The Meaning of Life – Part 3 (Adaptability)

What is adaptability and what does it mean for us today? Bishop David Evans explores how Jesus and Hans-Georg Gadamer show us that adaptability is the capacity to scrutinise the situation one is facing and to change oneself significantly in order to benefit from what it promises.

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What is the meaning of life? This question may become significant at any stage of life. It may be a fleeting feeling, or something more profound. The answer may seem obvious. The question may also seem perplexing, and prompt further reflection. This series is for all who are touched by the sense that life itself raises questions that need to be explored, for the sake of our own understanding of ourselves, of how we relate to other people, and how we may respond to God.

Bishop David Evans identifies six related topics that can begin to provide answers to this question. Our first resource is Scripture, the Word of God, which may be found to prompt and respond to many human questions. Modern Philosophy is another resource. This provides a rich array of how European thinkers have addressed the question of life’s meaning from the 17th to the beginning of the nineteenth century. There is no need to be put off by the word ‘philosophy’. According to the philosopher Pope St John Paul II, everyone has a philosophy of life. Reflecting with more systematic philosophers may help to broaden and deepen that personal philosophy.

The six themes

Identity – it’s not all about me but about us.
Generosity – giving and giving away.
Adaptability – being and becoming.
Empathy – are we each other’s keeper?
Paradox – managing without resolution. 
Community – building now and beyond.

How this series works

Each theme follows the same model of:

A themed reflection from the Bible and modern Philosophical thinking.
An image and reflection inspired by the main theme.
A question and action point to help with individual or group discussion.
A short prayer to end the session.
Suggested further reading for going deeper.

Part 3 – Adaptability – Being and Becoming

Call of the Sons of Zebedee by Marco Basaiti, 1510. Oil on panel. Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, 1900-2002, German Philosopher.

Scripture passage: Matthew 20:20-28

But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave.

Scripture passage: Matthew 27:55-56

Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

Words from St John the Baptist and thoughts from René Descartes have helped previous readers to reflect on the fact that life is not all about us even though each person is an individual. Jesus and Schopenhauer then led us to consider the reckless generosity that is demanded by Jesus of his disciples. The theme of this series is ‘the meaning of life’. Our lives are given meaning in the company of others and through our putting other people before ourselves. What is beginning to emerge is that giving meaning to our lives is something individuals do for themselves, which demands that they change. A further element of this enterprise is adaptability: the ability to scrutinise the situation one is facing and to change oneself significantly in order to benefit from what it promises.

The scripture passages from Matthew’s gospel offer vivid examples of this. The first is a conversation initiated by the mother of the sons of Zebedee. Once she has made her plea on behalf of her sons, she disappears from the conversation. Jesus then asks a question directly of James and John to which they reply promptly. They believe that they can drink the cup that Jesus tells them he must drink. Jesus tells them that that is what they will do; but his answer also suggests that they must start to do it immediately, because the positions that their mother has asked for in his kingdom are in his Father’s gift, not in his own.

Somehow, the other disciples got to hear of the brothers’ request and are angry. Jesus addresses them clearly, but without making it as plain to them as he had made it to their companions, that they too were going to have to drink his cup. All of the Twelve are confronted with what Jesus had already made plain to them three times – that he was going to Jerusalem in order to suffer, die and rise again on the third day, and that they were being invited to share the same journey. Accepting this was not just a matter of hearing the words Jesus had spoken to them, but of letting those words penetrate their being. And changing themselves so that they could courageously become what Jesus was asking of them: that is, people willing to sacrifice their hopes of earthly grandeur for the sake of the greater reward of being servants, not princes, in the kingdom of God. We get to hear later in the gospel of only one of the people involved in this conversation. The mother of the sons of Zebedee is among the women at the foot of the cross, drinking with Jesus the cup that he was drinking. These passages of Matthew’s gospel are a conversion story, not only of the ‘official’ disciples but also of the two brothers’ mother.

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1990-2002) was a German philosopher whose work is a systematic attempt to get to the root of what happens when one human being understands another. The technical term for this discipline is ‘hermeneutics’. This addresses the complexity of interpretation. Gadamer believed that understanding and interpretation are similar. Both require engagement with a text or person different from oneself. For this to succeed, the interpreter, or translator, must become aware of their own prejudices, the significant aspects of their personality and history that they bring to bear on understanding someone or something. Interpreters must also be willing to be changed by what they receive from the other. Or to adjust their horizons, that is the parameters within which they live, in order to grasp the subject matter of the conversation or text that they are attending to. As well as being interpretation, understanding is also conversion of a sort. This makes language a living reality, even if the text belongs to the past, or the conversation has finished. Gadamer would have appreciated the saying that ‘the word of God is living and active’ (Hebrews 4:12). He would also have seen the conversation between the mother of the sons of Zebedee, Jesus, James and John, and the other disciples as proof of this. The word of God that is life requires human adaptability. In fact, it enables that adaptability so that men and women may find meaning for their lives as servants in God’s kingdom.

Reflection on the image by Fleur Dorrell:

What do you see in this image? Here are two friends who are deaf and signing to each other over a coffee. If we don’t know sign language we don’t know what they are saying. Similarly, for deaf people, much spoken language makes no sense at all as they simply can’t hear it; and lip reading requires concentration as well as being able to see another person’s mouth. How often do we reflect on what it must be like to be deaf if we have always been able to hear? Are we sensitive to family members, friends or colleagues, who might have become deaf and for whom communication is a real challenge?

The art of conversation is much more than the words or signs that we use. It requires listening and adapting to another’s words, their emotions and perspective. It invites us to be open to change, open to mistakes, to being wrong. New interpretations and ideas can be exciting, but also terrifying, sometimes demanding shifts in thinking and doing which take time to accept. We have to ask ourselves whether our own thinking really is that water-tight. Can we learn from our networks near and far from home? With news on tap, fed to us every minute of the day and night, we might assume we understand what’s going on. Yet the internet and social media can distort our ability to discern truth from lies. So who do we trust? Who speaks to us with integrity in our own communities?

Our world has many barriers which we only see as barriers when something happens to our bodies or minds. Many people cannot navigate the basics of daily living as easily as others, but nor should they have to. A wheelchair user cannot use stairs, the blind have to walk without seeing, a person born with no arms cannot hold another. In each case, while adaptability is the key, our churches and infrastructures should be adapting too. It is not enough to assume that this world is made for one community but not for another. God made us all in his image and likeness, and although in Mark 7:31-37 we read that Jesus ‘even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak’ this is the exception not the rule. Most of the adaptations that Jesus speaks of in the gospels are interior. They are the conversions of our hearts and attitudes before the changes in how we should act.

Spiritual adaptability is very subtle, the fruits appear much later than the seeds we planted. Adaptability is as much about risk as it is about courage. To step out in faith and not much understanding requires humility. Whether we’re chatting with friends, or praying in Mass, negotiating a problem at home or struggling at work, our decisions and behaviours can be transformed by the wisdom and compassion of others. And when we serve another, enable them to become all that they can be, these are the moments of God’s grace. The kingdom of heaven begins with us, in the coffee shop, the school, and the boardroom. The Spirit speaks in the language of every cry and every plea. Words are not always necessary to understand God’s will.

Question and Action points:

Try to identify for yourself what Gadamer might designate as your prejudices. Those innate or acquired points of view, that might prevent you from being receptive to, and acting upon, these passages of Matthew’s gospel.

How might studying Gadamer’s thought help you to distinguish between “good news” and “fake news”?


Loving Father,
May thinking with Gadamer make your word a living reality for me –
giving meaning to my life and drawing me more deeply into your mind and heart.

Suggested further reading for going deeper:

Hebrews 4:12-13

Joseph Ratzinger Pope Benedict XVI ‘Jesus of Nazareth. Holy Week: From the Entrance to Jerusalem to the Resurrection.’ Chapter 8. CTS – Ignatius 2011.

Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (online) Hans Georg Gadamer

Jens Zimmermann, ‘Hermeneutics: A Very Short Introduction’, Oxford, 2015.