Among the most frequently asked existential questions is that which seeks to explore ‘the meaning of life’. Acolytes delve into this inquiry with the energy usually reserved for the exploration of deep mysteries. Reflecting on the pursuit of “deep wisdom” implicit in the question brought to my mind the Zen proverb - “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” - It also reminded me of a story told by a friend and college-mate of mine some years ago.
A rather portly parish priest who was well ‘educated’, was out on one of his pastoral trips in his assigned parish when the area was drenched by heavy rains. In a matter of a few hours flood waters destroyed the only bridge that connected the rural part of his parish from the more urban area where he lived. After being stranded for two days, a local fisherman who was one of his parishioners finally completed repairs on a boat that he had been working on for some time.
Desperate to get back to the comforts of his home, the priest pressed the man to provide him transportation down and across the river back to his side of the town. After some consideration the fisherman warned the priest that he had some doubt about making the journey in what was an untested vessel. The priest insisted, assuring the man that “the Lord will take care” of them. The fisherman finally gave in to his pleadings, but not before reiterating the concerns he had about the age and sturdiness of the vessel. Anxious to get home, the priest brushed aside the fisherman’s trepidations. They set about the trip later that day, even though the waters were still rough.
As the fisherman rowed, the priest sat back at the other end of the boat with his arms folded across his rather massive stomach as the vessel rocked from side to side in the rough waters. At times he appeared uncomfortable in the presence of his seemingly unrefined pilot. Not being accustomed to holding informal conversations with the common folk, but wanting to demonstrate the “depth” of his wisdom and learning, the priest thought he would ask the hard rowing man a few questions.
“So, my friend ” he began, “how much do you know about philosophy?”.
Puzzled by the awkward irrelevance of the question, the fisherman replied… “Philosophy sir... I can't say I know much about that."
Having failed at that initial engagement the holy father pressed on. “Well I suppose that means you wouldn't have any ideas about eschatology then, huh?"
“And what would that be?”, the fisherman asked disinterestedly?”.
“Well, my good sir, that would be the doctrine of the last things... You know, what will happen at the end of time”.
“No sir”, the bewildered parishioner responded.
“It would suit you to spend some time learning about such things my good man”, the priest said. Bursting with pomposity, he continued... “You know, this flood we just experienced reminds me of the great flood in the days of Noah. The Bible teaches that next time there is going to be fire that will destroy the Earth…
The fisherman interjected… “And I guess that would be an example of...”
Before he could finish the sentence the priest burst out:
“Yes! Eschatology dear sir”.
“I see”, retorted his underwhelmed student.
“You know man...”, the portly passenger continued, “...without the knowledge of these things one cannot really live life as fully as the Creator intended. It's almost as if half your life is missing”.
“Really?”, the fisherman said.
Sensing the lack of interest in his attempts at what he must have thought was meaningful conversation, the priest looked out at the waters ahead of them in anticipation of the conclusion of this tedious journey. Realizing that the fisherman’s interests were not exactly the same as his, he lamented:
“I suppose it's no use trying to talk to you about psychology then...".
The fisherman did not respond; he just kept up the pace of his efforts to rid himself and his boat of his annoying cargo. They were silent for a while as the boat continued through the deepest part of the river. Suddenly something scraped violently against the bottom of the newly repaired vessel. Less than a minute later water started to seep through the flooring. Looking up quizzically at his captain, the priest became pale with fear. They were a good little distance from shore, and with no life vests.
With what seemed a mischievous smirk on his face, the fisherman turned and asked the priest in an unambiguously mocking tone:
“My dear sir, do you know anything about swimology?"
“What!?” asked his now disoriented passenger... “This is no time for jokes man; I cannot swim, and we are still a ways out..."
“Well sir,” said the fisherman sarcastically, “...without the knowledge of swimology it is impossible to survive a situation like this. In fact you can't live fully, or maybe even at all without this knowledge”.
And with that the fisherman relieved himself of the oars and jumped overboard, leaving the sweating fear-filled priest to fend for himself.
( Meaningful pause… )
Usually the folk indulging in inquiries about “the deeper meaning of life” are those most detached from issues of survival in their own lives. They are also marked by a tendency to be generally unconcerned about matters that are the most consequential to the lives of those around them.
The answers to most of the questions with which we occupy ourselves are usually right there in front of us; that is if we learn to look and listen with the empathy that comes from a real engagement with making the world a better… more meaningful place… for all. Those answers are informed by the quality of our relationships, and by the extent of our engagement with chopping wood, and carrying water for our own sustainability- and for the sustenance of those around us.