“In the 21st century, knowing all the answers won’t distinguish someone’s intelligence, rather the ability to ask all the right questions will be the mark of true genius.” ~ John E. Kelly, IBM
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be marooned on a remote tropical island? While the image of palm trees gently swaying in a warm ocean breeze might appear romantically quixotic, the globe’s current experience of social distancing has shown that such a respite would swiftly become monotonous, tedious, and wearisome. Gilligan’s Island, a 1960’s American sitcom that aired for three seasons (1964–67) on CBS, provides a framework for using our current coronavirus confinement to embark on an important island-like interrogatory quest. It is an opportunity to honestly reflect on a critical issue, namely, our life’s most central desire.
Gilligan’s Island tracked the comic adventures of a bumbling first-mate named Gilligan and six other hapless castaways trapped on a small Pacific island after their intended 3-hour pleasure cruise ended in shipwreck. Due to its syndicated popularity, the show’s title character is widely recognized as an American cultural icon. Apart from the Minnow’s skipper, a wealthy investor and his socialite wife, an aspiring actress, and modest farmgirl, the list of Gilligan’s fellow castaways includes an erudite professor proficient in science, law, and literature.
In most episodes, the solution to a particular problem was miraculously produced by the professor from a library of textbooks, newspapers, horoscopes, and magazines. Media doyens have long associated this curious collection with each of the castaway’s inner-most desires that correspond to the “Seven Deadly Sins,” a classification that originated with the early Christian Desert Fathers. In his book, Gilligan’s Island Bible Study (2007) Stephen Skelton suggests the following correspondence: (1) Gluttony – the Skipper (2) Greed – Mr. Howell, (3) Lust – Ginger, (4) Anger – Mrs. Howell, (5), Envy – Mary Ann, (6) Pride – the Professor, and (7) Sloth – Gilligan. Skelton’s thesis argues that, in order to escape their captivity, the castaways must respectively learn how to overcome their destructive aspirations. In order to do so, however, each must first identify their innermost desire.
It is significant that the first words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Saint John concerns the issue of desire. “What are you looking for?” he asks. While the 4th Gospel introduces Jesus as “The Word,” this Word does not actually utter a word until 38 verses later. As such, Jesus’ interrogatory should not be understood as trying to help two of His future disciples “find something.” On the contrary, the Word’s question invites them to articulate their soul’s deepest desire. “What are you searching for?” He asks. “What is the central quest of your life?”
The Gospel of Mark inaugurates the ministry of Jesus with healing (1:33). Baptism, on the other hand, introduces His Voice in Matthew (3:15). Only the Gospels of Luke (2:49) and John (1:38) present Jesus with an interrogatory concerning desire (search). The question may very well be one of the most important queries in Holy Scripture as its answer discloses a variety of individual quests. While crowds seek a king, nations pursue victory. Whereas the hungry yearn for the bread of wisdom, religious authorities seek to silence the Truth. One group seeks life, the other, death. Fortunately, the former disciples of the Baptist indicate that they seek something different. They want to be (abide) with Jesus (John 1:39).
“Jesus asked his question,” wrote the 4th Century Bishop Theodore of Mopsuestia, “in order to give the disciples an occasion to trust him.” Fortunately, the Baptist’s matriculating mentees knew exactly what they were looking for. They were not craving power, prestige, or profit. Their life’s quest was not seeking a “magical formula,” “religious trophy,” or “holy site.” What they desired was an intimate relationship with a “Person.” They responded therefore by first addressing Jesus as “Rabbi” (Teacher), and then by inquiring where he was living. “Rabbi,” they ask, “where are you staying?” (John 1:38). It is here important to note, however, that English translations of the Greek verb (meneis) used to denote “staying” obscures the significance of their request. A word that appears over 40 times in the Gospel of Saint John, “meneis” more accurately indicates the desire to “abide” rather than merely “reside.”
This is a quest worthy of reflective effort as its resolution will greatly influence the direction of our home-bound disembarkation. Apart from using our Coronavirus isolations as opportunities to view online self-help programs, workout routines, and/or catch up on popular Netflix episodes, we would be well-served to also devote our respective island-like quarantines to honestly examine our life’s inner-most desire. Indeed, what are WE looking for? What will satisfy our deepest need? What do we believe will bring us the greatest joy? Interestingly enough, this is the same question posed to the protagonist Neo by the character Trinity in the 1999 award-winning film The Matrix. “It is the question that drives us,” Trinity insists! “The answer is out there, Neo. It’s looking for you . . . and it will find you . . . if you want it to.”
Unfortunately, research indicates that Americans are not interested in “this” question. Nor are they willing to be pursued by its Answer. For example, while the Barna Group reports that 75% of adults confess that “knowing who they are” and “what they were created for” is their number one desire, only 17% of young adults specify a similar perspective. In fact, 83% of young adults proudly acknowledge that they are more interested in “obtaining a comfortable lifestyle” than identifying their “primary life desire.” More troubling, less than 39% of teens specify the “desire to have a close relationship with God” as important.
Perry Glanzer, Jonathan Hill, and Byron R. Johnson have studied young adult students and how/if their undergraduate education has helped them find meaning and purpose. In their book, The Quest for Purpose: The Collegiate Search for a Meaningful Life (2017), the authors conclude that, while many students have distinct sources of meaning, they struggle to find purpose. The student samples identify ten common sources of meaning under three types: (1) Self-Achievers, (2) Relationalists, and (3) Transcendents. Whereas the life quest of Self-Achievers is focused on “accomplishment in general,” Relationalists are interested in “relationships with and service to family, friends and others.” Fortunately, while small in number, Glanzer, Hill, and Johnson distinguish a third type of student sample, namely, Transcendents whose life quest is primarily focused on “God/religion and changing the world for the good.”
From what has been documented, it should come as no surprise that a central “life desire” of Americans of all ages does not include “abiding with God.” In fact, a Huffington Post article entitled, “The Top Ten Things People Want in Life but Can’t Seem to Get” (2017), by Kathy Caprino, outlines the ten most popular contemporary desires in order of importance as: (1) Happiness, (2) Money, (3) Freedom, (4) Peace, (5) Joy, (6) Balance, (7) Fulfillment, (8) Confidence, (9) Stability, and (10) Passion.
The topic of desire has long been the subject of investigation. In his book On Desire: Why We Want What We Want (2006), for example, William Irvine examines a wide range of impulses, wants and needs discussing where these feelings come from and how they can be controlled. Irvine uses the teachings of various religions, philosophies, and modern science to discuss the evolution of the topic. Remarkably, the author concludes that the best way to attain a meaningful and happy life “is to control one’s passions.”
Like Irvine, John Eldredge invites readers to acknowledge the significance of desire and embark on an adventure he calls “our heart’s most important journey.” In his book, Desire: The Journey We Must Take to Find the Life God Offers (2007), Eldredge concludes that, while “we all share the same dilemma . . . , we’re not sure where to find it. The greatest human tragedy, he laments, “is to give up the search.”
Rick Warren is the author of what might be the most widely read contemporary examination of the subject of desire. In his best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life (2012), Warren provides a “roadmap for a spiritual journey that will transform an individual’s life.” The author outlines five “God-given” purposes of life: (1) God’s pleasure, (2) God’s fellowship, (3) discipleship, (4) servanthood, and (5) evangelism. By answering the following three questions, Warren insists, individuals will be able to transition from a life of survival to one of success and then significance:
- The Question of Existence: Why am I alive?
- The Question of Significance: Does my life matter?
- The Question of Purpose: What on earth am I here for?
In The Quest: Christ Amidst the Quest (2012), Lyman C.D. Kulathungam explores Christ’s relevance to the understanding of quest expressed by eight major religions. “The human spirit seems incapable of being stagnant,” he insists. Like Warren, Kulathungam suggests, that humans try to understand life “through questions regarding their own existence, the nature of the universe, and the nature of God. The question of our collective heart,” the author contends, “is the external manifestation of an internal longing – a quest.”
Unlike Warren and Kulathungam, the self-described Christian apologist, Os Guinness addresses the “specific calling” that each individual must come to discern. In his book, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling God’s Purpose For Your Life (2003; 2018) Guinness challenges readers to consider a higher view of their occupational desires as “callings, given meaning by a creator who wants us to interact with him in the midst of what he made us for.” In order to do so, however, like Warren he poses a number of important questions:
- Why am I here?
- What is God’s call in my life?
- How do I fit God’s call with my own individuality?
- How should God’s calling affect my career, my plans for the future, my concepts of success?
In his volume, Quest for Meaning: Theories, Research, and Applications (2012) editor Paul T. P. Wong introduces his compilation of essays by saying that the identification of one’s life purpose “is probably the most important question ever asked . . . because it is vitally related to human survival and flourishing.” Like Warren, Wong insistS, that the quest for meaning “is a highly complex question, with no simple answers . . . touching all aspects of humanity – biological, psychological, social, and spiritual.”
Wong recommends the use of what he calls the P.U.R.E. Model of four ingredients of desire: (1) Purpose, (2) Understanding, (3) Responsible Action, and (4) Enjoyment or Evaluation. According to the editor, Purpose includes “life’s goals, directions, incentive objects, values, aspirations, and objectives.” Alternatively, Understanding encompasses “cognitive activities, a sense of coherence, making sense of situations, understanding one’s own identity and other people, and effectively communicating and building relationships.” While Responsible action denotes “appropriate reactions and actions, doing what is morally right, finding the right solutions, and making amends,” Evaluation includes “assessing the degree of satisfaction or dissatisfaction in a given situation or in life as a whole.”
Apart from outlining the PURE Model, Wong distinguishes two important mindsets of desire: (1) happiness, and (2) meaning. These “frames of reference or prisms” determine how an individual will answer life’s most important question. “Those people who believe that the good life is to eat, drink, and be merry will spend their lives on the hedonic treadmill.” On the other hand, “those who believe that the purpose of life is to serve God,” suggests Wong, “will devote their lives to fulfilling God’s calling.” According to Wong, because the Meaning-Mindset is built on the PURE principle, “it provides an enduring passion for living that comes from commitment to a higher purpose.”
Long before today’s fascination with meaning, purpose, and life-quests, faith-based writers and institutions had much to say about the topic of desire. Created in the image and likeness of God, but shipwrecked and marooned by sin, humanity, they insisted, “longs” to be rescued by the truth of their existence. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this Truth can only be disclosed by a God who “calls man to seek Him, to know Him, and to love Him with all His strength.” Becoming a disciple, consequently means becoming a “seeker,” a “desirer,” who is willing “to accept the invitation to belong to God’s family and to live in conformity with His way of life.” In order to do so, however, we must honestly seek to answer the question that Jesus eternally asks: “what are we looking for?”
In his examination of Jesus’ initial question to John the Baptist’s disciples (John 1:38), Saint John Chrysostom, the 4th Century Patriarch of Constantinople, suggests that Jesus asked His question “not that He may be informed . . . but that by the question He may calm their (disciples) minds, disturbed by anxiety, and to give them confidence.” Chrysostom then interprets the insight of the responders in the following way. “Observe their wisdom,” he says. “They did not say, ‘teach us Your doctrines,’ or ‘Where dwellest Thou?’ They wished to abide with and in quiet hear and learn from Him.”
For Chrysostom, the lesson of Jesus’ interrogatory is clear – illumination. “Let us then also learn,” he exhorts, “to consider all things secondary to the hearing of the word of God and to deem no season unseasonable to neglect this traffic. Let food and baths and dinners and the other things of this life have their appointed time; but let the teaching of heavenly philosophy have no separate time, let every season belong to it.”
In his Lecture on the Gospel of John, Augustine of Hippo examines the very time of day that Jesus queries the disciples. “The tenth hour,” he says, “signifies the Law of Moses, because the Law was given in ten commandments. But the time had come for the law to be fulfilled by love. Suitably, then, at the tenth hour did these two follow Him, the Giver and Master of the Law who teaches it.” Augustine concludes his exegesis with insightful questions of his own. “Did we first seek Christ, and not He seek us? Did we come sick to the Physician, and not the Physician to the sick? Was not that sheep lost, and did not the shepherd, leaving the ninety-nine in the wilderness, seek and find it?” In the final analysis, humanity seeks God, insists Augustine, because we have been first found by Him.”
Like Chrysostom and Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, the 5th Century Patriarch of Alexandria, values the quest of pursuing the proper desire. “I deem that we ought to seek after what is profitable,” he counsels. “Jesus asks what we seek, so as to make the question a beginning and root of discourse with Him. Then having become His guests through faith into His Holy House (Church),” Augustine exhorts, “we may learn not to desire to be again estranged, either turning aside into sin, or again returning to unbelief.”
During one touching episode of Gilligan’s Island, due to hurt feelings, the young bumbling first-mate decides to move to the other side of the island. Living alone in a cave, however, makes Gilligan fearful, lonely, and miserable. What he does not realize is that his self imposed social distancing has made everyone else on the island just as unhappy. They miss his jokes, laughter, and his gentleness. They even miss his clumsy mistakes. As a result, beginning with the Skipper, each fellow castaway leaves and travels to the other side of the island. The episode emotionally ends with the image of all seven castaways huddled together in Gilligan’s cave.
If we are honest, we too are castaways, marooned on the island of social isolation. Like Gilligan’s companions, we too yearn for the warm embrace of camaraderie, community, and family. Fortunately, our isolation occurs during Passover and Holy Week when God’s interrogatory concerning the primary aspiration of our life’s quest intensifies. Through the virtual liturgical participation of prayer, fasting, and reflection we may actually come to more fully discern the purpose of our respective lives. Perhaps, like the castaways on Gilligan’s island, we may learn that true contentment will only occur when deleterious archipelagos (desires) are identified, and with God’s help overcome (passed-over).
As the word “question” has the word “quest” in it, Jesus continues to invite seekers to join Him on a journey toward discovery. Many are looking for healing, others for friendship and community. Some are in need of purpose, meaning, and, above all . . . the Answer. In the end, only by realizing that “we are all in it together” can we as 21st Century castaways successfully arrive at the end of our respective Corona-Quest of self-discovery healthier and happier than when we first began.