Does life give us meaning or do we give meaning to life?

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

“Life does not give us meaning. Life has only the meaning we give it,” from Happiness by Joan Chittister (Eerdmans). That statement stopped me in my tracks.
I put down the paper I was reading and began to think about those words, to view them while considering my own life. The new year is in its early stages. I still have time to review and renew my understanding of life and the meaning I give it. I still have the opportunity to discern who I might be and become this year and what I might do differently, as a result.
I have two grandchildren who are expending time and energy on their last year of high school. Both are contemplating the possibility of college attendance. Both are trying to decide which road to take, which school best suits their needs and wants. Both are balancing this anxiety with the anticipation of all the events that make senior year memorable.
For them, life as high school seniors is giving them meaning. Tassle-turning, proms, exams, farewells and greetings are among the things that define and describe them. In their youthful experience, they do not stop to give meaning to the events.
Sadly, this is too often the case with adults, as well. Rather than devote time and energy to the essential task of identifying the meaning we give to life, we allow life to determine who we are.
We let life decide how and why we do what we do. Instead of owning our existence so that we might allow God to transform it while we do the revamping along with God, we opt to float. “Whatever!” becomes our mantra as well as our excuse for indecisiveness and inaction.
Then the question of happiness arises. When life is allowed to give us meaning, discontent arrives. Unhappiness plagues us. All seems to go awry; goodness disappears. Nothing seems worthwhile.
In her commentary on happiness, Chittister continues. “It’s one thing for a person to realize too late that they have lived for no great purpose and so will die with little impact. It’s entirely another, however, to live with the discomfort of knowing that we are living in vain, that we do nothing for no one that has meaning to anyone. But, a sense of purpose and meaning, an understanding of why we are doing what we do, has the ring of immortality to it. Then we suddenly come to realize that we are leaving something of value behind us. Then we can be happy for having lived at all.”
I can hardly imagine living with the discomfort of knowing that I am living in vain. That kind of futility fuels a deadening of one’s spirit and is the source of unspeakable unhappiness. It speaks to me of the disheartening comments made in the face of feeling that each day is a repetition of its predecessor.
Each day is a glaring example of “same ole...same ole” or, worse yet, “different day, same senselessness,” a cleaned-up version of a bumper sticker’s account of life.
The human search for meaning gives life its content. It becomes our human gift to each other. Now all the coincidences we happen upon become occasions of providential grace. All is grace.
Hubby Dear loves to recount the five miracles he received last year in just a few months. In chronological order they were: first, we found a delightful new abode a few miles from our prior residence; second, in the face of certain death, I lived; third, our home bordering Sasspan Creek was sold in short order; fourth, our beloved Sir Cat who could no longer remain with us was happily received into a new home; and last, according to one of our dear friends, Hubby got a cell phone.
As he recalled the events, Hubby Dear knew more than ever before that he was giving meaning to the cards life dealt him. He recalled many events across his 82 years that would cause him to pause and reflect on life’s meaning. Questions became orientation points. “How could this have happened in this way and at this time?”
Answers came slowly, in a “rear view window” approach. Just as we look in the rear view mirrors of our vehicles to see what cannot be seen by only looking forward, so too do God’s will and God’s providence become more clearly visible.
I remember the time when, as a single parent whose spouse was suffering with a severe case of multiple sclerosis, I drove to the local Cumberland Farms store to buy a gallon of milk.
Departing from my car, I walked past a real estate office to get to the place where I could acquire the needed milk. The purchase done, I began my return trip, but suddenly I turned into the realty. The agent on duty asked what he might do for me. With tears welling in my eyes, I said, “You can sell my house.”
Where did that come from? Whatever possessed me to act so impulsively? Was I tackling life and giving it meaning? At the moment, I did not know. With the passage of time and many moments of reflection, it became abundantly clear that my impulse was the bubbling up of personal taking hold of life to give it meaning. My house was sold. I managed to have another house, handicapped accessible, built in the adjoining town. In that town, we were in a new parish, attending a church where the Cursillo movement was alive and well. I made the weekend retreat. That move ultimately resulted in my leaving a very good job with the public school system to become a director of religious education.
The move meant a substantial loss of salary but the beginning of a whole new life. No longer was I doing a job. I was now totally involved in ministry. I was completely immersed in a life to which I was continually giving meaning.
I was...I am...completely happy that I have lived at all.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in Theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Novant Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at grammistfran@gmail.com.