Religious people want there to be meaning in everything. Randomness is hard on us: that things happen for no reason sometimes brings us closer than we want to be to the possibility that we’re not central to much of anything, and most of us are still too wedded to our ancient anthropocentrism to give that up. –Barbara Crafton, Jesus Wept: When Faith and Depression Meet[i]
Some time around the second grade I was traumatized by an educational movie about Beethoven. I remember sitting in the music classroom at my elementary school, hearing the cinematic re-creation of the humming in the composer’s ears as his deafness advanced, and his anguished voice asking God why He would give the gift of music to one destined not to hear it. Believing that his gifts as a composer meant something, and that his hearing loss was equally fraught with meaning, the irreconcilability of meanings tortured him, perhaps even more than the deafness itself.
His unanswerable question nourished in me a terror that would plague me into middle age: the terror of the possibility that things don’t have any meaning. The notion that neither Beethoven’s ability nor his disability meant a cotton-pickin’ thing is so deeply unsettling as to render it well-nigh inadmissible, yet the opposing position—that either or both did have meaning–raises the specter of Divine indifference, negligence or downright cruelty.
Though I am experiencing more presbyaudia than I like, I do not appear to be in immediate danger of going deaf–but I did struggle for years with vocation and meaning in my career. The facts of the matter are these: 1) I can write worthwhile music, and 2) I cannot get it performed. Because I believed there was meaning in Fact #1—that I was “called” to be a composer—I spent years in fruitless agony over Fact #2: why would God bestow the gift of music on someone who was destined to go unheard? Yet both are just facts, and the question of what they mean is a non-starter because they don’t mean a blessed thing. So it is up to me, the facts being what they are, to decide what to do with the bundle of desires and predilections I blithely call “myself”; trying to derive meaning from the meaningless and wanting things to be other than they are just eats up your life.
So when I see people in danger of inflicting the same injuries on themselves as I did, I want to stop them, warn them off their self-destructive course. Earlier this year, I read this Facebook status update posted by a friend and former student who is a talented writer and sci-fi/fantasy übergeek:
(Xxxx Xxxxx) got rejected by (xxxxx.com) for a position writing about Star Wars. WRITING. About STAR WARS. If I can’t get that job, I really don’t think I have much chance in this world…
Oh no, I thought; she thinks it means something that she didn’t get the job. And her friends’ comments, trying to make sense of the slight–explain it away–aren’t helping. Not wanting to see this smart, talented, creative young woman become bogged down in bootless speculation about meaning, I decided it was time to put in my own unsolicited oar. I wasn’t about to tell her that hard work and talent are inevitably rewarded and she must surely succeed some day, that everything happens for a reason, that America is the Land of Opportunity and God Has a Plan For Your Life, because that’s all bullshit. The truth, as I see it, is actually far simpler than all that.
Don’t look too hard for meaning; there is a lot less of it than we think, and the search for it burdens us. Sometimes things just suck.
Her response followed quickly.
It’s rather amazing how that comment was depressing and encouraging at the same time…
Except that it isn’t amazing, really. “Joy and woe,” as Blake knew, “are woven fine, / A clothing for the soul divine.” The older you get, the more you realize that both are always present. They are inextricable warp and weft; we put them on like garments and they take our shape for a while, then they fall away. They, too, do not mean anything.
I have a friend who grew up in the church—who majored in church music, in fact—and turned her back on it when her three-year-old niece died. What could I say to her? In the years since she told me about it, I have said nothing. I don’t how to make what I want to say—that whatever meaning there is in her niece’s death resides, not in the event itself, but in the responses to it of the people who loved her—leap the synapse that exists between one who has suffered such a thing and one who has not. Perhaps it ought not to be leapt. I also don’t know what she was taught to believe about such things; if anyone were to tell me to accept that my child’s death was part of a divine plan, I might well walk away, too.
We want to find meaning in things. When Sri Ramakrishna was dying of throat cancer, his devotees tried to make sense of his illness, some by believing that he had willed it on himself to bring his devotees together, some believing that the Divine Mother had caused it for reasons of her own.
But the young rationalists, led by Narendra [later known to the world as Swami Vivekananda] refused to ascribe a supernatural cause to a natural phenomenon. They believed that the Master’s body, a material thing, was subject, like all other material things, to physical laws.[ii]
I love Vivekananda’s steady clear-sightedness. It takes courage to stop looking for meaning in events and take on instead the task of bestowing meaning by the way we live in the face of them. His stern pursuance of reason, and impatience with what he called “superstition” and “beings above the clouds” make a bracing tonic for anyone caught in the God Has a Plan for Your Life trap.
We have desires, and we call them promptings; abilities, and we call them vocations; we parse them, and call it discernment. We make choices, and navigate our way through their consequences. Things happen to us, and they do not have meaning in themselves–we endow them with meaning by our responses to them. In a Catholic church in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the celebrant announced that a beloved former priest of the parish, who was dying of cancer, was “offering up” his suffering for that community. Never having heard of such a thing outside of Irish literature, I was stunned when I realized what it really meant: by voluntarily joining his suffering with Jesus’, the priest was refusing to be a victim of his circumstances, turning instead a thing that had happened to him into a freely-offered instrument of redemption. Love, as Evelyn Underhill put it, makes all the difference between an execution and a martyrdom.
The Devil trembles when human beings know “that horrors may be in store for (them,) and are praying for the virtues wherewith to meet them.”[iii] Things may happen to us–even fatal things—but spiritual death is not visited upon us; we bring it upon ourselves.
Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”[iv]
Phillip, the semi-autobiographical protagonist of Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage, met a dissipated and largely unpublished poet in Paris named Cronshaw, who gave Phillip a remnant of a Persian carpet. The carpet, Cronshaw told him, held in it the answer to the meaning of life. Phillip kept the remnant for many years, through titanic struggles, repeated failures and almost relentless suffering as he tried to find what the world called “success” in life. One day, long after the carpet fragment had been lost, Phillip realized, with the abruptness of revelation, the truth that had eluded him for so many years: life does not have any meaning.
His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty. What he did or left undone did not matter. Failure was unimportant and success amounted to nothing…(T)hat was why Cronshaw, he imagined, had given him the Persian rug. As the weaver elaborated his pattern for no end but the pleasure of his aesthetic sense, so might a man live his life…Out of the manifold events of his life, his deeds, his feelings, his thoughts, he might make a design, regular, elaborate, complicated, or beautiful…In the vast warp of life (a river arising from no spring and flowing endlessly to no sea), with the background to his fancies that there was no meaning and that nothing was important, a man might get a personal satisfaction in selecting the various strands that worked out the pattern. There was one pattern, the most obvious, perfect, and beautiful, in which a man was born, grew to manhood, married, produced children, toiled for his bread, and died; but there were others, intricate and wonderful, in which happiness did not enter and in which success was not attempted; and in them might be discovered a more troubling grace…His life had seemed horrible when it was measured by its happiness, but now he seemed to gather strength as he realised that it might be measured by something else. Happiness mattered as little as pain. They came in, both of them, as all the other details of his life came in, to the elaboration of the design.[v]
Whatever meaning, whatever beauty there is in life resides in our living of it, and not in the events of life themselves. Sloppy biblical interpretation often involves eisegesis, the “reading in” of meaning to the text. I have spent most of my days doing a similar thing: reading meaning into life. But meaning is not in life any more than a pattern is in the threads; we must weave our carpets for ourselves.
[i] Crafton, Barbara, Jesus Wept: When Faith and Depression Meet. Jossey-Bass, 2009.
[ii] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Abridged Edition. Translated by Swami Nikhilananda. Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1988. (68)
[iii] Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters
[iv] Luke 13: 4-5
[v] Maugham, Somerset, Of Human Bondage.