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Searching for Meaning at the Corner of Snark and Outrage

December 20, 2018


How are you liking your life right now?

Are you fulfilled and happy, or do you have the sense that something is missing, and that you’re not entirely sure what that might be?

Are you feeling like the social media you have made so much a part of your life has become a meaningless yet addictive habit, a daily lather, rinse, repeat of a word-shampoo that adds no lustre to your thoughts or to your understanding, and serves only to help you feel seen and heard?

That’s what all of us really want, isn’t it—to be seen and heard, our thoughts and feelings acknowledged and given support? Ideally, we’d prefer to receive it from someone who loves us, but we’ll take the Facebook facsimile if that’s all there is.

But is that really enough to nourish and sustain us?

That question has been nagging at me throughout Advent as I have found myself alternately disinterested in, or impatient with, what I read on Facebook and Twitter, where man’s search for meaning has stalled at the intersections of Snark and Outrage. Look in this direction, and it sputters with self-indulgent scorn and sarcasm, sparing none but the similarly-minded. Look the other way, and watch the fumes of fussy exactitude choke the life out of charity until nothing can flourish except fury.

Sadly, I’m talking about a corner mostly populated by people whose interests are religious. It features scorn and snark being dished out by so-called Christians who appear to believe that self-indulgent mockery and calumny expressed against other Christians is an effective witness for Christ (hint: it speaks nothing of Christ but volumes about them), or by other so-called Christians who have chosen the sniffing Pharisee as their evangelical model, over the imperfect-yet-penitent publicans that Christ hung around with.

Despairing of all of it, I was about to shut down my feed yesterday when a colleague from Word on Fire posted a link to Dave Rubin’s latest video, entitled A Bishop and a Rabbi Discuss Religion, the Enlightenment, and Finding Meaning. Featuring Bishop Robert Barron and Rabbi David Wolpe—two men I always give a listen to—it sounded promising, and I’m glad I watched, because it got me thinking again about that “search for meaning” and how we define it, and the power of authentic fulfillment.

For me, the best part of the video began with the admission by both clerics that they often approach a duty with a sense of dread—Ugh, I have to go do this wedding! Ugh, another funeral!—only to experience a sense of joy once they’ve entered into the task, joy coupled with genuine gratitude that they have been able to render their services. Bishop Barron cites Psalm 126—going out, going out full of tears, and coming back singing—and “The doing brings its own powerful energy,” says Rabbi Wolpe.

It reminded me of how we Catholics sometimes head toward the Mass with a sigh of resignation, only to be glad once we are there, engaging with the Word and the Flesh in community with one another. There is always a moment within the Mass that speaks to our own need in a way that is at once vibrant and personal, and thus we understand God’s purpose in wanting us there, and meeting us there—precisely where he wants us to be.

It is in fulfilling our purposes within God’s plan that the search for meaning is answered, and our contentment is won.

And contentment, not happiness, is what we all actually seek in the end. Happiness is an illusion we chase, and here in the West we think it is tied in with our possessions or our social (or social media) status. But authentic happiness does not reside there—if it did our suicide rates would be nonexistent rather than climbing, and an “epidemic of loneliness” would not be on our radars. The truth is the human person can be content with a great deal less, materially, if he or she knows that that they are being seen, heard, and valued, and that someone is “present” to them—a witness to their lives.

“Presence is more powerful than answers,” the rabbi says at one point in the video, adding that “you are not alone” is the “essential human message” we all need to hear.

The discussion of purposes and presence strikes me as the first message of the crucifix, which tells each of us “you are not alone.” Whether we are feeling lost, abandoned, betrayed, unjustly accused, or bullied, Jesus has already entered into all of that with us, is present to us there, knows what we feel and gives witness to it all.

Our validation is there, then, on the cross with him. It says, “Because I fulfilled my God-planned purpose, I am myself-in-full. Therefore I can see you, hear you, be present to you, suffer with you and for you and in this way affirm you, forever.”

Those are words we can say right back to Christ, most powerfully once we have become ourselves-in-full—the product of discovering the purpose for which we were created, and then cooperating with it in surrender and faith.

The second message is actually more difficult because it comes within a paradox of beatitude. As Bishop Barron explains, the crucified Christ, having fulfilled God’s purposes, is a literal model of meaning, fulfilled, and thus of true contentment.

And contentment is the font of deep happiness, because it possesses peace.