CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World

Finding meaning is essential to life

  • August 14, 2014

Jesse is in a tough spot. Having lost his business after personal troubles, he lives on a small pension. His grown-up children visit once in a while, bringing the grandkids, but he has few social contacts and seems unneeded in the world. How has he coped? “Faith in God” is his ready response to this question. Yet he’s angry with God, too, with himself, and with the systems that didn’t rescue him. 

“I can’t understand why this is happening to me,” he muses. “It would help if I could at least see meaning in it.” 

I’m reminded of Viktor Frankl’s view that above almost everything else, meaning is essential to life. Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, reflected deeply on what happened to people in Nazi concentration camps, where he was a prisoner from 1942-45. Frankl saw that loss of meaning is more serious for us humans than nearly every other loss — including employment, relationship, health — and finding meaning more life-giving even than food and shelter. 

Certainly, we humans have a passion to understand. I recall sitting with my little niece in her family vehicle while it was being fueled. She was upset that the movie stopped, and wanted it back on. I explained to her why the movie couldn’t run while gas was being pumped. As she listened carefully, the tears stopped. “Do you understand?” I asked. She nodded once, and was completely calm. 

Studying emergency management systems, I learned that the thing people most need in an emergency is to understand what’s going on. They can withstand almost everything if they’re given the means to comprehend. 

Perhaps this drive to understand comes from our culture’s veneration of scientific method; or perhaps our reverence for scientific method comes from our drive to know. “Yeah, science!” as the fictional Jesse Pinkman pithily exclaimed. It’s good. I believe God intends us to discover, explore and come to understand His creation, for so we come closer to Him, who is fully present there, in creation itself and in our creative relationship with it. “Science” derives from scientia, knowledge. 

Coming to know is one of life’s delights. As a child, I loved to hear explanations of the things around me: why the current changes when it flows around a rock, why some plants grow in one kind of soil and some in another. My older brother loved to grasp these things himself, and to share his understanding with me. 

Everything tells a story; ours is to learn that story (and become part of the telling). The hardest stories to know and tell are our lives. How can we understand each other, or even ourselves? Author Jane Austen, a shrewd observer of human nature, wrote a dialogue between the parents of Elizabeth Bennet, in which finally Mr. Bennet said to his wife: “I have not the pleasure of understanding you. Of what are you talking?” It can be challenging to find meaning in the words of one’s spouse, and indeed in one’s own thoughts. How can we find meaning in the great sufferings or joys of life? 

We won’t be able to understand if we look in the wrong places. One day at work, I was wrestling with a terrible story then unfolding in the news. “What’s got you down?” a colleague asked. “I’m trying to understand how this could be,” I replied. And he said to me, “Don’t try to understand evil. We can’t.” 

We shouldn’t. Author C.S. Lewis explained that he had to stop writing The Screwtape Letters — between a senior and a junior devil — because gazing too directly at evil would destroy us. 

But what about the other way around? What if we try to understand good (God)? Evil can’t understand good. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not comprehend it,” says John’s Prologue. Can we? 

There is a way. St Augustine advised: “Do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that you may understand” (Johannine Tractate 29). 

In English, the word “understand” really means “be close to.” The way to understand anyone is to come close to them. At our youth camp this summer, I watched the camp counsellors spend time with a special-needs child: they weren’t afraid to be close, holding him, playing, listening to him. So they came to understand him better, his intelligence and perceptivity, gentleness and curiosity. 

Lovers want to get to know their beloved, so they get close. 

We can’t get close to evil without danger. We can get close to God. We are close; “the Word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Dt 30). We’re invited to get closer. We understand by coming to know, coming to love, coming to be like God. 

When you love someone you want to get close, and when you get close you start to understand. 

“Do you wish to understand? Believe.” 

St. Augustine, feast day Aug. 28. 

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