When Dad was five years old, he was playing out by the street. Nearby, some older boys were taunting an old man that was walking down the side of the road. Some were throwing pebbles and small rocks at the old man.
Just then, Dad’s eight-year-old sister rounded the corner and saw what was going on. Assuming that Dad was part of the mischief, she grabbed her little brother and scolded him, saying, “Don’t you know that you’re going to get old and die someday too?!” She then hauled Dad into the kitchen and sat him down to await their Mom’s punishment.
As Dad sat there, his mind started working through the implications of what his sister had said. When his mother came into the room, he asked her why people are sad when somebody dies but happy when a baby is born, being that every birth eventually leads to a death. Within a few minutes, Dad came to realize that this life either has some intrinsic meaning beyond what is immediately visible in this sphere, or else it is ultimately absurd and meaningless. Dad pondered these questions for many years after that.
From his earliest days, Dad had a recurring dream that he found frightening. Since it was so foreign to his life experience, he couldn’t comprehend what it might mean or what might be the source of such phantasms. In his dream, he was in a place where there was a lot of bright light, but it felt good. He was a point of light among countless other points of light. He could move as rapidly as the speed of thought. He could easily think in many different directions simultaneously. He could easily and simultaneously interact with multiple other beings that were like himself. These interactions were ennobling and enlightening.
In this dream, there was a being that was infinitely superior to the other beings present. They all called this being Papa. From this being emanated pure joy and love, as well as great light. The relationship with this being was close and intimate. Then Papa showed my Dad a place that looked dark. Between him and that place was a being that was not light but was dark, arrogant, and powerful. Papa said that he wanted my Dad to go to the dark place. Dad said that he didn’t want to go. Papa said that he should go because he would be able to help others there.
Then Dad felt himself being squeezed into a small, dark containment of some kind. He felt his connections with the other points of light being severed. His ability to see or sense Papa was eliminated. The dark being was laughing. Gradually all connections and feelings of love were severed as he was forced into this uncomfortable containment. All was dark. It was terrifying. Then Dad would awaken.
The whole experience of German life in the run-up to WWII, through the war, and in the aftermath of the war seemed to lend credence to the concept that life was absurd. Yet something in Dad made him feel that there must be something more. Consequently, Dad searched through many philosophies and religions from both Western and Eastern traditions. He found many interesting things, but he never encountered anything that grabbed him as truth.
Dad’s family was associated with the Lutheran state church in northern Germany. But like most of their neighbors, they rarely attended and regarded the whole matter of religion rather lightly. Per tradition, Dad went through the confirmation process. He hoped he would feel something positive, but he felt only coldness and emptiness from the service in the austere cathedral. When the bells started pealing at the close of the service, he wanted nothing more than to be away from that place.
After years of seeking, Dad once had the opportunity to have a private meeting with one of the highest officials of the German Lutheran state church. He thought, surely this man will know something I haven’t yet found. Dad asked many questions. He found this man to be honest and devout. But he also found that the man had no firm conviction about the truthfulness of Christianity. The cleric admitted that he believed many things, but really had no sure knowledge of any them. Dad left that meeting rather disillusioned, thinking that real truth must not in fact exist.
Dad always wanted things to work out logically and with reason. He liked working through something to its conclusion. While most of his companions and family members took up smoking, Dad wanted no part of it. Even before the health ramifications of tobacco use were known, Dad reasoned that it made no sense whatsoever. He followed the same course with alcohol. He couldn’t fathom what value his comrades found in a substance that invariably gave them diminished judgment and made them act more stupidly than usual.
When Dad could not bring closure to his reasoned search for a meaning to life, he began to despair about whether such meaning actually existed. That still didn’t make sense to him because there was something deep within that insisted that life has intrinsic purpose and meaning. So he continued to seek.
Next time I’ll write more about where this search led.