When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air
Sunday, November 20th, 10:30 AM                Rev. Fiona Heath

In the humourous science fiction novel by Douglas Adams, the Hitchhiker`s Guide to the Galaxy, people on another planet create the greatest of all computers.  The computer is called Deep Thought and the people created it for one purpose only.  To tell them “the answer”.

The computer asks “the answer to what?”
The people say “the answer…. to life, the universe, everything.”
The computer pauses, then says it will be tricky, but it can be done.
“There is an answer?” asks one of the people.
Yes, says Deep Thought, there is an answer, but it will take awhile.

Awhile turns out to be seven and half million years.

After those seven and half million years, the people return to hear from Deep Thought.
Deep Thought says that there is an answer to life, the universe and everything, but they are not going to like it.

The people insist they want to know.
So Deep Thought explains that the answer to life, the universe and everything is … 42.

And then the computer points out that the problem is that the question was not exactly clear.

And that is the way it tends to feel when we seek to understand the meaning of life.
It is an impossible question.
There is no answer, no matter what scripture, science, or humorous books might tell us.   

Life has no singular, ultimate meaning that might provide each one of us with a deep purpose.

This, however, does not stop people from asking the question, what does it all mean?

And asking the question is a useful exercise.
Although we might wish to phrase it a little better so that it doesn’t take seven and half million years to find the answer.

It may take a few thousand years, though.  
Joseph Campbell was a mythologist.  His in-depth and insightful research into the power of myth over all of human history reveals some of the deepest needs of humanity.

After a lifetime of study, Campbell came to the conclusion that “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”  

It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.
You are the answer.

While I appreciate Campbell’s assertion that I am the answer to the meaning of life, frankly, it still leaves me confused.

I wish I knew the actual question to which I am an answer.  
It feels like I am on Jeopardy and I don’t even know what category I am in, let alone how to respond with a question.

Campbell goes on to suggest that “meaning” is less about a conceptual understanding, than an experience.

He argues that the search for the meaning of life is really the search for the experience of being alive, “so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

The rapture of being alive.  For Campbell, this rapture arises when the way we live our life resonates with our innermost being.

Rapture arises when who we are and what we do fit together.
When we are able to live in a way that expresses our authentic self.

The question isn’t what is the meaning of life, but what gives my life meaning?
What allows me – this unique self - to feel fully alive in the moment?
What allows me to live my truth?
And this question is one that we answer over and over again, our whole life through.  
And the answer will be different for everyone.

To be fully alive means to live with sorrow as well as joy.
I think it requires an open heart and an open mind, a willingness to be vulnerable, a willingness to be wrong.

Being our authentic self, being true to ourselves and expressing that truth to others, can be the hardest task.
And a vital one.
 “I’ve always had the feeling that life loves the liver of it,” says American poet Maya Angelou.
“You must live and life will be good to you, give you experiences.
They may not all be that pleasant, but nobody promised you a rose garden.
But more than likely if you do dare, what you get are the marvelous returns.”

We get marvelous returns when we live with the risks of expressing our true self.

This isn’t always easy.
Our true self can get buried under layers of other people’s expectations, our own cowardice and confusion, the business of earning a living, the need to care for others.

Living honestly in the moment takes practice.
And it is challenging.  This is not the easy way.

We can get so caught up in the everydayness of our lives, we forget to actually feel our experiences.

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has a meditation sequence that encourages people to experience life in the moment.

The first phrase to repeat is “I’m going to die.”

The second phrase is “We are all going to die.”

The final phrase is “And we have just these precious moments.”

And we just have these precious moments.

I invite you into a period of silent contemplation of these precious moments.
What brings you to the rapture of being alive?


If the meaning of life arises from experiencing life, then there are some common experiences that help provide a sense of meaningfulness.

According to the School of Life philosopher Alain de Botton, there are three key avenues to creating a sense of meaning in our lives.

The first of these is connection.
To connect with another living being can offer a profound sense of meaning.

Moments when we are able to communicate with another and share the truth of our lives and feel heard, give meaning.
When we are able to express our intimate thoughts and feelings to another, and feel seen, we feel the rapture of being alive.

When we are able to cross cultural or linguistic barriers and make a connection.
When we are touched by a book or music or film that expresses so beautifully something we too feel.

These moments of connection matter.  
It is no wonder that one of Unitarian Universalism’s aspirations is for people to be deeply connected.
Communications helps us live meaningfully.

The challenge here is our own difficulty in getting close to another, to taking the risk of being vulnerable.
And we live at a time when our lives are increasingly fragmented.

So while connection matters, we have to work at it.  
We aspire as UUs to be deeply connected.

Another way we find meaning in our lives is through understanding.

This is the pleasure that arises when we develop self awareness, when we know who we are.

It comes from meeting the unfamiliar, whether that is learning a new skill, or developing a discipline.
We meet the new and unfamiliar, engage with it and gain deeper understanding.
In engaging with the world, in learning the world, we are ever expanding our own boundaries.  We are enlarging our own lives.

It is a reaching out to the new so that we ourselves grow and develop.
This is our aspiration to be radically inclusive – to be open and expansive.

The challenge for understanding is living in a society that encourages shallow rather than deeper thinking.  
We are also moving towards a society in which the unfamiliar is something dangerous to be feared, rather than inviting curiousity.

And so, in seeking meaning, we aspire to be radically inclusive.

The third and final way to increase a sense of living a life of meaning is to give to others.
A life of service in which we serve other’s needs can bring deep satisfaction, if it also allows us to share our own gifts.

Meaning arises when we help alleviate suffering or bring more joy in the world.
Meaning arises when our gifts make a difference.

A sense of service can be as simple as treating others well, for being responsible for our own actions, and choosing actions that heal not harm.
Service is another form of healthy engagement with the world.
Service reflects another of our UU aspirations, to be actively engaged.

We are actively engaged when we use our gifts to create a better life for others.
To be able to serve well, we need to know ourselves well enough to know what gifts we have to offer.  

This can be hard in a system that emphasizes economics over the genuine needs of others.

Meaning in life arises out of the flourishing of the self.
We flourish through intimate connections,
through deepening understanding, and
through offering our gifts in service to the world.
Connections, understanding and service.

For each of us, these three paths to meaning will be expressed differently.
Some will find the greatest meaning in intimate relationships.
Others in the pursuit of knowledge.
Others in acts of service.

Which path has provided a sense of meaning, a sense of satisfaction in your life?

I’m going to give you a minute to think, and then, if you are willing, I invite you to turn to someone beside you and share your thoughts.

I invite you all to sit quietly -  connection, understanding, service.
Which path has given meaning to your life?  Or is there another path for you?

The title of this service comes from When Breath Becomes Air, the memoir of neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi.  It is the story of the end of his life.

In his early thirties, about to embark fully on his career as a neurosurgeon, highly skilled, highly dedicated, Paul discovered he had stage four cancer.

Over the next two years, through treatment, recovery and relapse, he had to consider what brought meaning to his life.

When faced with death, the truth of our lives is often laid bare.
And the truth is complex.

As Paul noted, before his cancer diagnosis he knew he would die someday, but he didn’t know when.
After his cancer diagnosis, he knew he would die someday, but he still didn’t know when.
But now he knew it acutely.  (p.32)

At the same time, not knowing when his death would arrive made having a sense of meaning difficult.

If we are the answer, then it helps to know whether we are writing a long essay or just a single paragraph.

For Paul, if he hadn’t had cancer, he had wanted a lifetime of scientific research and neurosurgery.
If he had 10 years, he wanted those years in neurosurgery using his skills and gifts.
If he had just a couple of years, he wanted to write.

He became a writer.

For Paul, a driven, ambitious man, the return of cancer meant all that he strived for was turning to dust before his eyes.
At one point he is offered the position of his dreams, one perfectly suited to his skills and ambitions.

He comes close to accepting the job, but in the end realized that it had become a fantasy.  The meaning of his life was no longer on the path of service.

He noted that in the face of terminal illness, his values changed constantly.
He tried to figure out what mattered to him, and then he had to figure it out again as the circumstances changed.

To know our authentic self is tricky.
As Paul so poignantly realized, the authentic self changes over time, we are not static.
We develop as we learn, as we grow from experience and as our circumstances change.

And yet we have a core self that remains steadfast.  
Paul had always wanted to be a writer and that flame began to burn brightly in his final months.

Paul could turn to the path of understanding through writing to live with meaning.
And he also turned to the path of connection.
No self lives alone, not truly.

We live in relationships with one another, and those relationships also shape and define us.
The connections we make with other people, other creatures, with a place, provide meaning and sustain us.

Paul was not alone.
His ambitions had come close to ending his marriage, but after the cancer diagnosis, his relationship with his wife Lucy grew deeper and richer.
They choose, despite the uncertain future, to have a child.

As the cancer came back, Paul’s life both constricted and expanded.
His focus narrowed to his family and his daughter Cady, and to writing his memoir.

But in those precious moments, his world also opened up with meaning.
The loving, intimate communications with his family made him feel alive.
The work to put his life into words gave his life direction.

In the final paragraph Paul tells Cady that if each person’s life has meaning, if she ever wonders what her life is worth, she should remember that
“she filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years,
a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied.
In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

We are the answer to the question of the meaning of life.

Each of us finds our way through connection, understanding and service.
It takes honesty and courage to be the answer.
To live fully, to experience the rapture of living, to be our true selves.

I am going to die. We are all going to die.
All we have is these precious moments.
May they be enough.

So Say We All.


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