[This discussion is the third 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.]
– – Commit all your work to the Lord, and he will establish your plans. (Proverbs 16:3)
I believe that one of the major struggles for our lives entails our finding meaning and purpose in our day-to-day living. People might experience the Proverb that I quoted to introduce this discussion on meaning making in a variety of ways. Some people might wonder why plan at all. Other people might ask: What is my part in the struggle of living? Although I believe the Proverb allows for rest, it does not provide an excuse for irresponsibility, lack of planning, or slothfulness of any kind. There’s a commitment to what one believes, and in the case of the Proverb, in whom one believes, and then there follows the day-to-day planning out of how one lives. There’s an ultimate promise, but there is nothing included in that promise that offers a guarantee that one’s day-to-day journey will be smooth sailing. The working out of life involves our daily grind of carrying out our plans, while being committed to our values, and facing the experiences that life throws at us. I firmly believe that it is through these hour-by-hour, day-by-day, and year-to-year experiences that we come to understand how we make meaning of our existence. Our mind is a wonderful tool to help us reflect upon, embrace, and make sense of our experiences. Yet we can use our mind to do something else that can take us off track of our journey. We can easily get lost in the search for abstractions, what I call in the quest for meaning, the search for the Big M.
The Big M
Have you ever been There? You know, that place everyone is trying to reach. I’m not sure where There is, but it has some seemingly common characteristics. It’s a place where I no longer have to strive, work, or struggle. It’s a place where everything will be answered, and I’ll have no more questions. It’s a place where I no longer have to fear anything at all or be concerned about the vicissitudes of life. I will have arrived. I’ll be There. As a Christian although I believe in a place of faith and rest, I do not believe that any such place as There exists for our human experience – not on this side of life anyway. Nor do I believe that we are promised such a life. On the contrary, I believe that meaning, rather than being some ultimate discovery that resolves every question about life, can be achieved through our daily tasks of living. I can find meaning in the moment – just living, breathing, seeing the beauty of nature, enjoying the day, relaxing in the moment, and reflecting on simply being alive. But more importantly, I can find meaning in the way I face my daily grind of living and seek to make sense of the experiences that life brings my way, those enjoyable, as well as those that are painful. When I seek to live out what I claim to believe and value, both failing and accomplishing that day-to-day, I can begin to make meaning of what it is to carve out a life.
When our quest for meaning, however, becomes the search for the ultimate, one-time discovery – the Big M – it can become a frustrating and disturbing quest indeed. We all know and have heard various metaphors: the proverbial pot of gold; the secret oracle that sums up all life’s questions; the miracle that removes all problems of living from one’s calendar. The search for the giant M in the sky will frustrate people for the simple reason that the nagging question tends to hang on as to whether or not they have, in fact, discovered the right M. Viktor Frankl spoke, instead, about meaning being an achievement that we carve out through our day-to-day struggles. The Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes address the need to seek for and acquire wisdom for living. The problem with the Big M is that it too easily becomes an empty abstraction. No doubt I can say that I find meaning through my family, friendships, work, art, community, etc. Such statements can entail day-to-day concrete experiences, or they can be meaningless and empty abstractions. I can make the summation that, I find deep meaning in my career. But how does that summation unfold in the hours I pour into my work that, in fact, leads to something meaningful and purposeful? Is it something I merely say that lacks evidence that my work is truly meaningful? Even as a Christian, I can make the claim, I find meaning ultimately in God. Such a statement can indeed be truly meaningful to the person who makes it. But do I carry it out in a day-to-day realization? If not, then such a statement, as pious as it sounds, can be as empty as any other abstraction that has no connection with living.
As Frankl puts it, I can encounter the daily tasks of living as drudgery, something merely to get through, or as meaningful experiences that hold something to teach me about living. That is not to say that all experiences are of equal value, but they are all part of our living. How we face them and carry them out says much about our mind – our attitude toward living, our modus operandi of how we approach the tasks of life. I believe the most important contribution to our meaningful existence entails clarifying what we indeed believe in our heart-of-hearts, what we truly value, and then living in alignment with what we claim. Such a way of living seems to me to address the notion of fulfillment and joy, knowing that life will involve all the crazy and sinuous paths that will challenge what we claim to believe while also helping us adjust our compasses of how we go about life.
The Big M is a trap. Be aware of it. Be leery of it. Abstractions without concrete realizations, rather than having meaning, are empty of meaning.
As I reflect on this three-part series on the quest for meaning, I purposely have framed the discussion to encourage anyone to step into the journey for the quest for meaning. I hope to embolden anyone to, indeed, ask the bold questions about meaning, purpose, core beliefs, and values. These are not easy questions, yet I firmly believe facing them brings something important to living that we would otherwise miss if we chose simply not to ask such questions. There are in fact those who claim to believe that life is meaningless and absurd, as Albert Camus has stated in his writings. Yet Camus’ rebellion, even if he believed that it added up to no more than his concrete life, is a telling tale. [In one of James Sire’s works, he speaks of Camus, before his untimely death, as entertaining some serious questions about the existence of God.] People may believe, or want to believe, in the absurdity of existence; however, they appear to find it difficult to live consistently that abstraction with their day-to-day existence, whether it be toward their work, art, or loved ones. The fact that they place value into something or someone speaks to people’s need for meaning.
John V. Jones, Jr., PH.D., LPC-S/April 14, 2016