The Search for Meaning


All of us in the helping professions have a “default position” we tend to occupy when sitting with someone in distress. Psychologists and therapists of a wide description will use words like Jungian or cognitive or behavioral or some orientation label that gives the potential client a sense of what s/he may expect when the conversations begin. Clergy are similar. When I was in seminary the dominant posture taken referenced a practitioner named Rogers and his approach was to assume the person in distress already had all the answers, albeit buried inside her/himself. The role of the pastoral listener was to hear what the other was saying and repeat it back as clearly as possible hoping the other could hear his/her own insights and solutions.

I also know people who have read a handful of self-help books, something recommended by Oprah or their yoga coach or a TV preacher or a guru who travels the world offering wisdom. There is also TED talks. I never belittle these insights, there is something about how these words or lessons or mindsets unlock something in someone and as quick as you can say “Open Saskatchewan!” that person formerly troubled is now operating on all cylinders. For that person, at that time, there was magic in a bottle and I would never undermine anything that brings out our best self.

I do get nervous when someone decides that what fixed her/him can fix anyone. We all know these folks, they can’t wait to tell you what worked for them. I get it. Sometimes it is helpful, often it is not. More often than not if the listener either fails to take the advice or tries to live out this new creed but nothing happens the response from the advice-giver is hostility, shaming and more than a little disappointment.

I am a Christian and thus I believe there is something about the life and death and new life of Jesus the Christ that has the potential to make a positive change in others. It need not be of a specific variety of Christian witness to make this transformation come to life. I have seen evangelical Christianity save some from certain death, contemplative Christianity bring insight and perspective to someone who is lost and drowning and social justice Christianity give people a purpose and cause to an otherwise meaningless life. Catholic Christianity has icons, ritual and history/tradition imbedded into its DNA and it too can make enormous change in people.

In essence what makes Jesus separate from “techniques” or strategies and what allows such different slants on his life to be so transformative is the nature of who Jesus is, Savior. I believe Jesus carried saving power, he embodied liberation and no one could meet him and be unaffected. Quite the opposite, knowing Jesus was to be changed, moved to become a citizen of a whole new world, the Kingdom. I believe other great religions carry with them a similar, and yet different, catalyst for change.

But underneath my own presence in those sacred conversations with people in crisis is the default belief that we all need/crave meaning in our lives. I tend to neither we fixed on personal development strategies or a conviction that if this person only had more of something s/he would find happiness. Of course there is basic personal development that every mature person needs to thrive. And no one can survive, let alone thrive, without the basics of shelter, income and food. But I believe that if you hear in another’s voice the dream of what meaning looks like to him/her a conversation may unlock the possibility to experience a meaningful life. When in doubt I listen for how the other defines meaning and where s/he is touching that meaningful life. I share what I hear and celebrate with the other the real possibility it could come to life. I am eager to assist. But as I often say, “I am not prepared to work harder for the other than the other her/himself.” That is a truism I take to heart. If I am working harder on your dream of kingdom living than you are there is a problem that needs to be addressed. I always say I am here for you, here to assist and accompany but not here to do things for or to you.

When I read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart and Michael Lerner’s The Politics of Meaning I knew I had uncovered my default position as a listener, as a thinker, as a doer. It is who I am.