Making Meaning

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about enchantment, disenchantment, and re-enchantment. While I stand behind the idea that, essentially, we make the meaning we want to in the world, I recognize that these ideas have some troubling consequences if they aren’t properly contextualized and integrated into the bigger picture of life. I’ve lost friends to a kind of hyperspirituality, where everything is spiritualized to the extent that they have trouble dealing with real life. I’ve had other friends whose insistence on finding meaning in the slightest change in others (a good hair day or a slight change in gait) has damaged their relationships. And so it’s important to discern what is significant for us and what’s not, what is signal, and what is noise. As I was thinking about this, I was reminded of a post I wrote on my old blog almost three years ago about this subject. And so, I thought I’d share some of those reflections here:

July 1, 2016

Yesterday morning, as I was sitting on my mother’s garden patio, basking in the peace and blessing of a new day, a hummingbird appeared as if from nowhere and hovered a few feet away from me for a about thirty seconds before flying away. For whatever reason, I was inspired in the moment to look up the spiritual significance of hummingbirds in North American indigenous cultures. I discovered that across diverse cultures, hummingbirds represent such ideas as “new birth,” “joy appearing unexpectedly,” “lightness of being,” and “love, relationships, and marriage.” As I’m in a transitional period in my life, and since joy and lightness have been particularly elusive fruit of the Spirit for me, these are a welcome set of associations. And so, I chose to accept the appearance of this hummingbird as personally meaningful—not necessarily as an omen or prophecy, but at least as a reminder of what I already know and believe from within my own tradition: that the greatest blessings are often unexpected, and that the Spirit is within me as a constant source of new life, bearing fruit of love, joy, peace, etc. from the depths of my heart.

But the question is, why did I choose to experience this hummingbird as meaningful? What was it about this encounter with this hummingbird that inspired me to look up its significance in cultures other than my own? Why not the raven that flew past me just a few moments later? (As it happens, in Pacific Northwestern cultures, ravens symbolize prophecy, changeability, and, as quintessential ‘trickster’ characters, polyvalency and unpredictability—a set of meanings that would be equally appropriate, if not quite as alluring, to my present circumstances.)

I find such questions about meaning-making and discernment very compelling. Meaning-making is one of the brain’s primary tasks, at both a subconscious and conscious level: We are unceasingly bombarded by an array of data our brains must process, the vast majority of it without our active, conscious involvement. Whether we’re talking about weather conditions, distant sounds, facial expressions or body language, our brains are constantly sorting and filtering information, looking for potential threats or opportunities. And yet, these deep operations of the limbic system are prone to error and so we must also learn to consciously override them. This is the glory of the evolution of the human brain: when our anxiety spikes at a loud noise, we have the ability to discern whether or not the perceived threat is real: backfiring car or shotgun? freight train or earthquake? And so, unlike our feline cousins, we know we don’t need to hide under the bed when we hear the vacuum cleaner. But in order to do this successfully, we must learn to discern which perceived threats are real and which are not. And, as those of us with tendencies towards anxiety know all too well, this is often easier said than done.

A similar process happens with how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. We carry around with us internalized narratives about who we are and how we fit in with our surroundings. Most of these powerful narratives are subconscious and they are not always helpful. So, just like our reactions to loud noises, if we’re going to live healthy and meaningful lives, we need to bring these subconscious narratives into the light of day and learn how to help shape them in positive ways. We have the power to choose what elements of our past we incorporate into our stories and therefore how we interpret that past and what it might mean for the present and future. But with power comes responsibility: as with the previous paragraphs, the question becomes one of discernment: How do we go about choosing which elements ‘fit’ our narrative? And how do we know which story is the ‘right’ one to tell?

Belonging to a faith tradition interacts with this process in an interesting way, providing a set of ready-made narratives through which believers understand our own stories. So, for example, it is common for Christians to understand their experiences of suffering in the light of the sufferings—and ultimate vindication—of Christ. Yet, these ready-made narratives can be as problematic as they can be helpful. When the story doesn’t go ‘as it should’ it can create a strong cognitive and spiritual dissonance that often leads to disenchantment and disillusionment. (As the psalmist experienced first-hand: ‘By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. … How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?’) Of course, any faith tradition is big enough and broad enough to contain many narratives and sub-narratives through which we can subsequently be reenchanted. And, because of the way we form and shape our own stories, we see this reenchantment not as a re-illusionment after disillusionment, but as a re-illumination, a coming out the other side with a deeper, more complicated (and therefore truer) understanding of ourselves, our faith, and our God.

But what if we’re wrong? What if yesterday morning’s hummingbird was meaningless? Or what if the real sign for me was the raven? How do we know if our spiritual or cognitive re-enchantment really is re-illumination and not re-illusionment, an exercise in self-deception and delusion?

And I think it’s these questions that lie at the heart of why I find the idea of meaning-making and spiritual discernment so compelling. In the midst of the endless confusion of data, what is signal? What is noise or static? And how do we know what a signal means? In the case of the hummingbird, the stakes are low: worst-case scenario is that I was reminded of something that is universally true. But of course there are other areas in life in which the stakes are far higher. Before my life took its sharp turn in 2010-11, for example, I was unable to reconcile my sexuality and my Christian faith; when my faith reasserted itself two-and-a-half years later, this thing that had been so huge, so immovable, for so long, had ceased to be an issue for me. In one way or the other, my story requires me to have been wrong, either before or now. Is there any way to know?

With the hummingbird, I was inclined to see it as meaningful because it appeared at a moment when I was in the midst of deep prayer and profound praise of the beauty of God’s creation, a moment when the universe felt particularly transparent to the presence and glory of God. Yet this is not a criterion I can really use for the other issue, because in both of the seasons of my life in question I was equally committed to following Christ and to discerning the leading of the Spirit. So what gives? Has God’s will for my life changed? Or was I just wrong all those years? (Or am I wrong now?) None of those options feels satisfactory; each raises more questions than it resolves. (In many ways, I think this is the crux of the issue felt by the Church at large right now when it comes to ‘the gay issue.’ Has God changed his mind about gay people? Has the Church been wrong all these centuries? Are the experiences of gay Christians simply deluded? These notions are very difficult to fathom and all seem somewhat unsatisfactory, and I think this is ultimately why there has been so much fear, anger, and mistrust involved in the conversation.)

Now, I have good reasons to believe that in my own story, it is the case that I was wrong before, that there were things in my life that clouded my ability to discern matters correctly: un-dealt-with anxiety; a desire for certainty, structure and black-and-white answers as I witnessed my family falling apart; a longing for a sense of belonging after a rootless childhood; a personality inclined to trust authority and disinclined to rock the boat; and a deep-seated, neurotic need to be ‘normal.’ Indeed, looking back at my pre-2010 faith, as beautiful and formative as it was and as grateful for it as I am, it was also marked by an unhealthy neediness and clinging. (One perceptive observer once told me that I seemed to be someone who needed to be Christian; I see now that this need was unhealthy and motivated entirely by fear of the reality of my life.) It seems by no means coincidental looking back that my crisis of faith occurred just as I was beginning to address my anxiety; to a surprising degree, a faith that I remember and experienced as being rooted in love and gratitude was really rooted in fear. In a more positive line of thought, however, I also have reason to believe that I am correct now: As a Christian, I trust Jesus’ teaching that ‘a tree will be known by its fruit’ (Mt 12.33), and there is simply no doubt that the fruit my life is bearing now is so much more abundant and good than that borne by my previous faith.

Could I be wrong? Of course. Only a fool would be so bold to answer otherwise. We are finite creatures with limited understanding, so of course I could be wrong. Six years ago I couldn’t fathom thinking as I do now about my life then. And I trust that six years from now I’ll look back at my life today with a similar sense of deeper understanding and perspective. Every interpretation of the signs and signals of life must be held with an open hand and open heart; every telling of our story is provisional. I don’t think this is a bad thing; God is always at work creating and re-creating, and so are we always creating and re-creating our experience of being alive, shaping and re-shaping our stories. And this process can bear surprising fruit and unexpected joys and blessings—just like the hummingbird I encountered on a garden patio yesterday morning.

6 thoughts on “Making Meaning

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