What is Meaning?

12 Jun

I went to a lovely graduation yesterday and found myself surprisingly sentimental as I witnessed all the parents, grandparents, spouses and friends cheer on the graduates. The teachers too, decked out in their Harry Potter garb obviously cared deeply about the students whom they had supported through the process of higher education. As with weddings and funerals, here was another one of those markers that punctuate a moment of significance.

When I got my masters, I didn’t go to the ceremony. I didn’t even send out notices. I don’t know why. It just didn’t cross my mind. By then I was living on a different coast, worrying about the next phase in the journey. Finishing seemed anti-climatic. I was done but now I had to get a job and pass tests to be licensed. And when I graduated from college, I was so bummed about leaving the comfort of the academic womb, I was reluctantly dragged to the ceremony.

Part of the celebration process is knowing what the occasion signifies. Without this, there is no meaning. So what is meaning anyway? And does one need a college or graduate degree to possess it?

I had a teacher share that there was a time in his life when his wife called him out on making academic achievement his idol. He had become so wrapped up in accomplishing that he was losing sight of something bigger. And indeed, anything in our lives can become idols. Without a doubt, our work, relationships and material possessions can suddenly eclipse God. But how do we navigate through life with a sense of purpose and meaning?

I was thinking about all of this when the day after I finished the school term, I needed to get started on a homework assignment for the next class that was about to start. And I asked myself, am I too making academics my idol or using this to fill a void?

For those of us who have had an experience of great loss, where suffering smashes to pieces erroneous notions of security, meaning and identity, our lives can veer into two possible directions: despair and madness or transcendent grace. And I realize that for me, the pursuit of wisdom and meaning will always be the life line that stabilizes me and gives me coordinates of purpose. It is not about the outcome, but about the process. The journey towards finding love and God through the Word and creative process. Without it, I don’t really have a sense of orientation.

When I finish seminary, it will mean something.

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3 Responses to “What is Meaning?”

  1. mike June 13, 2011 at 9:01 pm #

    Hi Lise,

    I too found little meaning or signification in my graduation. In fact, I actually went out of my way and filled out a form in order to excuse myself from the cap-and-gown ceremony; and if it weren’t for the encouragement from my professor/mentor, I would’ve missed it. And so, half-heartedly I subjected myself to an experience which, to be brutally honest with you, left very little positive impressions on me: the commencement speech was really rah-rah go get em’ tiger, mixed in with what seemed like a somewhat formulaic, forced, sympathetic accounting of the requisite “tough times” or “bumps in the road” which “really just make us stronger in the end.” Or, maybe the speech wasn’t all that bad and I just colored it with my foregone conclusions about this sorta stuff (who knows..).

    While motives are always a slippery thing (even when gauging oneself), this resistance may have been prompted by an element of idolatry. I killed myself with my study sessions. I purposefully abstained from social interactions with my co-students (though, as a former college dropout, I was a little bit older than them). I read till I got dizzy and would read the same sentence like 10 times before realizing it. I basically plunged myself headlong into the academic sojourn. But in the end it all just felt flat. Sure, I had some notches under my belt (I won an award for a paper — a first! And this alone almost prompted me to continue on with my grad studies), but largely the education process overall just felt really hollow and cheap (argh.. I feel like a cynic in saying that; it’s so easy to be a cynic).

    The irony in all of this, of course, is that my study habits were such that I squandered much of my “butt-time” (as one prof. would put it, regarding the setting aside of study time) — my mind was prone to wander, immensely so. And so, this coupled with my scant social life left me feeling like very little was ever getting done and I was just wasting my life away.

    Why must everything boil down to irony? It’s so cliched and yet persistently true.

    After reading this account of yours, I think my education was purposeful in some respects — I was able to write a really, really good paper that I can now look back on, a sort of relic or testament which tangibly stands for my education — but for the most part it may be the case that it was deeply tinged by a long process of an objectification of knowledge.

    “suffering smashes to pieces erroneous notions of security, meaning and identity, our lives can veer into two possible directions: despair and madness or transcendent grace.”

    Maybe all along I’ve been preoccupied with the saying, “it’s about the journey, not the inn” instead of actually walking it and being in it, authentically. If so, I hope this suffering smashes this idol to pieces, letting me see an actual fork in the road.

    Thanks for this and good luck with your seminary work.

  2. lisesletters June 14, 2011 at 5:31 pm #

    Thanks, Mike. There is a Zen saying that we hit our heads against the wall enough times until we finally say, “ouch!” and stop. I think we have much to learn from just being.

    Nonetheless, I think there is something to be said to pursuing pleasure (to the extent we’re not on a hedonistic rampage). When I was a little girl I loved walking around the house reciting lines from plays and writing stories. Years later, I still get great pleasure writing – an activity most people avoid like the plague. Go figure. Perhaps we find meaning where passion, goodness and “being” intersect. But in the end, I think real meaning comes from something much more profound – God.

  3. mike June 15, 2011 at 9:17 pm #

    Even banging your head against a wall for a long period of time elicits meaning, eventually — I like that. This Zen saying reminds me of King Nebuchadnezzar’s restoration after a seven year bout of insanity: we graze around the pastures and eat grass like an oxen but eventually we return to the kinds of meaningful experiences which make us human, like administering a kingdom (not sure if that analogy works; I am usually horrible at analogies). In this way, all of creation is blessed by God in ways that go deeper than sin and depravity.

    Sin tinges but does not mar us; blessing is kosmic.

    Thus the pursuit of pleasures and passions is not only important but expected of, in a way — it is a potential that can be tapped; even amid various existential crises that we find ourselves in.

    The creative process of writing is something that elicits a deep pleasure in me as well. Though, often I find myself trashing everything I write — HA! It is both my blessing and bane I suppose. I’ve tried my hand at narratives or novellas, but largely I keep finding myself returning to the poetic diction mixed with narrative elements (I am a huge fan of Elizabeth Bishop and Frost, of course).

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