I took a grief counseling class the other day for continuing education. In an odd way it was a bizarre sort of comfort to be in a class like that. The educator took a survey during the class to see the number of people who have experienced significant losses and the percentages were far higher than one would have thought. On the other hand it is rather depressing to spend a day in a room of therapists telling stories of clients who have crumbled under grief. It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t have a glass of wine post saddest class ever.
Viktor Frankl said that despair was suffering minus meaning, and so a large portion of working through grief and experiencing healing is finding that meaning. In this class however, when we got into the details and stories of how clients found meaning the bottom dropped out. Things that gave meaning to people seemed to me hollow and almost illusory, methods for coping connected to very little reality. How do you make peace and find meaning out of nothing but the pain of this life? The room was in awe of a story of a woman whose father had died and so after he was gone she wrote letters to herself from him and mended their broken relationship. If it works for coping, fine, but it’s thin at best.
Humans have a capacity to construct their own reality and so after loss this can be done as a means of coping, the truth of something is a secondary matter to finding what works. The only substantial meaning making to me however, needed to be connected to more, not just because it works for survival but because it's the only thing that makes sense of it all - and that's faith. Of course the argument could be made that religion itself is a coping mechanism that is constructed to create meaning out of nothing, but then we’re all believing in something I suppose, believing in nothing is a belief just the same.
There were large swaths of my life that I could have gone without my religious beliefs. They helped me make good moral choices in life but it didn’t necessarily offer any true worldview shifts, encourage radical life change or provide a source of comfort that was beyond what any other non-religious American might experience. But I’m different now, and there I was in a class on grief and the only possibility for meaning to me was faith. Faith seems like child’s play until grief forces the issue of meaning and suddenly it is everything else that seems like child’s play. The only proper source of comfort becomes – there must be more. It’s in our DNA to find meaning, weaved there within the foundational human capacity to reason. And so we have to find it, which I think reveals the truth that it’s there.
I think about Syria a lot recently. Every time I pray or begin to pity myself I think of the lives lost in this evil civil war. I force myself to look at the photos depicting the ravages that have flattened cities and taken countless lives and left its survivors hollowed out from grief. I heard a very OC woman the other day talking about how we can’t just give ourselves to the needs around us because then we would just be empty. She was making an argument for boundaries, which is fine, and yet I wonder if empty is what we’re meant to be. I don’t mean non-sustainable, dysfunctional or codependent empty, I mean actually giving our lives to the broken among us. Our boundaries are so locked in we think posting on social media is action. We think churches are for creating well-funded institutions that serve to pat upper-class believers on the back. We think the chief goal of community is to create a safety huddle. We think we’re here to make our lives lovely.
I know this is all depressing, but I think when we look at the actual pain in this life we are forced to feel the weight of the world’s reality, and Lord help us it should move us into action. It should force the issue of meaning both beyond this life and within it. What’s our role? They say the church is hemorrhaging young people and we blame the institution for not being compelling, or being too this or too that. I wonder if instead we shut our rambling mouths and took on the responsibility of living lives of wisdom and action. Hipness would stop defining our relevance and compelling lives would instead be the draw.
We should make ourselves deal with this, we should connect with the pain around us, we should look at the photos of those in Africa trying to survive a famine. We should let it get us down as we see an old man in his bombed out apartment in Syria smoking a pipe and listening to old records. I’m writing to myself here because this issue nags me all the time. I’m moving at a sloths pace towards action and not because I’m supposed to but because I have to.
I think we can and should let pain change us, we can allow it to move us. We can engage the darkness for the sake of participating in shedding light. We can do it all in an effort to partner with God in changing the world, all the while waiting for and believing in restoration, all because it’s the meaning of life.
Because isn’t it?