The Primary Question

In today’s reading, Howard Thurman takes on “the primary question,” which he identifies as: “Is this a world with moral meaning at the center.”  This is, he writes, a question that “must be answered before other questions can even be asked.”  That was enough to get my attention.

At the outset. Thurman recognizes the difficulty of the task ahead – this “primary question…can never be answered with proof and finality, but some answer must be given on the level of faith.”  Still, he notes, one cannot sidestep the question, for “to decide not to decide it to decide against.”  Adding to the challenges, one can “make this affirmation with gusto and enthusiasm without really meaning it” not because of insincerity but “simply because there is evidence on either side.  We see the sordid and tragic in life, we see the pain and suffering….  Then we see beauty, truth, love, and fulfillment.”  This debate churns with us.  As Thurman puts it, “the evidence is always straining within us.  In consequence we may decide intellectually in favor of meaning, only to find our subconscious casting a dissenting ballot.”

At this point, however, Thurman makes a significant pivot away from the intellectual and emotional battle inside us and places the issue firmly before us and the rest of the world:

“Therefore, the great labor of life, after we have made the initial life affirmation, is to validate the decision in practice.  After all, how can one believe that life has meaning if his own life does not have meaning.  No words, no matter how eloquently and enthusiastically uttered, can replace the expressiveness of action.  Indeed, words become true when they are lived, and they become untrue when the living of them is neglected.  We shall always be ambivalent and our ‘Yes’ will never have the total assent of our total wills.  Our great labor is simply to bring active affirmation as close as possible to the vocal affirmation.  All else is subsidiary.”

Two points.  First, I so love the “as close as possible” nod Thurman gives to recognize the difficulty of the task.  A full match up of words and deeds would be great, but just get “as close as possible.”  Whew!  Second, provides insight as to Matthew 5:37 – “Let your “yes” be “yes” — not just in word, but in deed also.

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