Headline: 3000 people search for meaning, find it

I was lucky to attend the annual Search for Meaning Book Festival yesterday at Seattle University. I say “lucky,” because it was magical and amazing, but also because I very nearly didn’t go. Work has been stressful and hectic, leaving me totally wiped out. I’ve felt unable to accept invitations or plan activities more than 24 hours in advance, because I just don’t have the energy to think any farther ahead than tomorrow. But my dear friend (who is an excellent planner) acquired the tickets, planned the transportation, and all I had to do was show up at her door in Bellingham. It was a level of commitment I could manage.

Seattle University, a Jesuit school that emphasizes social justice and ethics, hosts this festival annually; over 3,o00 people attended this year, and no one paid a penny. Their reason for sponsoring such an impressive event is that “the search for wisdom should be free.”

Authors from many different walks of life donated their time to give seminars and workshops about their books, on topics ranging from career discernment, to the art of pondering, to entrepreneurship, to grief recovery; other sessions  approached God and Spirit from numerous different faith traditions. But everyone was tackling the big questions: questions about who we are, what makes us a “we” or a “them,” and how we all bring unique gifts to lighten a troubled world.

The festival resonated with my own search to understand the legacy that I’ll leave, sans children. Speakers at this festival have found their own answers to that question by writing novels, finding new climbing routes on Denali, or founding a nonprofit that provides microlending to individuals in the developing world. These speakers opened a window in me that has been closed for some years, and I found myself imagining a world without limits–a place I haven’t seen since my early 20’s.

One of my favorite sessions was titled Making Space in a Crowded World for Creativity and Contemplation, led by Holly Hughes, co-author of one of my favorite blogs The Pen and the Bell. Writers will find some very thoughtful writing prompts over there, and learn some techniques to quiet busy minds and create a space for our authentic voices to emerge.

But the highlight, which is still humming in me 24 hours later, was the keynote address by Reza Aslan, an Iranian-born immigrant. He gave a charismatic and inspiring presentation about what it means to be an American and the current tide of anti-Muslim sentiment. It broke my heart wide open. At the risk of oversimplifying a well researched and delivered speech, I think the heart of his message could be summarized as follows:

Bigotry cannot be dismissed as ignorance; rather, it’s an illness of the heart, which is based on fear…for this reason, bigotry cannot be solved by reason or facts. The only way to end hatred and bigotry is by getting to know people who are different than you. And we have a unique opportunity as Americans to meet people who are different than us every day. 

There’s a TED talk that hits some of the highlights of his address. Please, take 17 minutes out of your day and listen to what he has to say.

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