Making Meaning

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
— Mary Oliver

When we face challenges that change us forever, it is often difficult for us to connect events to any purpose. The adversities that life can deliver most times have that "It happened to me" feeling. We may feel we were given a raw deal or dealt a bad hand, and somehow the experience becomes something to rail about or endure. Surely it is important for us to lend compassion to the pain of turmoil and tragedy. We need to bear witness for each other in times of great challenge and emotional upheaval. But there comes a time when we ask ourselves, "Was this all for nothing?" 

I recently had the privilege to sit with a group of cancer survivors to discuss finding meaning in the face of adversity. I asked the group to bring a small item that symbolized something that has great meaning in their lives. The purpose of this exercise was to help them connect with the symbolic so that they might see the symbolism and metaphors in their own situations. It was also a way to show how one event can have many meanings. I was deeply moved by the symbols that each individual chose to share. One man brought a medal he had won for completing a triathlon one year after his cancer treatment was completed. Someone else brought decorative metal plates that each told a story from when she had visited India. She said that looking at them reminded her of a time when she was not afraid, a time when she felt free and larger than herself. An older gentleman who is part Native American brought a dream-catcher that his grandmother made which had always hung in the window of his bedroom while growing up. It still does, and to him, the hand-crafted talisman reflects the reminder to recall the good dreams and bring them to life. Another woman used crinkly gold paper to fashion flames leaping upward. She said that it symbolized the perpetual flame of caring that burns in her heart. Finally, a young woman told the story of feeling isolated and depressed given her breast cancer diagnosis. She was someone who preferred to stay away from groups and not speak up in public. Breast cancer had added to her already shaky self-esteem. She said she found meaning and a renewed sense of self-worth from a support group for young women dealing with breast cancer. The symbol she brought to the group was attached to her body. She showed us a tattoo on the inside of her forearm of a pink ribbon with these words scripted below: She is clothed in strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future. We can see so many messages about meaning in these items. In their expressions, we can see meaning found in transcendence, courage, heritage, tradition, remembering dreams, the spark of life, warmth, the power of community, and a reclaiming of what is essential. 

Sometimes we find meaning in our experiences. Other times, when we are searching and searching for something to make sense, we realize actually that we have to make meaning. Victor Frankl who wrote the classic book Man's Search for Meaning says that it was not the strongest who survived Nazi concentration camps, but those who could make some kind of meaning of the situation, however horrific. I saw a TED talk recently where author Andrew Solomon talks about growing up gay and bullied, and how he is now grateful for those times because they allowed him to forge meaning and create identity. That kind of transcendence is what is necessary to heal trauma. Forging meaning and creating identity does not diminish the traumatic event or make it right, but rather it says, "This is the stuff I am made of and this is how I am going to use it." There are some things in life that will never make sense. There are some things that were meant to remain a mystery. But human beings are meaning-makers. I do not believe it is all for nothing. We have purpose, our existence matters and our lives have meaning.