Tending the Soul: Meaning Makers


I’m experiencing meaningful days this season. You?

December 25 was meaningful for me. So was December 19, my mom’s birthday. Tomorrow the sun will rise like any other day, but I’ll take special notice that it’s 1/1/17. Looking ahead to 2017, one date has a big circle around it: June 24. My daughter will be married that day.

I’m a meaning-maker, together with 7.4 billion others. That’s a lot of us, but it seems to be a unique activity among earth’s many more creatures. References to humans as “meaning-makers” entered our vocabulary only in recent decades, though we’ve obviously been at it longer than that.

Psychologist and neurologist Victor Frankl wrote his hugely influential Man’s Search for Meaning in 1946, shortly after his release from the Auschwitz concentration camp. Nearly all his family was killed. Amid the terrors of the camps (he survived several), he continued his work as a therapist with fellow prisoners. Among them he observed, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” 

Could it be
that we have been granted the gift
of creating meaning
with God, as collaborators?

Frankl made several observations, the first of which was obvious in the camps: “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”

Second, among those who survived the gas chambers and torture rooms, there was something else to survive in the camps: thoughts of hopelessness and suicide. The essential factor for survival was the capacity to embrace meaningfulness, and Frankl told moving stories of this.

Third, this capacity for embracing meaning had to be actively chosen and cultivated. And, cultivated in a particular way that transcended individual concerns. “By declaring that man (sic) is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic "the self-transcendence of human existence." It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself.”

Frankl’s core observations ring demonstrably true – far beyond the holocaust setting - and continue to be explored particularly in the field of Positive Psychology. What a marvelous gift, to make meaning of our days! To celebrate or grieve events, big and small. To stitch happenings together into story. To imagine things matter. It’s no small thing!

I’ll offer a notion that may be a step beyond Frankl, and involves a step of faith. Yes, we make meaning. Could it be that also that the world itself is meaningful and precious beyond measure? That we and the world are part of a great unfolding, and that our meaning-making creatively participates in this unfolding? We might participate badly or well, which is to say we might fearfully resist or fiercely embrace meaningfulness. How will we respond to this great, generative gift within ourselves and our world?

And a bigger step of faith: Could we have been granted this gift of creating meaning with God, as collaborators in a loving, shared activity?

Step by step, a walk of faith. And now a practical question: How have you cultivated a meaning-making walk in 2016? How will you in 2017?

For Soul Tending...
What handful of happenings stand out for you in 2016? They might be small and whispered, or big and bold - but somehow they stick in your memory. What about you, and within you, takes notice of these standout events? What are common threads that reveal and reflect who you are becoming? How might they belong to your unfolding story?