Maintaining meaning when the past starts to fade: Guest commentary from Rabbi Mark Levin

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Mark Levin, the founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, KS, is a colleague and close friend of Rabbi Address. He originally posted this commentary to Facebook, and we repost it here with his permission.

I frequently work these days with folks facing the deterioration of the physical aspects of their lives, and with loss of those whom they love. Every person individually faces these universal and very human questions, and yet we seem to face them alone.

Rabbi Mark H. Levin D.H.L, D.D.
Rabbi Mark H. Levin D.H.L, D.D.

Other universal statuses in life we confront as communities: how to create loving relationships; how to choose a life occupation; where to live; what to do about the possibility of children. All of these major life decisions we learn about and discuss with friends, family, peers, in learning sessions, in other social groupings, and sometimes even in courses. But the even more universal questions of bodily deterioration, the meaning of my life, loss of major loves, loss of meaning, we face alone.

Often our theologies are not sufficient to satisfy the questions of these existential issues. Religion theoretically provides answers to the meaning questions in life. What has my life meant? What do I do when confronting a disastrous loss? How do I survive my pain? How do I preserve meaning when the meaning structures in my life (work, children, home, loved ones, etc) disappear from my life?

We should be discussing these issues along the life span, and particularly after 45 or 50 years old when they kick in big time. But we don’t. Most often we assume that there are no satisfying (real) answers, so we put off and ignore the questions. But if we live long enough, there they are, right in front of us, demanding our attention.

One possible answer of many:

This afternoon, as I took my daily walk (used to run, used to bike, now I walk), I thought about the oneness of all creation. I find myself constantly attracted to two things: beauty, and the harmony of the universe. Whether thinking about how the complex structures of the world fit together in a single creation, or harmoniously sensing my place in that creation, I find myself emotionally attached to viewing my life as simply a small piece that fits harmoniously into a magnificent complexity. Beauty demonstrates to me how that wholeness is intertwined in an intricate variety that possesses ultimate meaning. When I strive to connect with those creations that surround me, viz.: nature, animals, all living creatures, environment for example, I discover a peacefulness that I can make a very minor contribution, and that contribution will not die with my body’s death, but will continue its impact eternally. As I bear the mark of past generations living within me, so it will be with the world that follows me.

Focusing on my place in creation existing and breathing at this moment, I attempt to discover what is most significant to me: touching other lives, lessening the pain in others, contributing knowledge to the world. Since those things create meaning in my life, I am plotting how I will maintain them even as my body inevitably deteriorates. In other words: how do I maintain meaning when my past skills, loved ones and occupations disappear?

There’s not enough space on FB to lay out the entirety of the issues. But I feel that someone must provoke the conversation that real solutions exist, but not if we go about trying to solve all of the existential problems of aging alone. Like the past decisions we made about our life choices, these too must be discussed and conclusions tested in communities we find trustworthy and similar to our experiences in life: among friends, family, our most trusted partners in living. Then we can move forward together, facing the complex world with our private solutions to universal issues of how to live our most meaningful years even while facing the losses in life.
Shavuah tov.

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