The Little Book on Meaning: Why We Crave It, How We Create It
by Laura Berman Fortgang

Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2009. ISBN 978-1-585-42715-4.
Reviewed by Deborah Robson
Posted on 04/14/2009

Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration

Laura Berman Fortgang wrote The Little Book on Meaning: Why We Crave It, How We Create It shortly after being ordained an interfaith minister. In it, she undertakes a quest for sources of individual meaning in the hurried, contemporary world. She writes, "Jewish boys don't ride motorcycles and Jewish girls don't become ministers... But my brother owns a Harley and I've become an interfaith minister. My Jewish father doesn't quite know what to make of it..." Fortgang herself didn't, for many years, quite know what to make of life itself. This book records her thoughts after exploring what it might mean to be human. Thanks to her training in interfaith ministry, she draws sustenance from the faith traditions of cultures around the world through time, from sources like A Course in Miracles and from understanding the value of gratitude.

In looking for meaning, she's looking for ways to "ease the pain," she says, to find an inner source of joy, especially in twenty-first-century North American culture, where humans often need help to do that—help that many people find outside traditional religions. Already a life coach before she completed her seminary course, Fortgang evidently wanted to go to deeper levels in her desire to help people succeed. She was, of course, also working to help herself.

Fortgang arranges this spiritual exploration of meaning into five sections: Mystery, Minister, Magnificence, Mind, and Mystic. Each begins with a brief thought or story to set the stage, a quotation, and a prayer addressed to a general higher power (referred to with a name like Energy of All Things or Great Mystery). The sections contain between two and four chapters. Each feels to me like a sermon on an aspect of the topic being considered. The tone walks an interesting line, sharing personal experiences of how each concept has played out in her own search for meaning while remaining a book about the general human condition. She mentions the challenges she has faced—giving up an early set of career dreams, depression including suicidal thoughts, anorexia and bulimia, parenting a child with significant health issues—in passing, almost as if they were credentials for speaking as she does (which, of course, they are).

Fortgang flat-out poses the question, "So what is this mysterious thing called Meaning?" She leaves the question hanging and circles it repeatedly, leaving the reader to gather thoughts toward a definition along the way: a sort of spiritual groundedness, a sense of connection, and a feeling of having a unique and solid place in the world. Near the end of the book (in the "Mystic" section), she comes closest to articulating a definition: "The emerging new spirituality is a desire to get rid of pretense and be real...Meaning...comes in the experience and the moment...Being full of love, peace, hope, compassion, patience, and appreciation for everything and connection to all things. These feelings make up meaning." While these statements feel like old news, in the preceding chapters Fortgang has earned the right to claim their rediscovery.

The reader also gradually collects a concept of the framework within which Fortgang is examining life. She believes in a higher power. She believes that humans have souls, and that each soul has an individual identity and dignity and, by implication, purpose. She believes that we have free will. She believes that many faith traditions have sustenance to offer.

I found the book intriguing, and also slightly frustrating. These are topics I care about a great deal and have for many years—and therein may lie my problem. The generalizations Fortgang offers rang true, although I found myself thinking, "Yes, but..." For example, she describes the goal of meditation (under "Mind") as a feeling of being mentally "blank": ("Yes, but...") At times, I also felt that Fortgang's realizations were colored by her own personality. For example, describing a stressful situation, she says, "I felt the normal, human pull to want to annihilate this person." My reaction in the same situation would have been different—perhaps because I was raised female in the Midwest, instead of Manhattan.

Overall, I see two great values to this work. One is for the individual seeker who finds that Fortgang's way of presenting the material is both comforting and challenging. Another is for small groups who may want to use it as source material for discussion about the deeper questions of life. I especially enjoyed the times when she drew together thoughts from disparate spiritual traditions. Whether readers agree with Fortgang's particulars or not—whether, as Quakers say, it speaks to the reader's condition—the book poses interesting questions and presents one human's path to some working answers.

I read this book in uncorrected page proofs. There were indications on the printout that additional clarification of some points would be taking place. Any writer who takes on matters of great complexity and scope with integrity deserves good, careful editorial reflection to help the final presentation be as precise as possible. I hope that occurred during the last stages of production for this title. What I saw in the rough pages was an honest, wide-ranging work that could be taken up a notch by fine editing.

Laura Berman Fortgang is a life coach and interfaith minister well known to popular media, including Oprah, morning television shows, USA Today, and Redbook. Married and the mother of three, she was a founding member of the International Coach Federation and recipient of its Master Certified Coach credential. Visit her website and the book's website.

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