“There is a deep connection between meaning and beauty,” says Rachel Naomi Remen. “Neither is a function of the intellect, both can enrich a life, and perhaps we develop an eye for meaning in the same way that we develop an eye for beauty.”
Few of us pursue meaning deliberately. Most of us focus our attention elsewhere, accumulating knowledge in the belief that we will be able to trade it for a good and fulfilling life. Knowledge enables us to build a box to put our life in, but the box is itself empty. Only meaning can fill it up.
Over the years it has seemed to me that there is a deep connection between meaning and beauty. Neither is a function of the intellect; both can enrich a life. Meaning feeds and strengthens the soul in the same way that beauty does, and perhaps we develop an eye for meaning in the same way that we develop an eye for beauty.
Recently, I found myself in someone’s kitchen listening to a discussion between an art teacher and some friends about the nature of “aesthetic perception.” As the only non-artist there I was mystified by this idea, and when the others drifted away I asked the woman who had first used this odd phrase what it meant. She laughed. “It’s a way of seeing,” she said, and told me how a friend of hers teaches it to a class of seven-year-olds.
He begins the class by giving each child some water in a clear glass. Then he tells the children that something is going to happen in their glass of water. They must watch what happens carefully, but they cannot talk about it right away. First they will spend a few minutes just looking, and afterwards everyone will have the chance to tell the whole class what they saw. Then he walks through the classroom with a bottle of red ink and puts a single drop of red ink into each child’s glass.
The children are entranced, and the discussion that follows is very lively. Some children have seen an angel in their glass; others have seen the wind, or a flower, or the face of their grandma. They are delighted with these differences and listen to each other with rapt attention. The excitement builds and then the teacher presents them with the real lesson for the day. “Well,” he says, “What is all this about? Angels and grandmas and the wind? After all, it is only a drop of red ink in a glass of water… isn’t it?” But of course, in certain important ways it is not.
We all live far more meaningful lives than we know. Uncovering this meaning does not require us to live life differently but to see life differently. Finding meaning in the events of your life is not very different than seeing the angels in a glass of water. It requires a sort of double vision; an openness to living simultaneously in the world of ink and water, and the world of mystery and the soul.
Robert Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, tells a parable about the power of meaning to transform our experience of life. He invites us to imagine an interview with three master stone cutters who are building a cathedral in the Middle Ages. Before speaking with these workers, you take a moment to watch them cut stones into blocks. As each man finishes cutting a stone, others take it away and replace it with another stone, which too is cut into a block.
After a while you approach the first man and ask him what he is doing. He turns on you in anger and says, “Idiot, use your eyes. I am cutting stones into blocks. When I finish one they bring me another. I have been doing this since I was old enough to work and I will do it until the day that I die.”
Stunned, you back away and approach the second man to ask the same question. But his response is quite different. He smiles and says, “I am earning a living for my beloved family. With my wages we have built a warm little house, we have food on the table every day, the children are growing strong. I am building a safe place for those I love.”
Going on to the third man you ask him your question. He stops his work and the face he turns towards you is radiant. “I am building a great cathedral,” he tells you, “that will offer comfort to those in pain and sanctuary to those lost in the dark. And it will stand for a thousand years!”
All of these men are doing identical work. Meaning does not change our lives, but it does change our experience of our lives. Finding a personal meaning, and especially one that is transcendent in the midst of routine tasks, opens our daily work to the experience of joy.
Seeing the familiar in new ways may come through intention or practice, a cultivation of the capacity to reach beyond the cage of the ego to feel and know the life around us. But meaning may also come to us in moments of illumination, bearing with it a sense of grace. A sudden shift in perception may cause the world to change unexpectedly and offer us a glimpse of the deeper nature of things. Finding meaning in this way may take us beyond an experience of satisfaction and offer us a sense of gratitude. At such times we may feel blessed by something beyond our control.
A seasoned and rather cynical physician discovered this unexpectedly during a busy shift in a large city hospital emergency room. About halfway through the evening a woman was brought in by ambulance about to give birth. Jeff had delivered hundreds of babies in his years of working emergency rooms and he knew the routine well. Everything went perfectly, and he felt a familiar sense of competence and satisfaction as he began to suction the infant’s nose and mouth. Suddenly her eyes opened and she looked deeply into his eyes.
For Jeff, it was a defining moment, a sort of a doorway. He stepped through it past all of his expertise and pride of accomplishment and realized that he was the first human being this child had ever seen. He could feel a thick armor of cynicism and numbness that had built up over the years fall away, and he felt his heart open to her in welcome from the whole human race.
Jeff is a fine physician. He had made many personal sacrifices to become a doctor and often wished for a simpler, less demanding life. But in this moment all that fell away and he felt a simple gratitude for the opportunity to do this work. He says, “Suddenly, I knew that it had all been worth it.”
The moment has changed him in a subtle but permanent way. Reflecting on what happened he says that he has long known what to do for his patients but he had somehow forgotten why he was doing it. “I guess I remembered what I was serving with my expertise,” he says. “Who would not feel grateful to be able to serve it?”
Ultimately, we are sustained not by our work but by its meaning. The meaning we find in a common task is often highly particular, but all genuine meaning has the same power: it enables us to know who we are and what we stand for. In the end it will help us to live a life worth remembering, no matter how difficult or challenging our life has been.