Questions of meaning are the fundamental questions of human life. Why am I here? Who am I? Why is life so hard? In their article “Professional Chaplaincy and Its Role and Importance in Health Care” the authors point out:
“The word Spirituality goes further and describes an awareness of relationships with all creation, an appreciation of presence and purpose that includes a sense of meaning.” (p. 82)
Yet in modern life we seem to so often neglect these questions. In hospitals, chaplains seem to be tacked-on extras and the first to go when budget cuts loom. Spiritual care is undervalued. How can this be so if these issues are really that basic to human nature?
I have two thoughts almost at odds with one another. First, that spirituality and all its attendant religious practices and trappings is an immense source of strength and comfort. We literally can’t get along without it.
“Persons find that their spirituality helps them maintain health, cope with illnesses, traumas, losses, and life transitions by integrating body, mind and spirit. When facing a crisis, persons often turn to their spirituality as a means of coping (Pargament, 1997).” (p. 83)
Second, that spirituality is hard.
“Losses such as physical and cognitive capacities, independence, work or family status, and emotional equilibrium, along with the accompanying grief, can seriously impact their sense of meaning, purpose, and personal worth. … Approaching death can engender serious spiritual questions that contribute to anxiety, depression, hopelessness and despair.” (p. 83)
Much of what we consider to be “our” spiritually, that which forms the value centers of our lives, never really was “ours” to begin with. It was bequeathed to us by our cultures and families. Most spiritual seekers will only barely begin to question the truths to which others have already clung. On the one hand, this is incredibly useful. We can learn from one another, our parents, elders, and teachers. Many methods are thus “tried and true.” On the other hand, it often leaves unexamined gaps in one’s worldview, gaps which become glaringly apparent in times of crisis or trauma.
Worse yet, even those who have stared squarely at the gaps may not have even attempted to bridge them. This is because, as the second point states, spiritual questions are hard. What is the meaning of life? That’s the most cliché and at the same time most profound of the questions, isn’t it? And even though I study the subject, sometimes I just want to throw my hands up in the air and say “How the hell should I know?”
I too fall back on the truths to which others have clung, Buddhism chief among them. Religion is a form of “received wisdom.” We all have many forms of received wisdom from our cultural and family heritage. But it’s all just mythology until we start to internalize it and integrate it into not just the way we look at the world, but into our own motivations and actions.
Sometimes we do this so early in life that we just go about like automatons, busy with the technical aspects of living, too busy to look at those hard questions. After all, thinking that hard makes my head hurt. So who’d want to do it if they didn’t have to? But eventually we all have to, because we all get hurt or sick. We will all die.
That’s when we run into a curious thing. Our life seems to pause. Our normal routine breaks down and everything changes. The article calls this a “loss” of our capacities or independence. It rightly pointed out that such a “loss” can cause grief and make a person question their “meaning, purpose, and personal worth.” It makes it sound as though asking the hard questions is a bad thing.
Yes, there’s a lot of suffering in grief, doubt, and hard questions, but it’s also the only way to find the strength to give meaning to adversity. Someone said in one of my classes that the best way to help someone cope with the death of a loved one, a bad accident, a serious illness, or a trauma was to help them find meaning in it. I thought about it long and hard and in the end I think they’re on to something. When I look back to the people I’ve lost, I’ve looked not to their absence, but what their presence meant in my life.
As chaplains, all we can do is shine the flashlight under the bed so people can discover what they’re searching for. We turn the painting upside down so as to see it from a fresh angle. We help people understand that the hard questions are also the good questions and that a “loss” can also be a gain. As much as number two is true, that spirituality is hard, so is number one, that it is absolutely necessary.