[This discussion is the second of a three-part exploration of the human capacity for meaning-making. This article also continues a series I began in October, 2015. The series of articles as projected into the future will cover various themes that I explore with clients within the counseling framework I practice.]
It is not what we require of life that matters, but what life requires of us. – – Viktor Frankl
If you had to reflect for a while, and then try to put into words what it is that enables you to think of life as meaningful, what words would you find that would satisfactorily express your response? Last month I stated that I believe we are meaning-making creatures. Our minds are created in such a way that we seek to make meaning of our various experiences. Moreover, we prioritize and hold dear what we garner from life that is most meaningful for us. In this month’s blog, I want to add that I believe that much of our meaning on a deep level comes through the struggles we face, the difficulties we work thorough, and suffering that we might encounter. That is not to say that meaning cannot come through other measures; it can and does. In fact, I think meaning can come through the simple pleasures we experience day-to-day. Most importantly, that is not to say that we should hope for difficulties and struggles in our lives. That would be masochistic. For each of us, however, struggles of various kinds tend to be part of our lives. When they occur, the question becomes: What do we do with them?
The Hard Work of Meaning-Making
Using our mind, if we’re to do it properly, is hard work. I’ve seen it time and time again as a professor and a professional counselor, how difficult it is for people to explicate their core values and beliefs about life. In Christian settings as well, it is difficult for many to state how being a Christian informs all aspects of their lives. We tend to separate our spiritual beliefs from the rest of living, our education from any life goals we pursue, and our core values tend to be segmented into such categories as work, family, entertainment, and church.
We encounter the world in a multitude of ways and through a variety of experiences. By our very nature, we use our mind to evaluate our experiences, interpret them, and attribute meaning to them. Our understanding of life’s experiences happens on many levels. When asked about meaningful experiences, most people reflect on those that hold what they would consider deep meaning for them, those that lead to experiences of passion, fulfillment, and joy. Likewise individuals who work through experiences of struggles and pain point to such experiences as carrying profound lessons and meaning for them. Indeed, some would say that those events in life that entail facing and working through struggles and suffering of some kind can provide the most profound understanding of what life requires of us. Such experiences are ones that raise questions and doubts, and they strongly engage our beliefs and values by which we claim to live.
As I will address in next month’s blog, I don’t consider meaning-making to be simply about finding the one Big M, in terms of some abstraction. Because I strongly believe that life involves constant learning, I likewise believe that our meaning-making is a continuous life-long journey. And although some experiences are more profound for us than others, our making sense of life involves how we take in all the day-to-day experiences of living. Usually, making meaning of various experiences of our lives comes through some type of reflection. Reflecting back on experiences, both painful and joyful, can bring a sense of deeper understanding, as well as the reality that we may have to remain open for quite some time before understanding of some events in our lives comes. There may be experiences in our lives of which we will never make total sense.
Meaning-making comes through those times we put aside for prayer, contemplation, and reflection. It’s not, nor should not be, something we can do every minute of everyday. Such ruminating would lead to our being stuck in a mental quicksand. Some people, however, do not take the time to reflect on life in such a way. Meaning-making is hard. It can lead us to think about things we would rather not. Sizing up those areas in our lives that we feel good about, and those where we think we’re lacking can bring discomfort, a feeling of uneasiness. It’s difficult work at times to become clear, authentic, and truthful about our basic premises, core values, and whether or not we’re living in alignment with all we claim to believe.
Challenges in the Search for Meaning
As I’ve stated before in other articles from this blog, one person in the 20th Century who has contributed to my thoughts on meaning-making is Viktor Frankl. Frankl developed his thought on the importance of meaning-making via his experiences of interment in Nazi concentration camps. His ground-breaking work that explored his personal experiences, Man’s Search for Meaning, emphasizes that in their life journey, people can find meaning in even the most seemingly meaningless and absurd situations. Clients enter counseling many times facing what they feel as a meaningless and absurd existence. As a professional counselor who is a Christian, I do not hold that existence is meaningless and absurd. Yet I recognize that one’s experience of life as such is real to them. There are no platitudes or simplistic answers or formulas to easily and quickly resolve such struggles for clients. The complexities we face in life will assault our beliefs and core values. Life has a way of challenging us, raising doubts, leading us to re-evaluate things, and making us question what we claim to believe and know, if indeed we’re open for such challenges. I believe all people can deepen their understanding of their lives. I also think that such deepening most likely entails the necessity for courage and strength, that I personally believe is garnered through grace. But that’s a far cry from simplistic answers that negate the profound complexities we face in life.
What am I not saying? As touched on in the introduction, we need not go looking for problems, difficulties, and suffering so as to deepen our understanding of life. On various levels for all of us, those encounters tend to come on their own. No masochism here, please. Likewise, I’m not saying that profound meaning cannot occur in the most simplistic of experiences. Those pleasurable things that may occur for us in our day-to-day existence can bring some form of personal meaning. I remember the first time I drove alone from Texas to Durango, Colorado. Coming upon and driving through the Rockies was indeed a memorable and profound experience. Personally, I’m very aware that my life has, for the most part, been free of suffering. I’m blessed indeed. I would prefer to keep it that way, but I do not have that much control of life. And it’s a rather hubris-filled notion to believe that I should. Every time I read Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning, I always cannot help but question: Could I make it through such horrific events? Countless people throughout history, and individuals I know presently, have born witness as to how suffering deepens their understanding of life, and what is truly valuable and meaningful. All I can do is state the principle that I’ve heard time and again. I want to say I believe it, but for me, personally, I’m not sure what I would be made of in such contexts. And quite frankly, I don’t want to find out. Perhaps, and I think rightly, that is what grace is all about.
How we make meaning of our lives gets at our worldview, our take on existence, and our way of using our mind to make sense of and comprehend those experiences life brings our way. I will explore this avenue of thought more in-depth on next month’s blog.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/March 14, 2016
GENERAL ESSAY/PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING