|As You Think
A Quarterly Column
by Father Paul Keenan
We are very pleased to welcome Father Paul Keenan to
SoulfulLiving.com as our newest columnist! With
each new issue, Father Paul will provide us with an
opportunity to pause and ponder, as he shares his
thoughts and wisdom on positive thinking and the use of affirmations
in our daily lives.
Life's Deeper Meaning
This issue, we are privileged to reflect on life’s deeper meaning. It’s important at the outset that we take a very close look at that expression. If we do, we can develop some musings that will give us true insight into the various meanings of life and
how we can make a deeper meaning of life our own.
In this context there are three meanings of life. First there is the superficial meaning, known in the computer world as WYSIWYG – what you see is what you get. There are people for whom everything is just what it is. In The Varieties of Religious
Experience, William James coins the term “healthy-mindedness” to describe someone who is perpetually and unabashedly happy – happy all the time. James further distinguishes between healthy-mindedness that is “involuntary” on the one hand and “systematical” on the other.
The former are healthy-minded people who are happy immediately and without much reflection. The latter are healthy-minded people who bring their happiness to the conceptual level – as James says, “conceiving happiness as essential and universal.”
It is the “involuntary” people that we are interested in at the moment. I have known people who were perpetually happy and never thought a thing about it. Children are often like that, but I have also seen it in adults. When I was teaching in a college
years ago, there was a student who was a woman, let’s say, in midlife. She was always exuberant, and whenever she met you she would greet you with a big smile and say, “Have a happy day!” One of the senior professors who tended to be of a rather dour nature once confided to
me, “I feel like asking her, ‘What are my choices?’”
There’s nothing really wrong with her sort of attitude. It’s rather pleasant and nicer to be around than that of a grouch. But can we really live our lives at that level and only at that level? What happens when a tragedy occurs? The whole
underpinning can fall out from under the cheery world view.
Just as there are people who are involuntarily happy, so there are people who are involuntarily unhappy without thinking very much about it. The interesting thing is that these people may even have a belief that there can be good in the universe, a sort
of conceptualized good. Yet they feel that their life is sad and tragic. This is a very painful way to live. Happiness always eludes them.
The person who is involuntarily happy and the one who is involuntarily unhappy have something in common: what they see is what they get. What they have is indeed a level of meaning in their lives, but it is a superficial level which never rises above
There is another level of meaning that I call “higher meaning.” This is the world of doctrines, morals, philosophies and ideals. Here, the person is able to rise above the WYSIWYG level to establish a system of beliefs and practices. He or she believes
certain things about life, the universe, right and wrong, human nature and God. They may take it wholesale from a particular religious or philosophical tradition. They may personally think through their belief system and formulate for themselves a profound understanding of
the workings of the universe. In either event, they have gone beyond the superficial level and are able to articulate a higher meaning to life.
This is obviously a noble path. It is the stuff of the great religions and schools of philosophy throughout the history of the world. Such people have eyes that see what others do not see and ears to hear what others do not hear. They rise above what
Whitehead calls “the prevailing form of the forms of thought” and develop a profound approach to living a life. It is tempting to think that they “have it made” when it comes to the art of living.
Yet even this stage of higher meaning can be faulty. How often have we seen people become so entrapped in their positions that they begin to lack qualities such as compassion, open-mindedness and mercy? In order for this not to happen, there needs to be
another form of meaning that allows for the transformation of the superficial into the higher while retaining a sense of wisdom, compassion, and depth. This is what I call the “deeper meaning” of life, and it is the way of the soul.
What’s the difference with this deeper meaning of life? Going back to our earlier delineation of the difference between the optimist and the pessimist, I think that the deeper meaning of life is where happiness and sadness commingle. Life is not cleanly
defined in terms of black and white. Happiness and tragedy often meet within the course of a lifetime. When you suffer, you can, if you take it to a deeper level, have your heart softened rather than hardened. When you rejoice, you can plant seeds of gratitude for the days
when life is difficult or unbearable. When this happens, you live at a deeper level of life than when you were simply buffeted by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. When it happens, you are wise to the ways of superficial happiness, knowing that there is a
happiness that can embrace the depths of tragedy without shattering you. You become wise.
Wisdom is different from orthodoxy, as commendable and indeed necessary as orthodoxy is for a complete life. Wisdom transforms orthodoxy into compassionate understanding of life – life lived from the soul. A mother knows that, when her child has done
something wrong, she needs to punish him. He needs to learn the rules and the consequences of breaking them. A wise mother administers the discipline with a dose of love and compassion. Such is the way of the soul, who is able to absorb both the joy and suffering of life
and our body of knowledge about the meaning of life into a huge embrace whereby even the most difficult moments become a rich experience, a source of wisdom, filling us with the desire to go on.
How do we nourish this deeper wisdom? How do we nourish the soul? The soul is there; how do we feed it? Prayer and meditation are important ways. So is staying in touch with beauty in whatever ways we find it – in nature, in pets, in our reading, in
our hobbies and avocations, even in our work. An excellent way is to stay in touch with lives (contemporary and in our various traditions) that model the wise and empowering soulfulness that is the hallmark of the deeper wisdom. Read the lives of saints and holy people.
Study the biographies of those who have triumphed over tragedy and stayed in the flow of life. Watch those around you. Soulful people are everywhere. You may be surprised.
We have entertained the possibility that there are three levels of the meaning of life. First, the superficial. Second, the higher way. Finally, the deeper meaning, the way of the soul. Behind all of this lies the realization that, across our
experiences and our belief systems, we can come together in wisdom, compassion and love. Around the world, we can form a soulful community of understanding and peace.
-- Father Paul Keenan
© Copyright 2006 Father Paul Keenan. All Rights Reserved.
Read Father Paul Keenan's Past
Summer-Fall 2006 - "The Many Faces of Courage"
Jan-Apr 2006 - "Five Life Lessons"
Oct-Dec 2005 - "Having, Being, and Stillness"
July-Sept 2005 - "The Spiritual Law of Gravity"
April-June 2005 -
"Spiritual Spring Cleaning"
Father Paul A. Keenan,
is the author of five books, the most recent being Elisha’s Jars: Enjoying Abundance and Prosperity when Lift Seems Limited and the forthcoming Beyond Blue Snow: Essays Toward the Refreshment of the Soul, both from Illumination
Books. He is the host of “Sleepless with Sirius” on the forthcoming Catholic Channel 159 on Sirius Satellite Radio and a parish priest in the Archdiocese of New York.