Rev. Benjamin A. Meyers
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
July 13, 1997

Between a rock and a soft place: Deep Blue, Sisyphus, and the meaning of it all.

There was a time when I aspired to be a chess player, and one summer, played all day, everyday with my older brother, Don, when I was nine or ten. Having not many resources but plenty of resourcefulness, we played on a "set" made of paper squares. We wrote the names of the pieces with our No. 2 pencils in large block letters. Bobby Fisher had filled us with aspirations of reaching great heights in the chess world - quickly. Alas, it was not to be.

My younger brother, Keith, watched us day after day, occasionally asking questions about the movement of the pieces. We usually answered - curtly. Afterall, he was just a dumb little kid and this was a complicated game. After barely beating my older brother in a best-of-twenty-one-series, 11 games to 10, I finally caved in to my little brother's increasingly insistent pleadings to be allowed to play "pleaseohpleaseohpleaseohpleaseohplease."

In order to keep Keith's interest, and not wear out my new prey too quickly, I decided I would let him win once in a while. And so I did - delighting him and surprising my older brother who, in classic big-brother fashion berated and ridiculed me - no end. Afraid that my little brother would get overly cocky and upset the new pecking order, after I - I WAS KING OF THE HILL, remember - I challenged him to one final game which I planned to win in as few moves as possible. However, a funny thing happened on the way to teaching humility.

I was the person who learned it, because despite my playing to win this time, he beat me - hands down! - promptly ending my fledgling chess career. Like chess, life is complicated and offers unexpected surprises.

And so it was for world chess champion Garry Kasparov, defeated by IBM's Deep Blue computer after just 19 moves in the sixth game of their second match, one of history's weirdest sporting events. "I proved to be vulnerable," he said after the match. (New York Times, 5/3/97)

Much is being made of the meaning in this event - but why? Are machines smarter than we are? Is this a revolution in consciousness, one of those historical watersheds in human evolution?

Unlikely. After all, chess is just something we made up - a complicated game - and Deep Blue is another.

There is a cartoon of recent vintage which depicts the limitations of our machines: A robot lies prone on the floor, inoperative, but in the futile posture of reaching to plug itself into a wall socket. Our machines are only as powerful as we, their creators, want them to be.

They are, to be sure, incredible inventions, (besides the fact they keep many gainfully employed, to boot.) But, they are not human beings. And, as far as we know, we are the most awesome and amazing biological machines this earthly evolution has yet created - as far as we're concerned!

The question is, do we define people in a functional, or in a sacred way Would we risk our lives to save Deep Blue? I hope not. Why? Because Deep Blue is a machine which functions, not a creature who is. And while there are many differences between us and Deep Blue - for me the most distinctive is that human beings deal with meaning. We are the meaning seekers and the meaning makers.

Those thoughts must have been in the mind of the late poet-scientist Loren Eisley when he wrote his essay on "The Bird and the Machine:" "The machine does not bleed, hunger, ache, hang for hours in the empty sky in a torment of hope to learn the fate of another machine, nor does it cry out for joy, nor dance in the air with the fierce passion of a bird." (Loren Eisley, The Bird and the Machine)

I would go farther than Eisley. Even beyond the seemingly human emotions of Eisley's birds, there is the human will to create meaning. We insist on pondering what life is about. Why are we here? What is the meaning of it all? These questions are at the heart of most of the spiritual inquiry and counseling I do. These questions nag at me insistently as well - especially when faced with pain and suffering. "Is there a meaning to life? or not? I vacillate in my long, lonely nights of the soul between the two and, unless I provide at least provisional answers, life seems hardly worth the effort.

There are, I think, three kinds of meaning in my life:

There is the immediate, delightful experience that is a uniquely human good in-and-of-itself, the so-called peak experience;

There is the purposiveness of enduring suffering with grace and courage, the "valley" experience.

And there is investing oneself in a cause that transcends the self, which could be called "the plateau experience." Or, as my colleague, Richard Gilbert has put it so succinctly and well: "The meaning of life is to savor, to suffer, and to save." ("Chess and the Game of Life," 5/25/97)


There are experiences that have intrinsic value - that are good in and of themselves. You know, the "it doesn't get any better than this" kind of events. They do not necessarily produce anything other than the experience - nor do they need to.

These peak experiences are enough to become meaningful to us. We call them peak experiences although the analogy of mountain climbing is strictly coincidental. But, speaking of mountain climbing as a peak experience.....

Listen to the words of mountain climber Maurice Herzog, after he scaled Mount Annapurna. In this journal entry he captures the exhilaration of the moment of reaching the summit.

He wrote: "We dragged ourselves up. Could we possibly be there? Yes! A fierce and savage wind tore at us. We were on top of Annapurna...26,493 feet. Our hearts overflowed with an unspeakable happiness. I was stirred to the depths of my being. That brown rock, the highest of them all, that ridge of ice, were these the goals of a lifetime? Or were they rather the limits of human pride and hubris?....[We came down and] we turn the page: A new life begins." He concludes, " There are other Annapurnas to be found in the lives of people." (Maurice Herzog, Indictments and Invitations)

In a less strenuous example, take this fictional but accurate excerpt from Jane Wagner's, The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe:

"On the way, we stopped to look at the stars. And, as usual, I felt in awe of them. And then I felt even deeper in awe at this capacity we have to be in awe about something. Then I became even more awestruck at the thought that I was, in some small way, a part of that which I was in awe of. And this feeling went on and on and on....[There is] a phrase for this: "awe infinitum." Because at the point you can comprehend how incomprehensible it all is, you're about as smart as you need to be.....I felt so good inside and my heart felt so full, I decided I would set time aside each day to do awe-robics. Because at the moment you are most in awe of all there is about life that you DON'T understand, you are closer to understanding it all than at any other time."

All of us, I think, have those peak experiences - large and small - moments of meaning which need nothing else - which simply make life worth the living in the present. The birthing of a new baby, a time of sexual intimacy, reading or writing a great book, being moved to near ecstasy by a piece of music, a sunset, a mountaintop vista, or a rare meteor streaking across the night sky or some other close encounter with nature - all are familiar examples of peak experiences.

We tend to know when we have them. Life, infused with them, becomes its own reason for being. Furthermore, these experiences can never be lost - can never be taken from us - a reality I try to point out during the sadness of a memorial service.

While in the present we are bereft, and though the future will be different, we have the treasures of the past in our hearts - they can never be taken away. Savoring those peaks of human experience permeates life with precious meaning.

However, every peak has a valley. It is in the nature of things that human beings suffer - we experience pain - physical and mental, emotional and spiritual. That much is given. The author of the 23rd Psalm wisely wrote of the "valley of the shadow of death."

The 19th century Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, referring to God and the feelings of life's meaningless during a deep depression, wrote that life is "not worth the tears of one child. Therefore, I respectfully hand God back my ticket." He aptly sums up the way we FEEL when in the grip of pain and loss and powerlessness. We feel we have hit rock bottom with no way out. There are days we do not feel it worth getting out of bed in the morning.

To live is to suffer - there's no getting around it. The only issue is how....How shall we meet our suffering? Pain is so difficult to deal with because we believe it to be senseless. Can we infuse it with meaning? I believe we can - and must.

If we have a "why and wherefore" we can endure almost any "how." Which, again, is why reading the Psalms have been such a comfort to people during times of suffering throughout the centuries. They offer a simple formula that gives both validation and solace.

If you were to read a Psalm, most likely you would find that it begins by stating the problem, often in graphic or poetic detail: It says just how unbearably bad life is. And then, somehow, through the power of airing the grief - in the act of naming the depths of the despair - something happens. And in the psalmist and the Psalm, something shifts, and the poem ends with words of praise and great rejoicing for life.

Strange as it may seem, suffering is a rich source of life meaning. It can bring meaning into our lives because it drives the petty and inconsequential from the experience. It pushes us until our backs are against the wall, and demands of us an affirmation of our value of life. It enables us to look deep within ourselves to see the stuff of which we are made. It brings us to develop that inner integrity which says to us that we have been worthy of our suffering. We learn to live with our pain and transcend it with tender meaning.

The Viennese psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, articulated this resilient source of life meaning when he described his experience in a Nazi death camp. Could there be meaning without survival? Was there any point in facing his fate with courage and dignity? Why go on when the future was at best uncertain and no one would know how he acted?

Frankl determined that others might not know of his courage, but he would know, and that would be sufficient. He could retain his humanity until his last breath. Everything could be taken from him but one thing - the choice of how to respond to his suffering.

The Unitarian theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, once described an elderly aunt with an inoperable cancer, but also with an incurable sense of humor. She wrote her nephew that people came from all over Indiana to comfort her in her last days. "But several times," she wrote, "the room was filled with mournful and weeping people whom I had to cheer up!"

Katherine Mansfield, in a contemporary psalm, states the issue poetically: "Life is mystery. The fearful pain will fade. I must turn to work. I must put my agony into something, change it. Sorrow shall be changed into joy. It is to lose oneself more utterly, to love more deeply, to feel oneself a part of life, not separate. O life! Accept me - make me worthy - teach me."


The topographical metaphors of mountain and valley experiences lead inevitably to a third - the plateau. Plateau experiences seldom have the drama, the agony or ecstasy of valley and mountain experiences, but they represent much of our lives. Plateaus are where we walk in the day to day of our living, where we spend most of our time and energy. As such, they, too, challenge us at times to question the purpose and meaning of life. On a perfectly normal day we may suddenly find ourselves in a rut of routine, pondering to ourselves: "Is this all there is to life?"

And so, my third source of life meaning is my need to invest myself in something that lies beyond me.

That 'something beyond' may be involvement in the cause of justice; it may be creating something of beauty - a poem, a song, a picture; It may be the satisfaction of raising a child with tenderness and care or sharing your time and your life with an elderly person or parent, or spending years with a faithful companion. Through the persistent efforts we create satisfaction and meaning in our lives: We discover and create "ordinary miracles."

Here is meaning through action - creation - the simple act of building a life within one's limited influence. In the words of poet Antoine St. Exupery, "It is to feel, when setting one's stone, that one is contributing to the building of the world."

But is this meaning enough to assuage the existential anxiety we sometimes bring to question amid our daily routine?

The best example of this quandary is the figure of Sisyphus, from Greek mythology, but seen through the lens of the great 20th century philosopher, Albert Camus.

Sisyphus, you may recall, was condemned for his audacity and insolence by the gods to a seemingly futile labor. He was sentenced for eternity to roll a heavy boulder up to the crest of a mountain from which it would, of its own weight, crash back down to the bottom whenever Sisyphus paused to rest. Does this scenario seem familiar? Can you relate to this condition?

What interests Camus about this myth is that moment when Sisyphus, having reached the summit, watches the boulder as it rolls back down the mountainside and then trails downward himself to take up again his eternal labor. During this necessary pause, this respite, this vacation from the usual - which comes as regularly as his labor - Camus understands that Sisyphus sees clearly the limits and the boundaries of his existence. And therein lies his real strength. He entertains no false hope of any great, or ultimate success and, according to Camus, "He stands facing a universe which no longer deceives him."

Camus concludes: "[We] leave Sisyphus at the bottom of the mountain. His burden is always there. But Sisyphus teaches the higher loyalty which denies the gods and moves boulders. The struggle itself toward the summit is enough to fill the heart of this [human creature]. We must imagine Sisyphus as happy."

I'm with Camus. Unless I find purpose in what I do, I find my spiritual energies depleted. Unless I participate in the fullness of life whole-heartedly in some fashion, it is just "busy work". Unless I understand my meager attempts to save the world from injustice against a larger canopy of humanity and history, I simply do not have the zest to keep on doing what I try to do in the world.

Like Sisyphus, we all need regular respites. Moments to stop and look up at the sky and the stars, or to notice the wonder of grasshoppers. At regular intervals we need time to regain perspective - and then - once more, to resume the work and enjoyment of a meaningful life.

I know that unless I commit myself to causes that transcend me, unless I invest myself in that which is greater than I am, unless I join with a diverse throng of people in the struggle to build a Beloved Community, I will play false to myself and will miss the meaning of my role on the earth.

And I do believe, that despite defeat and disillusionment, that in 'setting my stone' I am helping to build the world. I am a happy Sisyphus. Deep Blue experiences nothing of this: It could no doubt beat me in the minimum number of moves, but there is no meaning in it.

And so I conclude that if I am to survive spiritually, be fully human, I must act as if my life had meaning, even if I could find none in the universe. The will to create meaning is a sign of health. We assign meanings to experience. What you do counts. We may not discover ultimate meaning, but we do create enough to make a difference in THIS life. To savor, to suffer, to save. This is what its all about.

I leave you with a story about computer mogul Bill Gates and his view of the game of life. Evidently his wife, Melinda, "is Catholic, goes to church, and wants to raise their daughter, Jennifer, that way. But," he says, "She offered me a deal - If I start going to church (and my family was Congregationalist) - then Jennifer could be raised in whatever religion I choose." Gates admits that he IS tempted, because he would prefer she have a religion that "has less [or at least different] theology and all [that stuff ] than Catholicism."

But, as yet he has not taken up her offer. "Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient," he explains. "There's a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning."(Time, magazine, 1/3/97, via Martin Marty's Context newsletter, 5/1/97)

To be sure, religion is NOT very efficient. But being efficient is NOT the purpose of life.

The meaning of it all is to discover in the end, and along the way, that it is infused with meanings - great and small. The question with which we began today's worship begs for our response. "What IS it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" (Mary Oliver's poem, "The Summer Day", from New and Selected Poems, 1992)

Deep Blue cannot answer such a question. You can. But, will you? Will you? Let me know.....

May it be so. Amen.

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