the Rev. Fredric John Muir
October 26, 1997
Some years ago, I shared a story about ikigai. I didn’t realize at the time that this is what it was about, but many of you did. There were several strong reactions to it, as one might expect - it’s a rather provocative story. This is how it goes:
A woman in a coma was dying. She suddenly had a feeling that she was taken up to heaven and stood before the Judgment Seat.
"Who are you?" a Voice said to her.
"I’m the wife of the mayor," she replied."I did not ask whose wife you are but who you are.""I’m the mother of four children.""I did not ask whose mother you are, but who you are.""I’m a school teacher.""I did not ask what your profession is but who you are."
And so it went. No matter what she replied, she did not seem to give a satisfactory answer to the question, "Who are you?"
"I’m a Christian.""I did not ask what your religion is but who you are.""I’m the one who went to church every day and always helped the poor and needy.""I did not ask what you did but who you are."
She evidently failed the examination, for she was sent back to earth. When she recovered from her illness, she was determined to find out who she was. And that made all the difference.
The Voice is asking the woman to name her ikigai but when she does, the Voice replies that that’s not the meaning of her life - ikigai - tell me again, what is it that defines who you are, that gives your life meaning, that makes your life worth living. Similar to the story, Mathews concludes: "One who lives for work will soon enough retire, or get laid off; one’s lover may leave; children will grow up and be gone; one’s dreams may fade; God may disappear. One will eventually die, and what will it all mean then?" (6)
So what is it that makes life worth living? What is your ikigai? Is it work? Lover? Family? God? Friends? Is it an avocation? I’ll guess that many of you will answer "Yes," yes to some, many, all or more of these. And that’s not a cheap answer, it’s not dodging the question. Our lives are very full, for many there are multiple sources of meaning, value and fulfillment - and those change too. And when it comes to religious faith, isn’t Unitarian Universalism the embodiment of just this philosophy - the recognition and acceptance that there is not a single religious Truth, but Truths.
Of much greater value for me than naming a single something that defines life value and meaning - my ikigai - of more importance for me is nurturing and sustaining an attitude and faith that embraces the promise of living everyday, that takes delight in the ongoingness of living, seeking its interdependencies, similar to what both Buckminister Fuller and his relative Margaret Fuller were doing. A transcendentalist Unitarian and close friend to Emerson, Margaret, like Buckminister, didn’t live for a meaning to life, but for meanings to life.