Monday, January 4, 2010

The Meaning of Life

This Christmas I received a book from my son, "The Gulag Archipeligo" by Solzhenitsyn. He thoughtfully selected the book because of my interest in the great Russian writers. You might be familiar with the term "Gulag" and that it refers to Russian prison camps. The book is aptly titled because it is a detailed account of the entire process of spying, betrayal, interrogation, torture, confession, and imprisonment for millions of Russians.

After reading the first three chapters, I was overwhelmed. A neighbor, an acquaintance, or a friend could make the most incidental comment that could cause you to be arrested. For the most benign comment or no cause at all if a quota had to be met, you could be arrested and sentenced to no less than 10 years hard labor. From the October revolution of 1917 through the post-war years, huge swaths of the population were caught up in a system that not only presumed you had to be guilty of something, but preemptively punished you just in case.

I was astounded at the wholesale destruction of human dignity on such a vast scale. I was so overwhelmed, I had to put the book down for a time. With such pervasive accusation, betrayal, cruelty, fear, and suspicion inflicted on so many people, how could its effects not be felt for generations? Indeed the effects are being felt to the present day. A recent NPR feature titled "Epidemic of Addiction Threatens Russia's Future" describes the widespread alcohol and drug use that plagues Russian society today.

So what can I do? Perhaps not much for Russia. Russia is inaccessible to me both geographically and linguistically. Because of emigration and the internet, people may become accessible to me who otherwise would not be. But I don't have to go to Russia or seek out Russian people. I don't have to look far to find people in pain and people that are addicted. Regardless of where we are in the world, the motivation for addiction is the same: to anesthetize pain and salve lack of purpose.

I cannot arrogantly presume that I know the existential angst that my friends and acquaintances may or may not be feeling. However, I can safely assume that, as much as human beings need food, clothing, and shelter, they need meaning. The fact that I am a Christian does not put me in a superior position; it only means that I have started on a purposeful journey. Viktor Frankl said, "our meaning in life is found as we help others find their meaning in life." That is why the answer is so elusive. We think we can find it by ourselves. It cannot be found on our own, as an individual pursuit, but only as we help others find it!