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by Melissa Martin
10/10/2011 / Christian Living
What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of my life? What is the meaning of your life? What is the meaning of death? What is the meaning of my death? What is the meaning of your death? Like hidden treasure, I've searched for the answers; traveling inside and outside of myself and wandering through the wilderness; hunting the holy grail of meaning with a compass that points in four directions.
I've found my meaning of both life and death. I've found my answers in the spirit realm. Searching for the meaning of spirituality has taught lessons far too numerous to mention. However, my own spiritual experiences of living on planet earth while gazing into the cosmos color my beliefs and values concerning the mysteries of the invisible, yet, visible eternal human spirit. At times, I find my spirituality translucent; at times it is opaque.
Nevertheless, during personal crises when logic and reasoning fail to comfort, I turn to spirituality to find meaning. I turn to God. I seek something outside myself but it is paradoxical that I find it inside myself and it is the Holy Spirit of God. Some may call him intelligent designer, life force, higher powerbut I call him, Abba-Father, Savior, Messiah, Lord Jesus.
I've spent a considerable amount of time making meaning out of religion. Both Western and Eastern religions serve a purpose in the seeking of meaning. The three religious groups with biblical origins (i.e., Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) are vehicles to spiritual meaning for many people. Christians adhere to the New Testament Bible and Jesus; Jews adhere to the Old Testament Bible, God and Messiah; and Muslims adhere to the Quran and Allah. All three live and die by interpretations of truth in their books of knowledge and wisdom. Studying their books and exploring their philosophies enlarged my capacity for understanding cultural differences and similarities. Learning about Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism abates religious privilege. However, interacting with people from different faiths and cultures is what enlarged my heart and downsized my judgmental attitude.
Believing in a force greater than self and outside of self is important for salient change for many while others look inside themselves for spiritual transformation. Spirituality is sought in many places. The meaning of life and death is sought in many places.
Heroes and heroines deepen my views on spirituality and meaning while providing models on living peaceably in a world full of human tragedy. Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Golda Meir, Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King, Jr., although they have passed into the spirit realm, continue to influence millions of followers who embody the same philosophies, ideas, values, and compassion for humanity. Their message of freedom without violence is inspiring. Albeit, deep compassion carries a high personal price. Jesus paid the highest of prices on the cross and he is my greatest hero.
Invariably, I search for meaning in suffering and death. Death is an equal opportunity visitor. How do I make meaning of human afflictions? Using suffering as a medium for motivation and change is part of meaning-making. However, sometimes a reason cannot be found. Accidents happen. Bacteria and germs also coexist with humans. Volcanoes erupt and hurricanes arrive yearly. Life is fragile. Life is resilient. Alas, I don't have all the answers and neither do you.
Man's Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl, is credited with promoting a profound change in my understanding of human suffering (i.e., physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, social pain and so forth). Frankl found a larger purpose while he survived in a Nazi concentration camp. Creative Suffering, a book by Paul Tournier, a medical doctor, and a counselor explored a puzzling phenomenon. Many leaders with great world influence (i.e., Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, George Washington, Napoleon, Queen Victoria, and a list of three hundred others) were orphans. Tournier, also an orphan, looked at hardship as a vehicle for growth through adversity. Why some people possess resiliency while others do not is still a conundrum to me. David Aikman, author of Great Souls, explored the lives of individuals with spiritual and moral power (i.e., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn) who worked in the epicenter of human suffering; yet, they developed into giant spiritual leaders of the world. I search for the meaning of life and death in the stories of other human beings.
Pain, The Gift that Nobody Wants, by Paul Brand, is the story of a medical doctor missionary who discovered effective treatments for leprosy while working a lifetime in India. Brand writes about the purpose of pleasure and pain in both human suffering and human healing. Disappointment with God and Where is God When It Hurts? by Phillip Yancey explores the unfairness of life, yet concludes that God is fair. Max Lucado's writings inspire. I search for the meaning of life and death in books. However, I found it in the greatest book, The Bible.
Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), postulated that a higher power is central for the purpose of promoting and sustaining sobriety. The 12 Steps have helped many.
Searching for expression and meaning through music is comforting. The compassionate lyrics of Harry Chapin soothed my psyche in college but I mourn his early death. Music is a medicinal balm for my suffering and grief. In young adulthood, the tunes of Barbara Streisand mellowed me. Songs by the faith-based singers, Twila Paris, Ray Boltz, and Steven Curtis Chapman have accompanied me through spells of spiritual dryness and confusion. I like contemporary Christian tunes. These days, I listen to relaxing music of nature sounds; ocean waves and rainstorms. The meaning of life and death is found in nature as well.
I've gained insight from Christian evangelicals: the famous-Joyce Meyers, John Maxwell, Joseph Prince, and the not so famous-Reverend Pullman. But, what I admire most is their compassion for people.
According to some teachers and theorists, searching for meaning in a meaningless world leads to self-awareness, self-actualization, and freedom of choice (i.e., Rollo May, Abraham Maslow, Victor Frankl, and Irvin Yalom). Through experience, I observe that change often occurs in the mist of or after traumatic events. Hence, both pain and pleasure can be motivators. However, the world is not meaningless to me.
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is the epitome of overcoming. Griffin's, Black Like Me, is painful to read. Racism, prejudice, and discrimination wound my soul. God has no color. God sees no skin color.
I admire Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and the pioneer women of yesterday who experienced suffering for my future. The parchments of others enrich my meaning-making journey as I connect to the authors.
I've learned about the spirit of humor and laughter from the writings of Erma Bombeck and others. Meaning-making and healing is also found in my ability to experience laughter and to laugh at my imperfections. I cherish my sense of humor. My desire is to own a copy of the movie, What About Bob? with actor, Bill Murray. Laughing purges distress, just ask Norman Cousins. Chill, lighten up, get over yourself; this is good advice.
The prose of Watchman Nee, Martin Buber, and Soren Kierkegaard influenced my own personal philosophy of life. I find the writings of atheists, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, intriguing. But, I ponder; how can these intelligent men not believe in a force greater than themselves?
The poetry of Rod McKuen dances in my soul. Poetry is soothing and
comforting for me. Exploring love, life, and death prompts one to put a neoteric perspective on living. I want to know how others make meaning as well.
I've spent a great deal of time in the company of books. Every author has a story. My fondness of reading is a blessing. My heart aches for the illiterate. I once volunteered for a literacy program and my first student was an older lady who wanted to learn to read her Bible. She did and her gratefulness still echoes in my ear.
Observing how others act and react to life connects me to humanity. Personal heroes and heroines have left their mark on my essence: Cindy, a courageous quadriplegic student and friend in my cohort during my master's program; Dr. Wallace, an advisor and professor who was tough on the outside but a marshmallow on the inside; Pam and Mary, former supervisors who were full of kindness and calmness; Betty Montgomery, former Ohio attorney general, who balanced power with passion for others; Mr. Gamp, my high school History teacher who taught with animation and excitement; Dr. Miller, my internship advisor who wrote heart-rending therapeutic poems for clients; and many-many others who crossed my path either temporarily or permanently. I strive to amalgamate some of their uniqueness into my personage. I desire self-actualization but at times fear self-serving motives. Perhaps, I need to seek God-actualization.
Meaning-making from my family of origin, Appalachian culture, gender, and so forth, plays a part in how I view and process issues related to the meaning of life and death. Meaning-making is also found in my past divorce and current marriage relationship as well as with my parents, siblings, and relatives. How do we gauge our developmental growth expansion unless it is assessed by the process and the outcome of being in relationship with others? The meaning of death is found in the relationships of life. When I have passed how will others celebrate my time upon this planet? How will I be remembered? How do I celebrate the life of others and mourn their physical death?
I also ponder upon the hard questions: why do babies and children die premature deaths? why do children have to suffer with pain?; why are children abused and murdered? I don't know the answers and I don't know how to find meaning in the suffering of an innocent child. Albeit, I look to celestial places with the questions while holding tightly to my faith. I put the questions and the answers in God's hands.
As a human being, I make meaning from the relationships I develop with others. As a mother, I make meaning through family ties with my daughter. In my multiple roles of wife, daughter, sibling, and friend, I make meaning through kinship. As a student I make meaning through affiliations with professors and other students. As a person with a soul, I make meaning through my connections with others. As a counselor I make meaning through temporary relationships with clients. How do I travel this road to meaning-making? How do I understand the meaning of life and death? After years of personal exploration, I've discovered that meaning-making is accomplished through relationships.
I am over 45 years of age and halfway to 90. I've lived through the 60's, 70's, 80's, and 90's and into the twenty-first century. It may seem clich but I'm spending more time reflecting and making meaning of my former 16,425 days. And like myriads of human beings before me I'm pondering the question; where did the minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years go? I'm revisiting purpose and evaluating my journey. After my daughter left for college, I spent less time at malls and more time with nature. Meaning-making is comprised of ordinary moments, celebrations, and milestones. It is found in births and funerals. It is found in childhood and adulthood. It is found in joy and pain. It is found in graduation and retirement. It is found before life and beyond death.
I've discovered that meaning-making does not have a destination. It is a continuous journey with joy and tragedy mixed together. It is a spiritual quest as well as a quest for knowledge and wisdom. It is a personal quest for learning lessons and many times I've had to learn the same lessons over and again. Meaning-making is what happens in relationships. Life is relationship. Death is relationship. Ultimately, I make meaning through relationships with God, myself, and others.
Melissa writes about the God and human connection and condition.
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