Longing For Meaning

Helen Keller

Last week, I was invited to speak to the Durham Lions Club.  This is what I had to say:

On the first day, God created the dog and said: “Sit all day by the door of your house and bark at anyone who comes in or walks past. For this, I will give you a life span of 20 years.”

The dog said: “That’s a long time to be barking. How about only 10 years and I’ll give you back the other 10?’

So God agreed.

On the second day, God created the monkey and said: “Entertain people, do tricks, and make them laugh. For this, I’ll give you a 20-year life span.”

The monkey said: “Monkey tricks for 20 years? That’s a pretty long time to perform. How about I give you back 10 like the Dog did?”

And God agreed.

On the third day, God created the cow and said: “You must go into the field with the farmer all day long and suffer under the sun, have calves and give milk to support the farmer’s family. For this, I will give you a life span of 60 years.”

The cow said: “That’s kind of a tough life you want me to live for 60 years. How about 20 and I’ll give back the other 40?”

And God agreed again.

On the fourth day, God created man and said: “Eat, sleep, play, marry and enjoy your life. For this, I’ll give you 20 years.”

But man said: “Only 20 years? Could you possibly give me my 20, the 40 the cow gave back, the 10 the monkey gave back, and the 10 the dog gave back — that makes 80, OK?”

“OK,” God said. “As long as you’re sure.”

So that is why for our first 20 years we eat, sleep, play and enjoy ourselves. For the next 40 years we slave in the sun to support our family. For the next 10 years we do monkey tricks to entertain the grandchildren. And for the last 10 years we sit on the front porch and bark at everyone.

And that, my friends, is the meaning of life. Now you know.

This, so we’re told, is the meaning of life.  But philosophers, thinkers, and wise people from every time, place, and culture have long suspected that’s not true.  Something inside of us resists what Shakespeare’s tragic hero, Macbeth, said about the nature and meaning of life:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Most of us refuse to believe that life “signifies nothing”.  Something within each of us searches for significance.  We need to know that our lives have meaning.

I suspect that such a longing for meaning was active in the mind of Melvin Jones, the insurance agent from Chicago who had an epiphany during a lunch group with business colleauges in 1917.

Jones wondered out loud, “What if these men, who are successful because of their drive, intelligence, and ambition, were to put their talents to work improving their communities?”

It wasn’t long before he discovered other like-minded professionals who were asking themselves the same questions.  They organized a group that became the first Lions Club.  Within three years, they had grown into an international organization.

Then, in June of 1925, Melvin Jones’ vision of community service began to take on flesh as the members of Lions Club International listened to an impassioned plea from that famous icon of American history, Helen Keller.  As you all know, Ms. Keller called upon those Lions to become “Knights of the Blind”.  Few have ever heard her brief appeal in its entirety, so I would like to share it with you now:

Dear Lions and Ladies:

I suppose you have heard the legend that represents opportunity as a capricious lady, who knocks at every door but once, and if the door isn’t opened quickly, she passes on, never to return. And that is as it should be. Lovely, desirable ladies won’t wait. You have to go out and grab ’em.

I am your opportunity. I am knocking at your door. I want to be adopted. The legend doesn’t say what you are to do when several beautiful opportunities present themselves at the same door. I guess you have to choose the one you love best. I hope you will adopt me. I am the youngest here, and what I offer you is full of splendid opportunities for service.

The American Foundation for the Blind is only four years old. It grew out of the imperative needs of the blind, and was called into existence by the sightless themselves. It is national and international in scope and in importance. It represents the best and most enlightened thought on our subject that has been reached so far. Its object is to make the lives of the blind more worthwhile everywhere by increasing their economic value and giving them the joy of normal activity.

Try to imagine how you would feel if you were suddenly stricken blind today. Picture yourself stumbling and groping at noonday as in the night; your work, your independence, gone. In that dark world wouldn’t you be glad if a friend took you by the hand and said, “Come with me and I will teach you how to do some of the things you used to do when you could see?” That is just the kind of friend the American Foundation is going to be to all the blind in this country if seeing people will give it the support it must have.

You have heard how through a little word dropped from the fingers of another, a ray of light from another soul touched the darkness of my mind and I found myself, found the world, found God. It is because my teacher learned about me and broke through the dark, silent imprisonment which held me that I am able to work for myself and for others. It is the caring we want more than money. The gift without the sympathy and interest of the giver is empty. If you care, if we can make the people of this great country care, the blind will indeed triumph over blindness.

The opportunity I bring to you, Lions, is this: To foster and sponsor the work of the American Foundation for the Blind. Will you not help me hasten the day when there shall be no preventable blindness; no little deaf, blind child untaught; no blind man or woman unaided? I appeal to you Lions, you who have your sight, your hearing, you who are strong and brave and kind. Will you not constitute yourselves Knights of the Blind in this crusade against darkness?

I thank you.

While I was doing my research for this talk today, I was particularly struck by these words from Ms. Keller’s speach: “a ray of light from another soul touched the darkness of my mind and I found myself, found the world, found God.”

She was referring to Annie Sullivan, the teacher who worked indefatigably to help the young Helen Keller live well with her disability.  Ms. Sullivan forged a deep connection with Ms. Keller, who would later describe the event mythically as “a ray of light from another soul touch[ing] the darkness of my mind”.  And what was the final result?  In Ms. Keller’s words: “I found myself, found the world, found God.”

Now, since Lions Club is not a religious organization, you might find it helpful to replace her word, “God”, in your own mind with “that which gives my life ultimate meaning.”

Through the tireless compassion of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller experienced a deep and profound sense of connection to herself, the world, and ultimate meaning.

It was this deep and profound sense of connection that resonated so powerfully with Melvin Jones and those early Lions.  They felt a longing for meaning that they sought to fulfill by serving their communities.

They wanted to be that ray of light from another soul that touched the darkness of someone’s mind so that, together, we all might find a deeper connection with ourselves, the world, and that which gives life meaning.

As we all know, the Lions accepted Helen Keller’s challenge to become “Knights of the Blind”.  Generations of Lions Clubs have dedicated their time, talent, and treasure to the treatment and prevention of blindness.

You and I live in a society that desperately needs the light you Lions carry into the darkness.  Our culture of consumerism has blinded us to the needs of others.  Our ears are deaf to the call of service.  We are falsely informed that ultimate meaning can be found in the pursuit of power, profit, and possessions.  It’s obvious to anyone who watches TV that we have forgotten the epic words of John F.  Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

This world needs Melvin Jones and his Lions now more than ever.  We need to be reminded that the meaning of life can only be measured in what we give, not what we get.  So, I encourage you today to continue your work inside Lions Club and out.  Helen Keller is still knocking at your door!  Will you answer it?

Answer it with your time, talent, and treasure.  More than that, answer it with your whole self.  Remember what Ms. Keller said: “It is the caring we want more than money. The gift without the sympathy and interest of the giver is empty.”

Through your caring, you are making a better world, not just for blind people, but for yourselves and all of us who long for meaning.

I conclude with the benediction that I give to my church each Sunday:

Go out into the world in peace.  Hold on to what is good.  Return no one evil for evil.  Strengthen the faint-hearted.  Support the weak.  Help the suffering.  Honor all beings.  Love and serve, rejoicing in the power of the spirit.

And may the peace that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of that which gives life meaning.  Be blessed and be a blessing.

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