Making Meaning Instead of Searching for Purpose
In Accepting the Unexpected, I step away from writing about travel to comment on the bigger journey of life. While the topics may vary, the central theme is always the same: living life means learning to deal with the unexpected.
“This happened for a reason.”
“Everything has a purpose.”
“God has a plan.”
Those platitudes sound nice. They are intended to make us feel better about truly horrible situations.
But are they truly accurate?
I remember one of my favorite professors in college throwing everyone off their balance in our Intro to Psych class by challenging the notion that God has a plan. Our initial reaction was “of course God has a plan.” It’s what all of us had been told since we were children. It was what gave many of us hope when adolescence got to be just too much. Some of us had used Jeremiah 29:11 as our confirmation verses or our graduations classes had selected it as the class verse.
What’s interesting about that particular verse in Jeremiah is that it comes from a letter from Jeremiah to the Babylonian exiles. God had allowed His people to be taken into captivity, He told them to rebuild their lives in that captivity, and then He assured them that this was only for a short while.
He wasn’t telling them that He had planned out every aspect of each of His people’s lives. He wasn’t telling them that the exile was part of His greater purpose, or that He would light the fire that faced Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (King Nebuchadnezzar ordered that without God’s assistance), or that Daniel would face the lions den because He put him there (King Darius did).
He was speaking about a greater plan, the big picture. A picture that included hope, prosperity, and a future. A picture that included a tiny baby born in Bethlehem who would grow to be an adult who would become the sacrificial lamb for all people.
If you think about it, that is far more significant than planning out every little aspect of every human’s life.
Passing along the message that everything has a purpose or that God has a bigger plan seems like the right thing to tell people when they are struggling.
But tell that to the mother who has just lost her child. Or the couple going through a divorce. Or the woman in an abusive relationship. Or the girl who was just raped. Or the teenager who just got a cancer diagnosis. Or the person who just lost their job.
Suddenly their suffering, their loss of control, the ripple effect that goes throughout their families and immediate communities, is the result of some bigger plan. They don’t have free will. They don’t have agency in their own lives. Those who have caused them pain don’t have control over what they say and do. They are all just puppets in God’s greater purpose.
This is the kind of thinking that can destroy one’s faith in their Creator. It also lets perpetrators off of the hook because they weren’t acting in their own free will. And those on the periphery who are also harmed by the event? They are just collateral damage.
It’s the kind of thing that can shake up even the most faithful of individuals.
And even if it doesn’t lead to loss of faith, it can lead to a crisis of faith. When we cling to the idea that everything has a purpose, it allows us to fall into the trap of toxic positivity. If we are grieving or angry or even numb, we are not being faithful because we aren’t trusting in “God’s plan.” I’ve heard people proclaim the concept of “purpose” as a way to encourage life’s victims to be positive when they really just need the space to grieve and be angry. Those are natural human emotions and I believe that God is ok with us leaning into those emotions, at least as we start the healing process.
Because I just can’t believe that “everything has a purpose.”
My friend’s suicide was not something God planned so that I could be prepared for the same issues that might pop up with my high school students. God didn’t allow my friend’s family to go through hell on earth so that I could benefit from the lessons learned.
There was no purpose in the crises that I’ve seen my country face during my lifetime, from the 9/11 attacks to war to the ignorance of a global pandemic to an insurrection.
There was no purpose in my body and heart being exhausted from packing up a house that we loved and a place that was home for six years. There was no purpose in leaving behind all of the hard work we have done to make our house ours. There is no purpose in my heart breaking for my children who are currently convinced that they will never be as happy as they were in Texas and that they will never find friends like the ones they left behind.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t eventually make our current situation mean something.
I know God will turn the ugliness of right now into something. That isn’t purpose; that’s making a meaningless situation into something meaningful. I can believe that we have made the right decisions related to jobs and moving and believe that it is what we are supposed to do and at the same time not believe that everything leading up to those decisions was guided by a greater purpose.
As people, we have finally started to accept that seeking out counseling and therapy to help us cope with the curveballs of life is not only healthy, but necessary. The goal of therapy isn’t to find a purpose in every event of our lives; it’s to make meaning from what has happened in our lives and teach us how to move past it.
And that is what I’m trying to do now. I’m trying to find meaning. I’m trying to find meaning in loss and hurt and the renewed hope that can come with change.
That is what brings real healing.
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