Last Spring I taught a seminar for the Institute of Citizenship and Social Responsibility at Western Kentucky University called, Living Lives that Matter. I was probably the least qualified person on campus to teach it. It’s not that I haven’t lived an interesting life (combine a fierce Peter Pan complex with an often unexamined allegiance to hedonism, then couple that with a rather poor attempt at Mennonite temperance and . . . well . . . I’m probably not as interesting as I would like to imagine), I just don’t think I’ve lived a life that, in the grand scheme of things, actually matters.
Maybe that’s okay. Maybe there is some sense by which Christian claims about time and resurrection liberate us from the notion that our lives have to matter–at least, matter in some way that we may name them as historically significant. You know, where do I rank in terms of how I did or did not change the world? improved this place? contributed to the common good? made a difference? am even remembered?
It can be a bit taxing to contemplate.
To be honest, it was a gift that the university asked me to teach it. I’m not sure why they wanted me to teach it, but I jumped at the opportunity and was fortunate enough to have a ridiculously group of bright students trying to work through questions such as, “Are some lives more significant than others?” “What makes a life meaningful?” “What does work have to do with what it means to be human?” “What is the difference between work and a vocation?” “Is the modern university an aid or a detriment to the search for meaning and significance?” “What does religion, love, death, work, politics, vocation, a calling, family, sex, and entertainment have to do with living a life that matters?”
As you can imagine, it was the kind of class that needed to be longer than one semester.
We spent the majority of our time reading everyone who has ever weighed in on the subject. We read: Homer, Aristotle, Jesus, Perpetua, Jane Addams Dorothy Day, Charles Taylor, William James, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Frost, Wendell Berry, Albert Schweitzer, Will Campbell, Iris Chang, Gandhi, Tolstoy, Dorothy Sayers, Aung San Suu Kyi, Margaret Piercy, Abraham Heschel, the Berrigan brothers, H.G. Wells, Annie Dillard, Martha Nussbaum, Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth, and the Book of Jonah. The main problem with the class was that all we did “do” was read. In retrospect, a little less reading and a little more doing would have been helpful. Ah well, hindsight and all that.
Of all the readings and people we examined, my students were most compelled by the lives and writings of Albert Schweitzer, Dorothy Day, Wendell Berry, and, due to my indoctrination, Steve Irwin (I included a short article I penned on Irwin’s life and death called, The Theological Significance of One Strange Australian and published in Third Way Allegiance–okay, unnecessary plug over). The primary reason that so many students gravitated toward these people may have been due, I believe, to the tangibility of their lives. What they did, what they contributed to the world, and how they lived (and how Berry continues to think and live) was so utterly concrete. Clearly, these are some serious thinkers (well, at least three of the four would be considered serious thinkers–no offense to Steve-O, but I don’t think he would claim that jumping on the back of a crocodile requires serious thinking–it could be just the opposite). Yet, their contemplation went beyond the cerebral; it attached itself to something very material. It could be touched and seen. It was visible. Whether it was the renaissance-type existence of a polymath like Schweitzer, the incredibly literal and profound manner by which Day resembled Jesus, the kind of life Berry teaches and embodies so that all of life can be healthier, or the insane passion that drove Irwin to fall madly in love with every creature he encountered while maintaining the idealistic (eschatological, perhaps?) hope that humans would come to see their non-human covenant partners as beautiful creatures worthy of protection. Though there was much my students disagreed with in the lives and writings of these individuals, they were all impressed by the fact that they at least lived lives worthy of discussion.
That, in and of itself, is something of an achievement.
Of course, I don’t think any of these people lived the way they lived just to provoke a discussion. They did it because of their convictions about the purpose of human existence. In this sense, the way they lived (and as Berry continues live) is their best argument for how they view the good that is creation. It also says something about what it means to live lives of meaning without having to slide into pure relativism. For their lives assume the kind of telos/purpose/end that directly says something about what it means to not only be human, but to be here as a gift. In a world where it is contingency all the way down, finding lives worthy of conversation remains, I think, a theological imperative.
And that’s what leads me to the now forgotten title/subject of this post: Jack Hanna.
Outside of Jane Goodall, Jack Hanna is one of the most recognizable, living proponents of animal conservation. I had the good fortune to meet him this past weekend at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, VA. Though he certainly was more interested in my fiancee’s work than mine (she’s doing a PhD in Ecological Science focusing on the bio-mechanics of squid and octopi–why must everyone be more interesting than me?), it was an honor to be around someone who has dedicated their entire life to the preservation of that which is almost wholly neglected.
Why the well-being of our fellow animals is such a consistently ignored topic, especially for a body of people so quick to deem creation good, is a mystery to me. Of course, there is plenty of talk about something vaguely referred to as “the environment.” I just can’t seem to figure out how it is the case that concerns over the environment rarely include a large part of what actually constitutes the environment: birds, reptiles, mammals, fish, invertebrates, and amphibians. Some of my best friends (this is starting to sound like a country song), popular theologians and savvy Christian ethicists alike, rarely, if ever, have wildlife conservation on their theological radar screens. Some of them are still trying to figure out if animals can think and feel. They can and they do.
(Descartes, you lose . . . again.)
Fortunately, we have the Hannas and Goodalls of this world to remind us that our theological radar screens tend to be a little bit too much about ourselves. We need some of their eccentric passion for all of creation. I have yet to meet a wildlife conservationist who was not totally enraptured in their calling. They love it, have a passion for it, and for some insane reason–despite species after species disappearing into extinction–continue to get by on hope. That may be just the kind of insanity crucial for any conversation revolving around living meaningful lives. And it also may be part of the reason why I started serving part-time in a Keeper Aide program at a zoological park (well, that and something to do with my preference for mandrills over undergrads).
The many convoluted issues revolving around the presence of zoological parks aside (to be further examined in an upcoming post), I am learning lots about various species’ social structures, mating habits, diets, and all the ethology a novice like myself can handle. An additional perk as I get to feed elephants, giraffes, bongos, ostriches, East Africa crowned cranes, gazelles and ground hornbills.
I also get to shovel their never-ending supply of poop.
I don’t know if this means I’m anywhere closer to living a life that matters. I don’t even know if it matters if I live a life that matters. But what I would like to think is that conversations about living lives that matter do matter, and I cannot help but think that in a culture that spiritualizes everything it may matter that we remind ourselves that matter does, indeed, matter.
Take it away giraffe.
About the Author
Tripp York teaches religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the author of more than half a dozen books including, Third Way Allegiance, The Purple Crown, and Living on Hope While Living in Babylon. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming three-volume collection called the Peaceable Kingdom Series. An actor and a lighting designer, Tripp also surfs and spends his weekends shoveling elephant and giraffe poop.