“Ema, how do we know if anything is really real?”
Last year, one of my sons went through a phase where this question occupied his brain nonstop for a few weeks.
Questions like this plague all of us at some point or another. They come in many different forms. Sometimes they are existential. Is the world real? Is everything I experience just a product of my mind? Am I stuck in some never ending dream? Trapped in a matrix of someone else’s making? Acting unknowingly in some grand reality TV show while outsiders watch and are entertained?
Sometimes they appear in the context of relationships. Do I have any real friends? People who care about me the way I care about them?Are my parents truly proud of me? Does my spouse really love me?How do I know what he/she is really thinking?
And sometimes they hit us around beliefs that are at the core of our identity and our day to day lives. How do I know that God exists? Why am I living a committed life if my belief system might not be true? Is it merely the product of my arbitrary birth into a household that raised me to believe in the things that I do? And if that is so, then why I should I feel obligated to hold onto those ideas if they do not speak to me?
Our children ask these questions. Adults ask these questions too.
We find ourselves living in a postmodern context that teaches that none of the foundations that we rest upon can be proven. It encourages us to be skeptical and supplies us with the tools for doing so. We can effectively question everything. We can chalk our beliefs up to grand meta-narratives that we never realized we bought into long ago and have warped our thinking in artificial ways until now. We can claim that all of the rules, divisions, and hierarchies in our lives are constructs — that we have been taken advantage of by those in power who came up with all kinds of ways to keep us subjugated and subservient.
We can say that nothing is really real. And maybe some of us even believe that, or parts of it.
There is just one little problem.
We are still looking for meaning. Our children are too. They have a hunger and yearning to connect to something greater. And in the end, that most basic instinct is stronger than any ideology or philosophy.
An overwhelming message in our postmodern world is that we can find meaning through freedom. The more liberated we are, the more we can pursue our true selves, the things that most speak to us and that which we really connect to.
Furthermore, we imagine that unbridled freedom will bring happiness. That our obligations bind us and limit us from experiencing life fully. That if only we could shed ourselves of all the rules and categories that constrain us, then we would be free to find that which is “really real.”
But William Wordsworth once wrote,
In truth the prison, unto which we doom ourselves, no prison is.”
A kid who is sent to his room feels trapped and imprisoned, but a teen who runs to there and locks the door has escaped to her safest, most treasured spot.
A teenager drafted to the army against his will is a world apart from the 18-year-old who has set his sights on an elite unit and readily commits the next three years of his life to following orders.
And the 18-year-old who experiences organized religion as a set of rules that her parents have forced upon her has little in common with the young adult who feels privileged to continue down a path that gives incredible structure and meaning to his life.
But meaning is not something that you can prove. It is something that you experience. Something that you are connected to. Something that envelops you and flows through you. It is something that you breathe and smell and taste and live.
Our Festival of Freedom is around the corner. We were liberated and set free from the slavery of Egypt only to become the servants of God a few weeks later.
We were given the freedom to be commanded. The freedom to choose the meaningful life we want to live.
We may not be able to prove the truth of the Exodus story. At the seder, we do not even try to.
For the seder night is all about experience. It is full of eating, smelling, and acting, and, ultimately, feeling as if we ourselves left Egypt.
It is not hard to understand why Pesach is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays, for experience is often what connects us more to meaning than does doctrine, philosophy or even revelation.
We may never cognize truth, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t experience it. When my son wanted to know if the world is real, my husband’s instinctual response was to pinch him and ask, “Does that feel real? Because if it does, then I think you are real.”
Through our experience of freedom, we come to commitment, and in commitment we find our fullest liberation, as well as the companionship of those who (like Wordsworth) would be
Pleased if some souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.”