Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Meaning of Life (with apologies, in advance, to Monty Python)

This special blog post is NOT from a recent wedding. These ideas have been percolating in my mind, and I thought sharing them might be beneficial.

Ever since I was 17, I have been an existentialist. I do not mean by this that I fully understood what that meant. I am still not sure I fully do. I am certainly not a trained philosopher. And most certainly, leaving Orthodox Judaism behind has changed what being an existentialist means to me. All the same, an existentialist I was, I am, and will be.

The way I understand existentialism is as a positive form of nihilism. Many people see nihilism as negative in its essence. I do not believe this is true.  I believe it is neutral. All nihilism means to me is that there is no inherent, taken for granted, meaning in life. It does not mean that it cannot (have meaning). Existentialism comes along and says, life has no inherent meaning, but not only can it, it should. Every one of us gets to (and to live life fully must) decide what that meaning is. That meaning can be different for different people. It can also be different for the same person, at different times and different stages in life.

This means that some of the questions we frequently ask ourselves are the wrong questions. It is only human to ask, “Why am I here?” It is only human to ask, “Why did this happen to me?” It is only human to ask, “What inherent meaning does my life, in general, and this moment, specifically, have?” It is only human to ask these questions, but they are unanswerable.

We must accept that these questions are unanswerable, and ask entirely different questions. We must ask, “Now that I am here, what meaning will I give to my life?” We must ask, “Now that this has happened to me, what meaning will I give to it?” We must ask, “What approach and action will I take, that will give meaning to my life, in general, and specifically to this moment?” 

I purposefully phrase these questions in the singular first person. If existentialism acknowledges that there is no inherent, taken for granted, meaning in life, how on earth can I tell you what your meaning should be, be you the singular you or the plural you. I can tell you what meaning I have found. That may help you find yours; nothing more, nothing less.

This does not mean there are no absolutes. In fact, an inherent absolute truth that flows from this is that every single person must be accorded the opportunity to find their own positive meaning in life, and that necessarily, your quest for positive meaning cannot impede others’ opportunity to find theirs. In other words, as Hillel the Elder stated what we call today the Golden Rule, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary. Now, go study.”
Hillel, the Elder
(From the Menorah in front of the Knesset,
the Israeli parliament)
This also does not mean that it is all about you. Once again, if we accept that every single person must be accorded the opportunity to find their own positive meaning in life, it is about everyone, including you. And, though you must find your own meaning, seldom can that be done in a vacuum. It is through interaction with the world that we find the deepest meaning (which) life, in the short term and in the long term, may have in store for us. If we take this approach, almost inevitably, we make the world a better place, too.

It is this existential approach that has helped me in my life. This helped me, as I stood over my young mother’s grave, and five years later, as I carried my child in my arms to a grave not far from hers. This helped me, as I answered students’ unanswerable questions on September 12, 2001. This helped me, as I followed my convictions, left a way of life and a good living, and ventured out into the wilderness.

So, how do I answer the question, “Now that I am here, what meaning will I give to my life?” How do I answer the question, “What approach and action will I take, that will give meaning to my life, in general?” I am blessed to have two professional pursuits, which I am passionate about. I find great meaning in working every day to help build a system that will make homelessness in Dallas rare, brief and nonrecurring. I also find great meaning in helping interfaith couples have the wedding ceremonies that are most meaningful to them. I am also blessed to have three children. I find great meaning in raising children that are and will be free to (and able to) answer this question, for themselves.  This means that they may answer it in very different ways than I do, and that is OK. In fact, it should be celebrated. 

And how do I answer the question, “Now that this has happened to me, what meaning will I give to it?” How do I answer the question, “What approach and action will I take, that will give meaning, specifically, to this moment?” Though moments vary, and meaning evolves, the answers in the previous paragraph apply still. In a life grounded in existential meaning, the moment contains in it a call to recommit to those things that give my life meaning, in general. 

This I present as what worked and continues to work for me. To paraphrase Hillel, this is my commentary. You, the reader, must figure out how to answer these questions for yourself. You must figure out what your commentary is, so now, as Hillel instructed, go study.

I Believe in Love

Saturday evening, I officiated Deynna and Adam’s trilingual wedding ceremony, at the Westin Downtown Hotel in Austin, Texas. During the ceremony they asked me to include this reading from Pope Francis: “Many think differently, feel differently, seeking God or meeting God in different ways. In this crowd, in this range of religions, there is only one certainty that we have for all: We are all children of God, we believe in love.” Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:

I have officiated almost 340 weddings in the last eight years, but this wedding is a first. Now, you are probably wondering what I mean. Well, this is the first time I am officiating a wedding for a couple that practically bumped into the Pope! If you have not heard the story, you should ask them. It's heartwarming and funny. And, this is the first couple who asked to include in their ceremony a reading from the Pope, as you heard before. That was not my idea. It was theirs.

Now, this reading has a fascinating background. As I learned when I researched this, it has been a long tradition of Popes to put out prayer requests, encouraging the faithful to pray for different things. This request started a new tradition, it was done by video, and a really well produced one at that. You should definitely watch it. (No, not now; at the reception!")

The Pope ends the video with a request, "I hope you will spread my prayer request this month, that sincere dialogue among men and women of different faiths may produce the fruits of peace and justice." And to punctuate this message, he includes four religious leaders from four different religions, each simply stating, "I believe in love. I believe in love."
Adam made Deynna believe in love. Listen to her words, "Adam is everything I was looking for my whole life. He is the smartest person I know. He has the most amazing personality. My family and close friends love him. The most important thing is that he is my best friend and I can share everything with him! He is my partner in this journey of life."

And Deynna made Adam believe in love. Listen to his words: "After getting to know Deynna... I knew that she was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. She is smart, determined, motivating, loving, spontaneous, and she is my best friend. I am very excited to be spending the rest of my life with my best friend."

The Pope's words and Deynna and Adam's words reminded me of something a long gone sage once said. The Ancient Rabbis tell us that Jerusalem was destroyed because of one great sin, Sinat Chinam, unwarranted hatred, hatred for no particular reason. And so, in the previous century, the First Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, said that only one thing will bring about the peace and redemption of Jerusalem, Ahavat Chinam, unwarranted love, love for no particular reason.

Now, it's just up to you and me, the message is clear, the path is known, the course is set. All we have to do, men and women of different faiths, is state together, "I believe in love."

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Government Paperwork

Monday evening, I officiated Ashley and John’s wedding ceremony at The Balcony Ballroom, in Metairie, Louisiana. Here are the words I shared with them and their guests:

Don't you love government paperwork? What, you don't? Well, you should, because you have it to thank for being here tonight. Yes, some couples meet at a bar, some meet online, others remember gazing across the room, at a party, and locking eyes with the one they would marry. Not, this couple, though...

Listen to how John tells it: "I was changing departments at work, and while checking out of one department, I needed her signature (among many others). She was the only one who answered her phone, so I went to her office." Now, if that is not the stuff of bodice rippers, I don't know what is...

Of course, humor aside, the truth is, that it does not matter how you meet. And, I did leave out the slightly more interesting part of the story. Ashley happened to be wearing a t shirt, rather than her military blouse that day, due to the heat, so John saw her tattoos, and he being no body ink slouch himself struck up a conversation, and they compared notes, or skin, as it may be.

Regardless, that type of initial meeting is just fate; there is little you can do to control that. What matters is, what happens next. Do you just squander the moment, or do you act on that fateful encounter, and forge it into destiny?

This couple chose the latter. As Ashley says, "There was an instant connection. Since the day we have met, we have spoken, literally, every day... John and I have traded some of our deepest, most personal secrets, stories and fears... It's almost like we can read each other's minds." Wow. They did NOT squander the moment.

And, though I said humor aside, you have to have humor to make a relationship truly great. As Ashley says, "We make fun of each other, in a loving way... He knows every single button of mine, and he pushes them to no end... I know all his triggers too, so it can get fun."

That tells me, that this is a very mature relationship, which means that, though Ashley and John are very much in love, it is not just love they share. They share a deep friendship too. As John indeed says, "Ashley is above anything else, my very best friend... Our dynamic is stellar." That is why Ashley can comfortably say, "Before John, I never really thought I would get married, but after being with John, I now know I could not marry anyone else."

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Friendship, Forgiveness, Compromise, Sacrifice, and Love

Saturday evening, I co-officiated Kelli and Jeff’s wedding ceremony, with Reverend John Sorrell, at the Travis Park United Methodist Church, in San Antonio, Texas. Here are the words I shared with them and their guests:

Even if you try to put yourself in another's shoes, it is impossible not to see the world mostly from our own vantage point. This is why many times, clergymen will begin speaking by asking a question, regarding a theological or textual point, that seems extremely intriguing to them, but that the average person could care less about...

So, now that I have pointed out the folly of such an approach, allow me to do it anyway, because this is really a juicy item. In the Talmud, the foundational book of Jewish Law, on the first page of Tractate Sotah, an ancient rabbi makes a fascinating statement: "Forty days before the creation of a child, a heavenly voice issues forth and proclaims, the daughter of A is for B."

What does that mean? Kelli, in writing about her relationship with Jeff, elucidates this Talmudic passage: "I have grown up believing that fairytales really can come true and that God has that special person already picked out for you. Some people find that person quickly and for others it takes more time. I am so grateful God led me to Jeff when he did." I assume by "quickly", she means people like her, Jeff and her mom, who were in 6th grade, when they met their soulmates, and by "others take take time", she means late bloomers like her dad, who was in 8th grade...

Jeff backs up what Kelli says, and agrees that this seems like a match made in heaven: "Kelli and I have always been very compatible... We truly do operate under the same principles and belief system. We have had similar types of friends, we each study hard, we each work hard... The list goes on and on."

Now, the same Talmudic passage quotes another ancient rabbi, who says, "They only pair a woman with a man according to his deeds." Now, that would seem to contradict the other rabbi's statement, that the match is made before you even come into being, and the Talmud suggests a somewhat simplistic resolution. I would like to suggest though, that there is no contradiction.

It is entirely possible for one to find his or her match quite early, just as this couple did. And you may believe that this match was made in heaven. The question is, what do you do next? Do you sit back, and say, "OK, God, you made this match; now make it work"? Or, do you accept this match, as a gift of potential, a sketch for what might be, and get to work, to make it into the best relationship possible, by constant learning and self-improvement?

Well, I think you know which option I am indicating might be a better bet... Listen to Jeff expound on that: "We have been there for one another through thick and thin and experiencing so many of life's challenges with her by my side has taught me so much. Interestingly enough, I think it has taught her a lot as well!" Kelli agrees when she says, "We have experienced some of life’s sweetest milestones and toughest trials, celebrating, laughing and crying together along the way. I have learned so much about friendship, forgiveness, compromise, sacrifice, and love..."

And they both understand that marriage is the next step, where you double down on your commitment to learn and grow together. As Kelli says, "Marriage... represents a daily promise to one another to continue to love and accept, support and care for each other. Marriage is saying that, without a doubt, there is no one in the entire world that I want to experience life with." That is why Jeff can confidently say what is mutually true, "I’m so incredibly blessed and I cannot wait to spend the rest of my life with her."

Saturday, November 5, 2016

They Have It Made

Friday evening, I officiated Brittany and Bryan’s wedding ceremony at The Astorian, in Houston, Texas. Here are the words I shared with them and their guests:

I KNOW this couple has it made. Now, you may ask me how I can be so confident. That is a legitimate question. Simple. They work together, not only in the same company, but in the same office.
Now, not every couple can do that, and that is totally OK. You can have two people that love each other very much, that are a good match for a loving relationship, and are not a great match for the working environment. You certainly have many more cases of vice versa. So nothing I am saying here is to judge anyone.

However, I do believe that a couple that can manage both is extremely lucky, and have something worth cherishing and worth admiring.
What is it that is at the core of the relationship of couples that are able to manage this feat? Well, I suppose that is worthy of serious study, and perhaps someone will undertake this, if it has not been done yet.

Allow me, though, to offer a hypothesis, based on what I have learned from Brittany and Bryan. I really think it is simple, and that it boils down to one word: comfort. What stood out to me in interacting with both of them is how comfortable each are in their own skins, as individuals and as a couple. You could really sense that in their verbal, as well as their non-verbal communication.

Brittany sums it up best in a short paragraph that sounds like something that Bryan could write too: "I never really ever thought about marriage until I met Bryan, but I knew that he was the one I wanted to spend my life with. He was the one who always seemed to make me feel comfortable. He loves me for who I am. He looks past my flaws and just loves me for me... He does his best to help me be stronger and believe in myself more every day."

That is really what comfort is all about, and that is their secret, they love each other for who they are, they look past each other's flaws, and they help each other become stronger every day. You can't ask for more than that.