One night a rabbi in Moscow feeling despondent – overwhelmed by the state of the world — went for his evening walk, lost in thought, forgetting where he was and who he was and he inadvertently wandered onto a military installation. The guard on duty saw him and hollered out, “Who are you? And what are you doing here?” “Pardon me?” the rabbi says. “I said who are you, and what are you doing here?” The rabbi was shocked back to awareness by those two questions and he snapped out of his despair and said to the guard, “How much money do you get paid?” The guard replied, “What business is that of yours?” The rabbi said, “I will pay you twice that sum if every day from now on you will ask me those same two questions.”
“Who are you? And what are you doing here?”
The willingness to ask your self these two questions is a heroic act of immense proportions – the day-to-day heroism of the ordinary life we’re all living.
Who are you, and what are you doing here? Where have you been, so far? What are the events that have carved and formed the clay in the hands of time that have shaped and formed who you are and what you are becoming.
We appreciate the high moments, the joys of life that have given us a sense of meaning and worth – a sense we’re living a successful life.
But there’s another side to life: we are shaped and formed by the struggles that fire the kiln that strengthens us, like the clay that hardens in the fire, transformed by those turning points that send us to the depths of our being.
There’s a powerful example in the story of the Prodigal Son as told in the book of Luke – the story about the younger of two sons asked his father for his inheritance, which he took and squandered on loose living. Just as he ran out of money a great famine hit and he got hungry. To survive he went to work in the fields feeding the swine and he realized that his father’s servants were better off than he was.
He hit bottom. Then he experienced one of those turning points that come at such times. The story says, “And he arose, and came to his father.” Luke 15:20. It was a turning point.
He planned what he would say to his father – that he wasn’t worthy to be called his son, that he would appreciate being treated as one of the servants. In those reflective moments he achieved the gift of humility which would stand him in good stead, spiritually, for the rest of his life.
You know the story: the young man’s father was waiting for him, with a sense of hope. When he saw his son approaching he was overjoyed – he embraced him and kissed him and ordered his servants to put his best robe on his son, and he put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet and he ordered that the fatted calf be killed for a feast to celebrate his son’s return. He said, ‘my son who was lost has been found.’
In mathematics — in calculus — a turning point is a stationary point; the father’s turning point came by standing still. (“Don’t just do something, stand there!” the Buddhist says.) The son’s turning point came from the depths of desperation when ‘he arose and came to his father.’
The symbolism of the son returning home is powerful – he went out into the world and made some regrettable mistakes and then he returned to his father, and to himself.
You remember those lines from T. S. Eliot: ‘We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.” (Four Quartets: Little Gidding)
The meaning of life emerges from all those little (and big) turning points. It’s not pre-assigned. It doesn’t come with the package.
Our Greek forebears said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’
Our more immediate forebear, Henry David Thoreau, built a cabin in the woods beside Walden pond and later wrote:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartanlike as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it.”
The true meaning of our lives emerges in the living of it, and of being deliberate, including the spiritual discipline of deliberating — of standing still and reflecting. Meaning comes from those turning points, especially when we are down and pick ourselves up and keep on trudging.
Sometimes, of course, when you think you’ve hit bottom the elevator stalls for a moment and then plunges down one more floor. You only know you hit bottom in retrospect; you only understand the meaning of your life by living it and reflecting on it, and you elevate it by giving thanks for lessons learned when you’re stopped in your tracks by some angel in the disguise of a guard who demands: who are you and what are you doing here!
All the turning points create an endless stream of points that forms the outline of your life, creating a sense of wholeness, made colorful by the profound moments here and there that cause us to realize, as Carl Sagan put it, that ‘the cosmos is fine-tuned for existence.”
So, now I need you to ask me those two questions: ‘who are you, and what are you doing here?’
I’ll think on it.