us emotional satisfaction. Taking the long view, I would say that I love a life lived close to nature. I have always loved the plants and animals of the world outside our doors. I grew my first corn when I was a preschooler and I had every sort of pet once can cram into a suburban home. Even in the days when I planned to be a physicist, I was a member of the FFA and spend Sunday afternoons in the pastures of my Uncle’s ranch.

But my love of the natural life extends beyond just the immediate association with nature. My other love of learning has been pressed into its service. In the past and even more so recently, have been fascinated with the agrarian past when men and nature had a much more intimate relationship. I love to learn of the ancient ways of living. I have gleaned all the ancient wisdom I can from sources varying from my papa’s stories of riding the rails, gardening with my mother and learning my nanny’s heirloom recipes to reading everything from “medieval herbals to the 19 century romantic literature of the English country side. The folk medicine, superstitions, music, food and customs of times spend measured to the heartbeat of nature. To sum this up into a single answer: I love learning about the ancient simple ways of living close to nature.

The third questions ask us: how shall I live, knowing I shall die.
This is the most puzzling question of all. It is a struggle, not just to find an answer, but it challenges how we live in some of the most fundamental ways. How many times have people answered the question: what would you do if the world was ending tomorrow” How many times was the answer one of reckless, selfish abandonment? Or, if not that, people would meet the end of the world in resigned contemplation and companionship. Both of these are understandable and I do not condemn them. But, the point I would like to make is this. In the long run, your life may not end tomorrow, but it will end.

If we choose to live a life of sensation and experience to maximize our enjoyment of the brief flash that is our lives, then do we not abandon any hope of a world better than the one we inherit? That is, if all we do is experience the world as it is, then there is no time to toil and teach so that others can be born into a world made better by the efforts of the past.

Similarly, if we choose a life resigned to the situation we are born into. If we pass stoic and stolid, accepting our lot and cherishing our time from birth to death, then this life also will flicker into nothing having done nothing to improve the world and humanity.

I cannot answer for all, but rather than live life solely concerned with my own brief time, I want to help develop the potential of mankind and be a steward of nature. I prefer to be a foundation stone, however small, in building a bridge from the past to a better future. This I would prefer to being a lone stone sent skipping and skittering on the surface of the water, until, time spent, I sink beneath the waves and leave no impression of ever having existed. Well, that seems to be as good an answer as I can provide here. I want to live in a manner that gives me time for the joys of family and the world, and also time to work for change and learn and teach, so that the world can continue to blossom and bear sweeter fruit with each generation. How am I to live, knowing I shall die? I will both toil in the vineyards and drink deep and long from the vintages of my life.

The final question is what is my gift to the family of the earth?
I have though myself wise, yet others are wiser. I have thought myself blessed, but blessings fade. I have thought myself just, only to learn that to err is human indeed. Many gifts have I enjoyed at one time or another. But if I was to choose a distinctive gift that I have been given and which I have shared with the world, it would be the gift of synthesis. We live in a world of black and white dualities, contradictions and incongruities, and over whelming amounts of data. I try to analyze the situation at hand and offer to others, a third view synthesized from all the data.

I seem able to understand - where in the decision process one has become lost. I take the information available and distill it down – or up, into the language and format they need for understanding. My version of synthesis is not simple middle ground, it is essentially a summation of fact that renders a clear choice where before there was confusion. Do not mistake this for wisdom. I lay no claim to that. It is more a practical understanding of the way people think and reach decisions. At the risk of offending my more scientific friends, I think I am helped by a dose of empathy and intuition. Also, I must say, this is a gift almost exclusively of use in helping others. Because in my own case, I tend to over distill the data and reach 2 perfectly balanced possibilities with nothing to help me choose better than a coin toss.

The value of synthesis is that is takes a win/lose, good/ bad duality and creates a triad with a synthesis of both choices. Although, I firmly believe in the philosophical existence of dualities. In the real world, choices are rarely that distinct and the third choice of synthesis is the path to maximizing good decisions. I wonder, if I have succeeded at clarity with this answer. Perhaps not, but, this is a hard and confounding question and I have given it my best attempt. So, I hesitantly offer this answer. What is my gift to the family of the earth? It is the ability to render clarity from confusion and offer a synthesis of choices.

So all four questions stand addressed. The ability to see truth in your own world is a challenge in any manner. When confined to a brief amount of time and a limited space for answers, it becomes almost impossible. Yet, I have tried to the best of my ability to answer and to answer succinctly. The search for core values is a struggle worth the effort. For one has to know who one is, what one values, before a purpose for life can be even guessed at. They are hard indeed, these four simple questions, but they lead us to a clarity that can allow us to seek purpose.

Purpose and the free will to pursue it are the sole justification for hope in my mind. Living is easy, finding a purpose for it is the difficult part. A life without purpose is meaningless. It is waste and waste in a world of infinite possibilities and limited time is the ultimate folly. Once one has determined the essence of who we are, what we love, how shall we life and what gift do we offer the world, then at that point, life can be focused. A simple life can have a purpose every bit as powerful as the most contrived and overcomplicated lives we so often live. Real values and real purpose are usually simple at the core.

Know thyself, to be thyself, for if you pass through life unexamined, then you wander through wasteland to a pointless ending. In such an endeavor, the struggle to answer these four questions has been worth the effort and I urge you all to find time to answer them for yourselves.

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