You’ve probably seen a cartoon depicting a guru perched serenely on a mountain top. A guy has clambering up the steep slope to arrive at the feet of the master and asks, “Oh wise one, what is the meaning of life?”
Depending on the cartoon, there are various ways the question is answered. In one I saw recently, the guru responds, “Have you tried Googling that?”
I’m no guru, but I’ve had plenty of people ask me that existential question. My response may seem simplistic, but for most people – including me – it can take effort to follow through on it.
My answer is always: love your neighbor as yourself.
But let’s face it. Loving our neighbor can be easier said than done. Especially if our neighbor’s political views are opposite ours. Or if our neighbor behaves badly. Some neighbors we’d just as soon move out of the neighborhood.
And yet, loving others as we would ourselves is essential to many faiths and ethical systems: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Baha’i Faith, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, and Humanism.
If loving our neighbor is such a consistent mandate, and a world where more love of neighbor would be an awesome development, and if – as I believe – it represents the very meaning of life, why do we seem to witness so much of the opposite? Why does our society feel more fractured and divisive than ever?
For one thing, it’s hard to get out of and beyond ourselves; our needs, our limited perspectives. Thankfully, true narcissists are rare, but it can still be common for life to largely revolve around “me.”
That is, “I exist in this body, this self, this worldview, this bundle of experience that’s uniquely mine. Doing what’s best and most gratifying for me is my priority.”
That’s why we find it remarkable when we hear about soldiers sacrificing themselves for comrades, or first-responders rushing into harm’s way to rescue a stranger.
Those acts are remarkable because we recognize them as the suppression of the normal “me” way of being. And we see in those heroes the essential truth about ourselves: we all possess that same unselfish quality.
That’s why children – and adults – obsess over comic book and movie characters whose powers enable them to perform heroically. Their real power is not super-human strength or speed, but their willingness to risk themselves for the sake of others. At a basic level we know we also have that power.
Most of us don’t find ourselves in the position of needing to dash into burning buildings to rescue people. And most of us don’t run around wearing spandex and capes.
But we know we have it within us to love our neighbor as ourselves. We know that to get out of ourselves, over ourselves, and beyond ourselves is to glimpse the big picture that every person – even our unsavory neighbor – is a beloved child of God just as we are, and in need of love, just as we are.
Love is risking and daring and acting unselfishly for others. It’s where the meaning of life comes into sharp focus.
It’s the very essence of my faith and is the universal bond weaving humanity together. It’s not a faith that’s so much concerned about believing in the right things but in doing the right things.
We don’t need to climb any mountains and ask any gurus what they think. In doing what’s best for our neighbor, in loving them by giving of ourselves for their sake, we’ve already found the answer down here on the ground, where it makes a difference.
The Rev. David Green is pastor of Salem Church in Doylestown. He can be found there Sundays at 10 a.m., or anytime at salemstrong.org.