Thursday, August 1, 2013

Searching For Meaning

Four generations living together in the same house is no longer a common occurrence today. A professor of philosophy reminisces, in the Peace Weekly, on growing up in such a home where every morning and evening meal was a banquet. The grandmother liked to say that a house should be seething with relatives and friends coming and going, a house full of warmth and laughter. She also took care of the flower and vegetable gardens, which added to the friendly environment. The professor remembers those years as happy ones because of her healthy and wise grandmother.

To live a long life is considered one of five blessings, a traditional belief with a long history in Korean thinking: in addition to long life, having wealth, bodily health, virtue, and a peaceful death. Long life was the more important of the five, for without it the others would be difficult to attain. Recently, there have been news reports of the elderly who live alone and die alone without others knowing of their death until much later; in one incident, the body wasn't discovered for six years.

Our life span continues to increase, we are told, and reaching the age of 100 will be a common occurrence, but for those who are retiring at an earlier age this is not all good news, the professor says. We are likely to have more not less persons living alone, which will create serious problems for many municipalities. She says we can't put all the responsibility on the government or municipalities; we have to prepare for old age ourselves.

The professor mentions that prior to a lecture she was about to give, during the introductions, a woman in her late 70s entered the lecture hall. By her appearance and behavior, it didn't seem she was in the right place. She introduced herself as a person who could read, but since she never had the chance to go to school, she thirsted for the opportunity to study. She was told the lecture hall would be a good place to start, and so she decided, she said with a laugh, to come in.

For a while the professor was in doubt on who she should consider the right audience for her talk, but hearing the words of the elderly woman, she said her decision became easy. She was going to speak in a way that all would understand, including the woman in her 70s. She knew the way it was presented would be especially important when speaking about a philosophical understanding of life and how to make our lives meaningful and happy.

In one of his writings Mencius says that a king of China considered those most deserving of government assistance to be grandfathers without wives, old women without husbands, the elderly living alone without children, and children without parents. These four groups of people should be helped before all others.

The elderly woman who entered the lecture hall that evening, the professor said, had a desire to satisfy her thirst for learning before she died. She wanted to do something about the regret and sadness for not having had the opportunity to study. She had to overcome many obstacles to come to that lecture hall that evening, and the professor said, in acknowledging that desire, she bowed her head in respect. 

She concludes with the words of Victor Frankel, who said that humans are people in search of meaning. By coming to the lecture hall that evening, that elderly woman  was living proof of Frankel's remark. When we have many more like her searching for meaning, the professor says, a question will come to mind: won't   society be a securer and happier one with more people doing the same thing?

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