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Chapter 11 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis 
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 Chapter 11 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Chapter 11
Finding Purpose in a Godless World
by Ralph Lewis


Please discuss Chapter 11 of Finding Purpose in a Godless World by Ralph Lewis in this thread.



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Post Re: Chapter 11 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Chapter 11, Making Life Meaningful in the Face of Anxiety and Adversity

This is a bit of a hodgepodge, but it has some nice nuggets. Lewis ranges over the challenges facing those with potentially fatal illness, the issue of assisted suicide, the sense of meaninglessness in the aftermath of devastating horrors, in particular the Holocaust, and the problem, related to all of these, of control.

He begins with the case of Mabel, a woman of 60 with probably terminal cancer, who has had a harsh life and, after she eventually became bitter, probably contributed to the poor treatment she has received from others. Due to cancer she was depressed and lost interest in the one thing that had interested her, her work. Lewis, however, found her mind and her life interesting and offered appreciation for her gifts. As their rapport developed and he learned from her, he seems to conclude that his appreciation, and their interaction, eased Mabel's pain. Reality can be harsh, he says, but people can care.

Lewis goes so far as to define meaning. Meaning is the value or significance that we believe life to have, "its importance, why it matters to us, why it is worthwhile." He distinguishes this from purpose, which is our "motivated goal-directedness or sense of our life's intended aim." I think he did a good job setting those out, but would have liked him to explore the intersubjectivity of meaning, which is a more "active" intersubjectivity (we seek more to shape it and it depends more on consensus) than whatever intersubjectivity there is in "purpose." Instead it seems he stops with the definition.

He next looks at why bad things happen to good people, inexplicably borrowing the title of Kushner's book but not reporting on its conclusions. He does, however, pull out the two choices Kushner highlights, from a list of possible religious interpretations of the experience of evil and suffering. Those two are: God has some higher plan incomprehensible to us; and God is not omnipotent (which I consider to be the more theologically sound view, but which has its own problems for those who want to identify God with Being or Everything.)

Without naming it, he gives the Process Theology version that we are co-creators with (a non-omnipotent) God, working with God to, one hopes, improve the world. The Jewish version of this idea talks about tikkun olam ("repairing the world"). He then states, inexplicably in my view, that these are difficult to reconcile with the frequent intensity of suffering and the extent of nature's indifference. But of course those are precisely the motivation behind rejecting omnipotence. In "incarnational theology" it is our godly actions which are the actions of God. The conclusion reached by Kushner is precisely the one that Lewis comes to, which is that nature is indifferent, but we can provide the kind of caring society (in the small and relational more than the big and political) which makes some sense of the idea of God acting in the world.

Lewis progresses, in my view naturally from "repairing the world", into a discussion of the cultivation of human virtue. His main concern seems to be that people be gentle with themselves, and avoid the obsession with minutiae that characterizes Orthodox Judaism.

The issue of religious rationales for suffering, "why do bad things happen to good people," he answers with a simple inversion, "why would bad things not happen to good people?" Next, observing that we can care even if the universe doesn't, in the context of our desire to think of our life as mattering, he gets to the question of what to think about the times when people don't care. Both cruelty and indifference come in for his probing, and the Holocaust is the main case study. He wants us to know especially that until the Eichmann trials, most Jews were ashamed to talk about the Holocaust, (with the shame of being a victim being something the #MeToo movement could comment on.) Quoting Michael Berenbaum, Project Director of the Holocaust Museum and author on the subject, who quotes historian Yehuda Bauer, three commandments emerged as human imperative: thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, and thou shalt not be a bystander. Human civilization is fragile, he observes, without recognizing that Israel has, in its zeal to avoid being a victim again, become a perpetrator. Much milder than Naziism, for sure, or even South African apartheid, but Lewis' lack of interest in engaging the issue suggests the audience he is aiming for and the dynamics which lead to such horrors. The Nazis, of course, saw themselves as victims. Of course.

Americans need to think about the bystander issue. We let others call the shots on Rwanda and kept UN peacekeepers from intervening when they could have forestalled full-on genocide. We backed away from confronting Russia as it enabled Assad's genocide. We have the most powerful military on earth, but we don't see it as our job to prevent further horrors, and now we are turning away refugees from the horror that we encouraged Central America to become. Evidently to simply say "the universe doesn't care but we can," is not to get very far with exploring the nature of moral obligation, or its connection to making sense of what matters.

Looking into Victor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" he is pulled into the subject of resilience and disagree's with Frankl's assertion that people are free to choose their response to devastation. Human resilience varies, he says, and we need to avoid putting guilt on people for lacking the resilience that others may have. Meaning-making, I conclude, is a complex matter as well, hedged on one side by the abyss of absurdity, and on the other by the unfairness of stressing others with our vision of possibility.

As Lewis goes on to inquire into the issue of creating a "legacy" of good from adversity, he concludes that it is more helpful to see it as coming from within than from outside the self. He doesn't go into the psychological literature on "locus of control" but it is a deep and complex subject related to many others. His proposal for creating such a legacy of meaning is to see our lives having "ripples" of impact on those around us. He goes into the ways tragedies have helped others to learn lessons, or to campaign to see that the same thing does not happen to others.

With little segue, he goes on to look at the issue of lack of control in adversity and how some people are shattered because they need control. The stories are good - this is one of his areas of specialization, after all - but he has little to share with us in wisdom about it, except "don't expect too much," and don't ruin the time you have left with frustration or with determination to leave a legacy of good or to have every moment count.

Next he extensively discusses assisted suicide in this context of what to make of the experience of facing death. He seems wholeheartedly in favor of allowing people to choose death, but also seems to me to be hedging his discussion about with the legalities of the (Canadian) legislation addressing it, in which the disease must be terminal and the suffering unbearable. Looking at some of the debate, he says the question has been raised whether "the sanctity of life is absolute" and quotes NY Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat urging people to see meaning in letting their death be natural, even if terribly painful (more than morphine can overcome, sometimes.) I must say this reminds me of Mother Theresa's sick obsession with withholding pain medication, and suspect there may be more than a little pathology in avoiding our ability to have that much control over our death.

Finally he has a few pages on dealing with our disappointment with ourselves - coming to terms with life, as facing death asks us to do. He urges us to be gentle with ourselves, accepting that there will be some regret without losing sight of the good we have done. And to the extent that we have had some failure, he reminds us this opens a door to empathy with others, since nearly everyone feels some falling short of their hopes for life. I think that is a profound insight - whole books have been written on that topic alone.



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Post Re: Chapter 11 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
My impression of what Lewis is trying to do in this chapter as well as in others is to supply a missing ingredient to the "new atheist" discussion. That discussion has always made a strong intellectual case against belief in a creator or managing God, but it has not shown very well how from an atheist view the emotional, and I would say spiritual, needs of people can be addressed. Compassion hasn't been a strong suit of the new atheism. Now here is Lewis showing that the facts of our existence can be faced without leaving us bereft of the comfort and support that we all need to get through. We aren't all skilled psychiatrists, but we don't need to be in order to make people in troubles feel less alone and hopeless. I was impressed that Lewis emphasized what he gained from his work with Mabel. This isn't the wise doctor dispensing treatment, but a true relationship. There is in therapy/counseling an injunction against the therapist meeting his own needs through the relationship, but I sense that Lewis would say that obeying such a precept could actually be bad for the person seeking help.
Harry Marks wrote:
Lewis goes so far as to define meaning. Meaning is the value or significance that we believe life to have, "its importance, why it matters to us, why it is worthwhile." He distinguishes this from purpose, which is our "motivated goal-directedness or sense of our life's intended aim." I think he did a good job setting those out, but would have liked him to explore the intersubjectivity of meaning, which is a more "active" intersubjectivity (we seek more to shape it and it depends more on consensus) than whatever intersubjectivity there is in "purpose." Instead it seems he stops with the definition.

I can see how my earlier claim that purpose and meaning were much the same was pretty far off. I'll go instead with meaning, significance, and value being in the same range. Purpose is like energy; it's needed to reap meaning but says nothing about whether meaning is captured. I think you may have said that meaning is something we can all agree on as a "good." It isn't just what automatically comes from our purposeful action, but has qualities that have always been known, and these are part of what religion has enshrined. Meaning is most likely to be present when we're acting on others' behalf, not surprising given that we're preeminently social animals. Perhaps bees feel the same.
Quote:
Americans need to think about the bystander issue. We let others call the shots on Rwanda and kept UN peacekeepers from intervening when they could have forestalled full-on genocide. We backed away from confronting Russia as it enabled Assad's genocide. We have the most powerful military on earth, but we don't see it as our job to prevent further horrors, and now we are turning away refugees from the horror that we encouraged Central America to become. Evidently to simply say "the universe doesn't care but we can," is not to get very far with exploring the nature of moral obligation, or its connection to making sense of what matters.

While I agree that abdication of responsibility might be a valid charge in certain cases, it is also true that we cannot intervene wherever a humanitarian crisis exists, at least not with troops. That might even apply to the UN. Almost all of us regret going into Iraq, but are we sure that had we not, many of us would not now be saying we should have used military force against Saddam? Colin Powell's original take on Iraq intervention--the Pottery Barn warning: if you break it, you own it--is worth heeding. We may forestall a serious problem, but this may not count or be recognized if other serious problems emerge from our involvement.
Quote:
Looking into Victor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" he is pulled into the subject of resilience and disagree's with Frankl's assertion that people are free to choose their response to devastation. Human resilience varies, he says, and we need to avoid putting guilt on people for lacking the resilience that others may have. Meaning-making, I conclude, is a complex matter as well, hedged on one side by the abyss of absurdity, and on the other by the unfairness of stressing others with our vision of possibility.

Lewis elsewhere isn't willing to endorse "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger," for the same reason that he wants to identify resilience as a strength not available to everyone in equal measure. There is judgmentalism in therapy/counseling on this matter of choosing the response to hardship. Maybe Lewis is reflecting on that. Whereas it is widely accepted that addiction is not the person's fault, being less able to fight back is more likely to be held as a moral weakness.
Quote:
With little segue, he goes on to look at the issue of lack of control in adversity and how some people are shattered because they need control. The stories are good - this is one of his areas of specialization, after all - but he has little to share with us in wisdom about it, except "don't expect too much," and don't ruin the time you have left with frustration or with determination to leave a legacy of good or to have every moment count.

Or not to become too anxious that we don't have enough meaning in our lives! That quality, too, can be something by which we compare ourselves unfavorably to others, a special tendency in this Facebook age.

On the subject of death, I'm glad Lewis doesn't try to poke holes in the religious way of dealing with this event, and he doesn't claim that atheism has a leg up on confronting it. I don't know whether it may be true that religion has more resources at its disposal to let us down gently when someone we love dies-- possibly. It wouldn't be necessarily in the promise of continued life in heaven, but more in the funeral traditions that are established in religion that most people still find essential.
Quote:
Finally he has a few pages on dealing with our disappointment with ourselves - coming to terms with life, as facing death asks us to do. He urges us to be gentle with ourselves, accepting that there will be some regret without losing sight of the good we have done. And to the extent that we have had some failure, he reminds us this opens a door to empathy with others, since nearly everyone feels some falling short of their hopes for life. I think that is a profound insight - whole books have been written on that topic alone.

The current judgment, "It's all good," just about summarizes. If only we really believed it at the appropriate times. I'm sure that a large percentage of people Lewis treats feels that they've failed to achieve their potential in different ways. Why we are so insistent on being our own harshest critics is something that, as you say, whole books have been written about.



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Post Re: Chapter 11 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
DWill wrote:
My impression of what Lewis is trying to do in this chapter as well as in others is to supply a missing ingredient to the "new atheist" discussion. That discussion has always made a strong intellectual case against belief in a creator or managing God, but it has not shown very well how from an atheist view the emotional, and I would say spiritual, needs of people can be addressed. Compassion hasn't been a strong suit of the new atheism.
Yes, I think that's the right way to frame his intent. All in all I think he has made a substantial contribution along those lines. It's very true that the new atheism has shunned compassion - their general approach to people's argument that religion meets their emotional needs seems to be "Don't like it? Tough luck," or "You're delusional."

DWill wrote:
Now here is Lewis showing that the facts of our existence can be faced without leaving us bereft of the comfort and support that we all need to get through. We aren't all skilled psychiatrists, but we don't need to be in order to make people in troubles feel less alone and hopeless. I was impressed that Lewis emphasized what he gained from his work with Mabel. This isn't the wise doctor dispensing treatment, but a true relationship.

Once he has eliminated false sources of comfort, as being mainly dangerous set-ups for disappointment, failure or distraction from the real issues, he has some good words for people's ability to play a meaningful role in the lives of others. I would say Christianity and Judaism are moving in that direction, too. Like Lewis in his practice, they are not all that intent on tearing down people's beliefs, but the structure being put up builds very much on interpretations that emphasize our "ministering" to each other.

I also appreciated his role for Mabel. He doesn't seem shy about dispensing treatment when it is called for, but he doesn't call for it reflexively. And his human response seems normal given that he perceived a person who had been embittered by cold people, and who had a perceptive mind and acute sense of humor.
DWill wrote:
There is in therapy/counseling an injunction against the therapist meeting his own needs through the relationship, but I sense that Lewis would say that obeying such a precept could actually be bad for the person seeking help.
I can see how that might be an issue. Counter-transferance and all that sort of thing. I'm really glad you commented on this chapter, because this would have gone right by me. But you raise some challenging questions for the nature of therapy. Since positive human involvement is often the person's most critical need, how does the therapist arrange it without just "being human" with the person? It seems there is a serious lack in a therapeutic relationship that only has the therapist in a role of Parent (to borrow TA terms) or possibly Adult. Often person-to-person equal engagement seems it would be much more appropriate, and surely goes on a lot.
DWill wrote:
I'll go instead with meaning, significance, and value being in the same range. Purpose is like energy; it's needed to reap meaning but says nothing about whether meaning is captured.
That seems like a good way to see it, for me. In traditional religious terms "spirit" plays both roles, imparting motivation and assuring some value for the effort undertaken. "Power" and "guidance" are the terms I grew up with. But meaning isn't mainly about being "well-guided" either, because it has to make sense for the person being motivated by it. This is actually quite interesting theologically - thanks for the reflection.

I would also note that a person can fail in something they try to do, such as achieving reconciliation with a family member, and still feel that it was a "meaningful" thing to try. To have purpose that leads to success but fails to capture meaning is a different kind of failure. The first examples that come to mind are either tendentious or trivial. Maybe I can be a little loose in citing a claim I have seen in more than one source that "post-modern" analysis often settles for scoring points to show the analyst more clever than others, without actually achieving any insight usable by others. A version I saw about economics was that it has become an enterprise dedicated to "solving the problems of the profession" rather than the problems of society.

DWill wrote:
I think you may have said that meaning is something we can all agree on as a "good." It isn't just what automatically comes from our purposeful action, but has qualities that have always been known, and these are part of what religion has enshrined. Meaning is most likely to be present when we're acting on others' behalf, not surprising given that we're preeminently social animals. Perhaps bees feel the same.
That doesn't sound like quite the way I would have put it, but generally the idea that I have. The notion of common endeavor, such as the beauty of ballet or the thrill of a really well-executed play in sports, can broaden this beyond some sense that we are acting purely for the good of others.

DWill wrote:
While I agree that abdication of responsibility might be a valid charge in certain cases, it is also true that we cannot intervene wherever a humanitarian crisis exists, at least not with troops. That might even apply to the UN. Almost all of us regret going into Iraq, but are we sure that had we not, many of us would not now be saying we should have used military force against Saddam? Colin Powell's original take on Iraq intervention--the Pottery Barn warning: if you break it, you own it--is worth heeding. We may forestall a serious problem, but this may not count or be recognized if other serious problems emerge from our involvement.
Actually we probably could intervene in every crisis and eliminate all the bad guys. Americans don't have the "stomach" for it, and we have for a long time put a priority on costing few lives when we make these sorts of interventions. Even WWII had enormous adjustments made to avoid squandering lives. We are reluctant to be full-on humanitarians with our military adventures, and that may be appropriate to the world's current state.

As you point out, the effort to take responsibility for other societies is fraught with complications and dangers, and it is nearly inevitable that the more we intervene the more the place we are trying to reshape will put up resistance. (One of the myths gradually growing around the end of the Soviet Union is that the U.S. brought it by "out-racing" them. While there is truth in that, their failure to re-shape Afghanistan seems to have been the triggering event and a heavy forcing factor.) At a minimum, though, we should avoid doing harm by disregarding the legitimate rights of other countries in order to get whatever baubles and trinkets happen to have caught our eye.

DWill wrote:
There is judgmentalism in therapy/counseling on this matter of choosing the response to hardship. Maybe Lewis is reflecting on that. Whereas it is widely accepted that addiction is not the person's fault, being less able to fight back is more likely to be held as a moral weakness.
This matches with what I have seen in the popular press. Do you think it may mainly reflect our lack of anything tangible to offer addicts in the way of help? Sometimes we do, and it seems to me most of the moral judgment drops away pretty quickly in favor of applying solutions.
DWill wrote:
Quote:
"don't expect too much," and don't ruin the time you have left with frustration or with determination to leave a legacy of good or to have every moment count.

Or not to become too anxious that we don't have enough meaning in our lives! That quality, too, can be something by which we compare ourselves unfavorably to others, a special tendency in this Facebook age.
It probably sounds funny coming from me, but I definitely think it is futile to pursue meaning like notches on the gunfighter's gun. Rather I see the effort to do meaningful things as entirely natural, and the point of thinking about meaning is to work out how to empower that seeking. Overdoing it is definitely possible, and a few people do. Putting a lot of guilt on oneself about it is also a problem. I think Lewis probably could have said more about that.


DWill wrote:
Quote:
to the extent that we have had some failure, he reminds us this opens a door to empathy with others, since nearly everyone feels some falling short of their hopes for life. I think that is a profound insight - whole books have been written on that topic alone.

The current judgment, "It's all good," just about summarizes. If only we really believed it at the appropriate times. I'm sure that a large percentage of people Lewis treats feels that they've failed to achieve their potential in different ways. Why we are so insistent on being our own harshest critics is something that, as you say, whole books have been written about.
Well I guess it's natural to aim for high standards, and not easy to recognize when we are being "harsh" about it. Many people I know aim to be their own harshest critic to "get there first" so others won't be criticizing them. Probably overdone, but not totally misguided, either. The Catholic ritual of confession offers some help for our self-criticism, since it definitely pronounces forgiveness and also assigns a sort of penance. I am currently quite enthused about the transformational potential of seeing one's failures as a bridge to other fallible people.

In all the flurry of reporting on Brett Kavanaugh's dirty deeds and misadventures, I was taken by surprise by a story in which he had calmed one of the other frat boys, calling him back to reason. Without for a minute excusing his behavior and his lies, that really struck me as a snapshot of being human. We hope that those who know what it is to have gone too far will help to keep others from making the same mistakes.



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Post Re: Chapter 11 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
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Fixating excessively on risk creates even greater risk - of unintended consequences (you most definitely can be too careful) and of impairment of functioning by anxiety. We have no choice but to get out there and get on with our lives. When death comes for us, let it find us among the living.

I like how this chapter ends. I expect many of his patients feel like the walking dead.
I've struggled with work stress - living for the weekend or retirement is not a good way to be - working on that...



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