Finding meaning in life’s unexpected moments

By Colby Phillips, Chaplain

This past week, I picked up a book by the philosopher and psychologist William James called “On Some of Life’s Ideals.” It’s about how life’s richest and most meaningful experiences often come from a place deep in the heart which may be overlooked or misunderstood by others who do not have the key. It takes a poet, William James says, to express these truths in way that makes them able to be broadly understood. The arts can be a bridge between the truths in our hearts and the outside world, forming communities out of what might otherwise remain known only to us. Religious and spiritual traditions can also help us to put this knowledge into words and actions.

James quotes a story from Robert Louis Stevenson about a craze in Stevenson’s youth for a certain type of lamp, which boys would hide under their jackets while walking around at night. When one lamp carrier would see another, the lamp was the signal to gather in groups to tell whatever childish stories were on their minds that night. Stevenson said that the whole ritual would have been totally inscrutable to anyone not in the know — and sees an analogy to our own lives. We carry around our own secret light glowing just beneath our skin, and often struggle to communicate what is so unique and precious, though we know it through intuition to be true.

The truth is that the most meaningful parts of our lives often come as a surprise, even to ourselves. We are, in the words of C.S. Lewis, surprised by joy. To explain it, we would need to become poets ourselves. It’s these small, unobserved moments that most often allow us a glimpse into eternity. It’s the sound of summer rain falling softly on the garden, the way the light glances off the side of the mountain and into the valley below, a long-forgotten memory that comes to us from out of nowhere, that leads to reconnecting with an old friend.

Such moments are not just private affairs — rather, they make us believe that this joy is part of our patrimony as beings, which we share, perhaps, with everything there is, in the greatest possible community, the world. To see it this way is to realize that all of life lies within this realm — inexplicable, imperfect, unplanned, artless, beloved — and that most of life is just finding the strength to be grateful for any and all of it.