The meaning of life was right where I left it

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

I thought of Rev. Stan Rudcki the other day. Stan was the resident philosopher and Renaissance man at Niles College, a little known and less remembered institution of higher learning that occupied the corner of Touhy and Harlem. In the early '70s, when I attended, it served as the college level seminary of the Chicago Archdiocese.

I recall my 2½ years there fondly, and Stan Rudcki was one of the reasons. He was erudite and artistic (conductor of the local symphony) — and the only teacher I ever met who had the nerve to try to teach "the meaning of life" to sleep-deprived late-teens. He would take chalk and draw parallel horizontal lines, then overlap them with vertical lines — forming a cross-hatch — then draw a circle around it. "That's the meaning of life," he would say to his not-quite-ready-for-prime-time students, "interconnectedness and relationship."

I thought of that, and him, when I read a book review in the New York Times last week. The Jan. 16 Book Review section had been hanging around my richly cluttered dining room table for almost two months, but I finally read about The View from Lazy Point by Carl Safina, a naturalist who writes eloquently about the peril of our planet.

The reviewer kindly relayed several illuminating quotes: "Safina asks us to reconsider the importance of that pertinent question: 'What is the meaning of life?' Which, he believes, is the wrong question to be asking because 'it makes you look in the wrong places.' The right question is, 'Where is the meaning of life?' And the place to look is 'between.' In other words, we should look for the ways that all living creatures and all habitats are connected, look for what happens 'between' them. 'Relationships,' he insists, 'are the music life makes. Context creates meaning.'"

The music life makes. Stan, I think, would like that. And he would appreciate the simplicity of "between."

"Between" is the reason I am so often critical of the prevailing Republican political philosophy, which is all about self-interest, hyper-individualism, me first (and only), Don't Tread on Me, I am not my brother's keeper, my way or the highway. There is no room in it for "us." There is no between, just a divisive void. That philosophy is, ultimately (and ironically), self-defeating.

Love — the antidote to this alienation, isolation and fragmentation — does not exist within us, said Martin Buber in his seminal book, I and Thou, which changed my life (and which I also encountered in a class at Niles College). Feelings exist within us, Buber wrote, but they merely accompany love. They are not love itself. Love exists between an I and a You. "This is no metaphor but actuality," Buber said. Love doesn't exist inside us. We exist inside love. There lies the sacred ground where meaning lives, where God can be found.


Human beings are meaning-seekers. We are not Homo Sapiens, Man Knowing. We are Man Seeking, Homo Questio.

The meaning of this column is not in the newsprint, the layout or the words. Meaning is not "inside" you after you read it (although one could hope its echo might be preserved in memory). Meaning takes place between the writer and the reader. That is the magic of communication — when it happens. Interactivity, interdependency, intercession, intercourse, intermediating, interrelated, intersecting, intertwining, intervention, interwoven, interconnection.


"To advance compassion and yet survive in a world of appetites — that is our challenge," Safina writes. "Ecology, family, community, religion — these words all grope toward the same need: connection, belonging, purpose. ... Just as we went from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists to civilized societies, now we must take the next giant leap: from merely civilized to humanized."

Rev. Stan Rudcki, I'm pretty sure, would agree.


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