During the impeachment preliminaries of President Clinton, his response to one difficult question was the famous, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” A lot of fun was had with that verbal finesse, but he was very right. The use of “is” is contextual and the nuances are important.
Words are ephemeral like the rest of reality and from time to time we have to “wrestle with words and meanings” as T. S. Eliot put it. For words become stale over time and lose their value, face value being taken at some point for what was once a powerful emotional and/or spiritual experience. It is simpler to not worry about “meaning” and take everything superficially and that can get you far in life but it doesn’t answer the gut-level issues that led Henry David Thoreau to declare in the mid 19th century, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.”
The quest for meaning is a spiritual enterprise and churches and spiritual traditions have offered guidance to men and women who have been on this quest. Recently Pope Francis described this as a “risky journey,” one that is not only a quest for God but also a search for one’s own personal identity. Francis understands that spirituality is not idle abstraction but something that involves our innermost being, something which will often challenge our most basic assumptions about ourselves and about life itself. Otherwise we often are pursuing what he called only a “caricature of God.” Here is a link to a report of his message:
Relevant to this spiritual quest for meaning, here is one of my favorite excerpts of W. H. Auden’s poetry, taken from “A Christmas Oratorio.” Here the Star of the Nativity is speaking:
Beware. All those who follow me are led Onto that Glassy Mountain where are no Footholds for logic, to that Bridge of Dread Where knowledge but increases vertigo: Those who pursue me take a twisting lane To find themselves immediately alone With savage water or unfeeling stone, In labyrinths where they must entertain Confusion, cripples, tigers, thunder, pain.