Finding Meaning in This “Vale of Tears”

Finding Meaning in This “Vale of Tears” November 20, 2018

As we approach Thanksgiving here in America, I reflect upon the idea of finding meaning and purpose in one’s life. A few years ago, I ran a short series on the topic. Well, some folks (as I heard through the social-media grapevine) had expected me to literally lay out instructions for how to find meaning in life. Today’s post might answer that concern. Today, I’ll show you how I found meaning in my own life, and how that process differed from when I was Christian.

(s2 art.)

Quick note before we get moving: I won’t be using a lot of cumbersome #NotAllChristians distancers, but please rest assured that I’m well aware that many Christians are quite a lot more sensible than this. What we’re covering today isn’t a universal belief in the religion–but it also isn’t exclusively evangelical or hardcore Catholic.

Meaning vs. Purpose.

Now, I’m not talking about purpose in life. When I was Christian, that idea usually involved a set task that we thought our god had laid upon us (a burden, to use the tedious Christianese). Purposes helped the Kingdom in some way. They might look like missionary work, evangelism, charity efforts, or ministry generally. Purposes could also look like opening a Jiffy Lube franchise in Rockaway, New Jersey. Christians prayed to figure out what task their god had assigned to them. Then, these Christians announced that “Jesus” had told them their life purpose. And then, everyone considered the task a binding eternal contract with Jesus.

No, I’m talking about meaningfulness. I mean that quality of feeling that one’s life contains some kind of ultimate significance somehow. When we talk about meaningfulness, we really seek an answer to what many folks consider the biggest question of ’em all. We seek to know what the point to living is.

Our tasks change constantly in life. So do our circumstances. Family members come and go, to an extent, as do friends. Our interests shift and ebb and flow. But meaningfulness represents the sum total of all of it. In our last moments alive, do we depart this good dark earth feeling like we had some sort of impact on those we leave behind?

And how do people figure out how to find that quality of meaningfulness? Can people pursue it deliberately? Well, we had our theories.

Meaning in Life: Christian Edition.

When I was Christian, especially when I was an evangelical, we took for granted the idea that each and every one of us held a specific place in our god’s ineffable cosmic plan. Thus, every one of us lived lives thrumming with meaningfulness, even if we didn’t perceive that quality for ourselves.

But it didn’t take me long to discover that my new tribe didn’t particularly know how to answer that big question. On the Cru website, they offer a page called “What is the Meaning of Life?” They subtitle it thusly:

You are not alone if you have ever wondered about the meaning of life or about the purpose of your own. Here are testimonies of some who received an answer to this question.

They never actually answer the question. Instead, they present testimonies of conversions that they hope will answer the question for them. 

Most of these Christians default to insisting that meaningfulness is always found through devotion to Christianity. They tie meaningfulness to the fulfillment of one’s divinely-assigned purpose. That makes sense to me–after all, if someone rejects Christianity, then that person also isn’t performing their divinely-assigned task (or are they?). And someone who refuses to perform their divinely-assigned task will obviously not find meaningfulness, since meaningfulness happens while performing that task.

Meaning in Life for Non-Christians, According to Christians.

But one thing my tribe felt very certain of: non-Christians lived lives of quiet desperation. We thought they lacked any sense of meaningfulness, as well as any mechanism for achieving meaningfulness. Non-Christians’ lives, according to Christians, were empty, unfulfilling, animalistic, shallow, and appetite-driven–the polar opposite of the way these same Christians presented their own lives.

Way too many Christians still think that way today.

Just as they can’t conceive of a life purpose that is personally-created rather than divinely-handed-down, they can’t conceive of meaningfulness existing outside of their particular flavor of their particular religion. To hear them talk about it, literally nobody in the world except TRUE CHRISTIANS™ can possibly feel fulfilled in life. The mere presence of belief in a Christian’s life opens their capacity for meaningfulness. All they need to do to feel it is to reach out and take it.

If someone converts and still doesn’t feel that life is particularly meaningful, then they accuse that person of doing Christianity wrong.

Meaning in Life for Christians: the Reality.

I noticed fairly early on in evangelicalism that people seemed notoriously bad at receiving divinely-sent messages of any kind. My fellow tribemates routinely misinterpreted their divinely-handed-down tasks. Their divinely-commanded marriages ended disastrously; their divinely-commanded business ventures failed spectacularly. Some of them even ran for political office based on what they thought their god was telling them to do–and they lost those races.

I proved similarly susceptible. Indeed, I made a great many of these same sorts of mistakes myself.

If they were this bad at figuring out what life decisions their god wanted them to make, then it stands to reason that these same Christians might also be terribly wrong about what their purposes were–and about what really made their lives feel meaningful.

Here, too, I discovered that no matter how fervent and sincere I felt, and no matter how close I thought I was to my imaginary friend or what kind of relationship I imagined existed with him, I didn’t feel that my life was particularly meaningful. My beliefs that it was–somehow, even if I couldn’t tell it–were largely abstract. A lot of Christians clearly face the same struggles. They try in vain to feel like more than conquerors even though they operate in a system designed to make members feel inadequate and less-than.

Meaning in Life, Generally Speaking.

A big part of the marketing hype for Christianity revolves around the idea that here, at last, is Meaningfulness-In-A-Box. Buy this product, and you will finally achieve Meaningfulness! Open it up, and let the scent of Meaningfulness waft over you! You can’t get Meaningfulness without this exclusive product! This is the only source of it, ever, anywhere!

But here’s the funny thing about Christianity’s various come-ons.

Nothing they offer that is actually good is unique to their religion, and nothing they offer that’s fairly unique to their religion is all that good. So that box doesn’t really exist. And the scent of Meaningfulness doesn’t so much waft as choke, sometimes.

Some Christians seem to really truly find meaningfulness in their religion, managing to cobble belief in a Meaningfulness box that is so strong that they can all but touch it. However, many others do not experience that good fortune–except in that abstract “Well it must be out there somewhere, right?” sense.

And there is this, too:

Whatever Christians claim can be only gotten from Christianity, you can find it elsewhere–and it’ll likely be much better that way, too, and demand less from you. 

So you can bet one thing: whatever brings people feelings of meaningfulness, they can find it in any religion–and without religion at all. They might have to build the box that Christians claim to offer, but they can, and it’s a real box with real meaningfulness inside it.

Finding That Meaning.

It would probably bother these Christians to no end if they realized how little difference truly exists between themselves and their outgroups. If anything, they seem worse in so many respects.

That’s why a recent survey conducted by Pew Research Center discovered what it did about meaningfulness. Though America remains a remarkably religious country, most survey respondents did not offer “faith” as a quality that made their lives meaningful. Only 20% of respondents volunteered “faith” in this manner.

By contrast, when the survey asked them to pick qualities from a set list that included faith, suddenly Christians remembered what their party line was supposed to be. But even then, faith didn’t figure that prominently in their life-equations–the percentage only jumped to 36%. (The younger the respondent, the less likely they were to name faith as something that gave their life meaning.)

This survey confirms something I’ve known for many years about Christians. They’re happy to play their Pretendy Fun Time Game for as long as the game doesn’t impact anything truly important, but once that starts to happen, they get down to the serious business of living their real lives.

So when it comes to achieving a meaningful-feeling life, Christians and non-Christians alike seem to tackle that task in the same way: They work out what’s important to them as people, as individuals, and then try to arrange their lives to reflect that priority, based upon their circumstances and available resources.

The Most Meaningful Meaningfulness.

See, the Christians who buy into this idea of Meaningfulness-In-A-Box think that meaningfulness, as a quality, is objective–just like they imagine purposefulness is. Both exist as a quality that can be quantified and qualified, bound about with integers and measurements, an if-then, either-or quantum. These qualities slip about Christians like shrouds, and then both drop away from them as belief blossoms into existence and then withers away.

And neither can be obtained anywhere but through their very own licensed franchise warehouse. They know this because their salespeople, who stand to gain quite a bit through sales of this notion, tell them so. But their lives–especially their mistakes in figuring out what this objective meaningfulness and purpose even are–tell us otherwise.

They call it objective, by which they mean divinely-handed-down. In reality, individuals determine what those terms mean for themselves. It is as subjective as anything can possibly get–as personal, and as personally-unique, as anyone can possibly imagine.

It works out a lot better when the people involved know that this is the case.

Changing Life, Changing Mind.

When people know that they determine what brings meaningfulness to their lives, they’re free to re-evaluate as the years go by and circumstances change. Meanwhile, I’ve literally seen Christians held to promises they made when they were five years old at a revival camp. Once someone’s pegged a purpose as being divine will, then that person will be considered as living a meaningless life if they do anything else. It rattles Christians to imagine being wrong or changing their minds, so they simply don’t allow that as a possibility.

When Christians try to sell the idea that only objective meaningfulness is truly meaningful enough, we need to ask how they know that. Maybe they themselves profess agreement with this idea, but I do not agree. I personally experienced both the Christian forms of meaningfulness and the non-Christian forms of it. As a result, I personally find the non-Christian form of meaningfulness to be infinitely more satisfying and, well, meaningful-feeling.

People don’t tend to value things that are handed to them–even if that process functions largely in their own imaginations. When they figure that stuff out for themselves, especially at a cost, they value it so much more.

And since that appears to be the only way it really works, that’s good.

Instructions.

In answer to the folks who expressed disappointment that I didn’t provide detailed instructions to find meaning in life, I have to say that I don’t think that’s possible. Meaningfulness, as a quality, differs so greatly between people, circumstances, and resource levels. It might not even be a universal need.

And so much advice exists these days for finding meaningfulness. Make a plan. Don’t make a plan.

What I can say is that I spent some time thinking about what mattered to me. What does living a life that matters mean to you? Maybe you can figure out what resources you have, and then see how you can start working toward those ideals with those resources. Create goals that will move you toward those ideals. Try to line up your everyday behavior with where you want to be in your ideal life. Every day, try to move a bit closer if you can. If you feel like you’re just spinning your wheels for too long, seek help–from friends or from professionals–to help you escape those ruts.

For me, that whole process resulted in beginning a blog to talk about religion and how it intersects with culture. And I derive more meaningfulness from that than I did from anything else from my years as a Christian.

The Only Real Immortality.

Nobody can hand someone else meaningfulness. We all work that out for ourselves–even Christians! That’s why it matters so much when we find it–and why it’s worth spending our lives working toward it, to those who value the having of it. A life that matters somehow is, ultimately, the only immortality that we know for sure we can achieve.

And the good news is that Christians can neither gatekeep meaningfulness nor deny its presence in others. It’s not up to them–as much as they’d like it to be. That doesn’t stop them from trying to do both, of course! But we’re under no obligation to play along with any of their demands.

We are free to construct our lives the way that works best for us.

We are free.

(Remi Yuan.) Photographer’s note: “After re-booking our flights 3 times, 6 flights later we finally made it. The feeling I get looking at this is the feeling of success after so much going wrong. Inspires me that even after dark times, you can find a bright spot of beauty and happiness.” rAmen!

NEXT UP: The Thanksgiving Super Special and an Off-Topic Wonderland! See you next time!


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h/t to Hemant Mehta for writing up this Pew survey, and to John Pieret for bringing it up in comments!

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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