Religious people want there to be meaning in everything. Randomness is hard on us: that things happen for no reason sometimes brings us closer than we want to be to the possibility that we’re not central to much of anything, and most of us are still too wedded to our ancient anthropocentrism to give that up. –Barbara Crafton, Jesus Wept: When Faith and Depression Meet[i]
Some time around the second grade I was traumatized by an educational movie about Beethoven. I remember sitting in the music classroom at my elementary school, hearing the cinematic re-creation of the humming in the composer’s ears as his deafness advanced, and his anguished voice asking God why He would give the gift of music to one destined not to hear it. Believing that his gifts as a composer meant something, and that his hearing loss was equally fraught with meaning, the irreconcilability of meanings tortured him, perhaps even more than the deafness itself.
His unanswerable question nourished in me a terror that would plague me into middle age: the terror of the possibility that things don’t have any meaning. The notion that neither Beethoven’s ability nor his disability meant a cotton-pickin’ thing is so deeply unsettling as to render it well-nigh inadmissible, yet the opposing position—that either or both did have meaning--raises the specter of Divine indifference, negligence or downright cruelty.
Though I am experiencing more presbyaudia than I like, I do not appear to be in immediate danger of going deaf--but I did struggle for years with vocation and meaning in my career. The facts of the matter are these: 1) I can write worthwhile music, and 2) I cannot get it performed. Because I believed there was meaning in Fact #1—that I was “called” to be a composer—I spent years in fruitless agony over Fact #2: why would God bestow the gift of music on someone who was destined to go unheard? Yet both are just facts, and the question of what they mean is a non-starter because they don’t mean a blessed thing. So it is up to me, the facts being what they are, to decide what to do with the bundle of desires and predilections I blithely call “myself”; trying to derive meaning from the meaningless and wanting things to be other than they are just eats up your life.
So when I see people in danger of inflicting the same injuries on themselves as I did, I want to stop them, warn them off their self-destructive course. Earlier this year, I read this Facebook status update posted by a friend and former student who is a talented writer and sci-fi/fantasy übergeek:
(Xxxx Xxxxx) got rejected by (xxxxx.com) for a position writing about Star Wars. WRITING. About STAR WARS. If I can't get that job, I really don't think I have much chance in this world...
Oh no, I thought; she thinks it means something that she didn’t get the job. And her friends’ comments, trying to make sense of the slight--explain it away--aren’t helping. Not wanting to see this smart, talented, creative young woman become bogged down in bootless speculation about meaning, I decided it was time to put in my own unsolicited oar. I wasn’t about to tell her that hard work and talent are inevitably rewarded and she must surely succeed some day, that everything happens for a reason, that America is the Land of Opportunity and God Has a Plan For Your Life, because that’s all bullshit. The truth, as I see it, is actually far simpler than all that.
Don't look too hard for meaning; there is a lot less of it than we think, and the search for it burdens us. Sometimes things just suck.
Her response followed quickly.
It's rather amazing how that comment was depressing and encouraging at the same time...
Except that it isn’t amazing, really. “Joy and woe,” as Blake knew, “are woven fine, / A clothing for the soul divine.” The older you get, the more you realize that both are always present. They are inextricable warp and weft; we put them on like garments and they take our shape for a while, then they fall away. They, too, do not mean anything.
Which is not to say they have nothing to teach us; woe in particular has a hefty teaching docket, as Aeschylus affirmed:
He who learns must suffer
And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despite, against our will,
Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
Loathe as I am to retard anyone’s learning by sparing them instructive suffering, I recount here a few of my own drops of meaning-related pain, in more or less chronological order, for whatever vicarious teaching value they may have.
At my high school, like most high schools, the graduating seniors wrote “senior wills” in which they “bequeathed” various items to the classmates they were leaving behind. Evidently there was some kind of minor scandal during my junior year, in which some student or group made hurtful bequests resulting in tears and outraged phone calls. As a result, members of the faculty made so many black-marker redactions in the issue of the school paper in which my class’s senior wills appeared that it looked like it had been wrested from the Defense Department using the Freedom of Information Act. The teachers simply blacked out anything they didn’t understand (including, for instance, all references to LAX, a common abbreviation for “lacrosse.”)
That is how many churchy people read the world: like a suspect document whose author is trying to put something over on them. For people who profess to worship Jesus Christ as both fully divine and fully human, a lot of churchfolk are intensely uncomfortable with ambiguity and paradox. If a painting, poem, story or piece of music leaves them at all mystified, out it goes. Perhaps Archibald MacLeish had them in mind when he wrote that “a poem should not mean, / But be,” because churchy people want to know what everything “means.” By the time they’re done, the world is a mass of redactions.
What, then, becomes of the Sacred Mysteries of the Christian faith—the Holy Trinity, the divine nature of Jesus, the Sacraments—those bafflingly beautiful and beautifully baffling signs that are the hallmarks of the Gospel way of life? They are treated like the kid who owns the kickball: we have to let him play if we’re ever going to get on with it, but we don’t generally invite him to the picnic afterward. A mystery, said Cambridge musician-theologian Jeremy Begbie, is not “a problem to be solved, but a reality to be enjoyed.” Yet for many churchy people, to “take something on faith” means to profess belief in it while steadfastly avoiding thinking about it.
No doubt, the spiritual stinginess of some churchy people is motivated by a genuine concern for doctrinal purity and the safeguarding of souls. Much of it is doubtless the result of low intellectual wattage masquerading as zeal for orthodoxy. Most of it is probably a combination of the two. While still a teenager I found myself arguing with an elderly Baptist lady who asserted that, because I had not undergone full-immersion baptism, I had not really been baptized at all, but “sprinkled.” As the argument approached the point where her position must soon become untenable, she ended the conversation by saying, “I think you read too much.” Her heart may have been in the right place in some twisted way, but that encounter set back my Christian formation by years.
“Where is the wise man?” asked Paul in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth. “Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”[ii] And the answer of course is yes, God has. But Paul, himself a learned man steeped in the wisdom tradition of the Hebrew scriptures, would have either told me why my baptism was not valid, or admitted that it was. Human beings in the pre-modern world, Screwtape told his nephew Wormwood in C. S. Lewis’s novel, “still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning.” Perhaps this is why so many churchy people are uncomfortable with reason, even as they demand meaning: their real object of worship—their accustomed way of life—is the last thing they want to risk altering.
I had a churchy private music theory student who came to my home for lessons for a short time--a very short time, as it turned out. Catching sight of my tabla on the first day, she asked me what they were, and when I told her they were North Indian hand drums and that I played them, she went all strange on me. Eventually she asked, in a weird, squirrelly, not-making-eye-contact sort of way, if I were “interested in Indian philosophy as well.” Not having yet studied Yoga or Vedanta philosophy, I replied that, while-I- found-the-Indian-cyclical-conception-of-time-to-be-a-useful-counterweight-to-our-Western-linear-model-of-time-which-we-assume-to-be-Biblical-but-is-I-believe-largely-cultural, on the whole, no, I’m a Christian. That evidently wasn’t reassuring enough, because I never saw her again. The fact that I played those foreign drums must, in her mind, mean something, and it couldn’t be anything wholesome.
There’s a scene in the movie Peter and Paul in which we briefly see Paul (brilliantly played by Anthony Hopkins) laughing and dancing to frame drums and aulos with the Greeks in Corinth—caught in the act of being “all things to all people.”[iii] I love that scene, but am under no delusion about the willingness of most churchy people to do anything of the kind. Professional missionaries do, of course, but not the people in the pews, for the most part. (Hell, I couldn’t even get the Episcopalians at my church to risk English Country Dancing at our parish Twelfth Night party.) What would it mean if we did that stuff?
OK—I’m not going to labor the point by detailing all my petty encounters with Gospel-tinted bullheadedness. (The train wreck of my two years in the pre-ordination process merits a whole post to itself, if not a whole book, if not to be consigned to merciful oblivion.) Anyone who’s ever run athwart churchy peoples’ determination to insulate themselves from the unfamiliar knows exactly what I mean here. I’m sure that when God said “Behold, I do a new thing” to the ancient Hebrews, many of them said, “But we’ve never done it that way before!”
Measured and Found Wanting
As an undergrad I showed an art-song I had composed to one of the faculty members. A setting of a comic poem by Rudyard Kipling, it had a light touch but, I thought, a reasonably sophisticated approach. And a catchy tune. “Well,” he said after I’d played and sung it for him, “Stephen Sondheim has written less intellectual things than that.”
He dismissed my piece by comparing it favorably to Stephen Sondheim.
Some years later in graduate school, my composition teacher’s hard-nosed wife summed up a choral piece of mine with a grudging, “Well, I’d rather listen to that than John Rutter.” Thanks; that means a lot. Maybe you’d prefer it to a gingivectomy as well?
I came of age during the last gasp of the twelve-tone era; my instructors were at pains to dismiss the music of Steve Reich and Phillip Glass as so much wifty ephemera. Looking back, I think of them as the Classical Music is Very Serious Business Generation. And for a long time, I bought in to the fiction that it was very important that all my music be as intellectually rigorous as possible—that music is only worthwhile if most people do not understand it. I still vividly remember the visceral intensity of my relief in the world-changing moment when I realized that God was not going to judge me on the gravitas of every note I write--that writing simple music was not the moral equivalent of pissing in the well. “Some of us tend to think that what we do and say and decide and write are cosmically important things,” wrote Anne Lamott. “But they’re not.”[iv] My music doesn’t mean anything! Praise God!
But Saint Peter is not the most stringent gatekeeper out there. I once showed some choral scores to a Very Important Choir Director in an Episcopal parish (my own at the time.) Glancing at them, he nodded and said, “I’ll bet people ooh’d and aah’d over these when they were premiered.” Well, yes, actually, they did, I rejoined. Nodding again, he said—and I am not making this up—“Fortunately, I’m in a position not to have to care about that sort of thing.”
Some weeks later the choir performed a piece by a well-known contemporary composer that exhibited many of the same musical characteristics the director had objected to in my work. When I pointed this out, he replied that the composer in question was entitled to a performance because he is famous, and it wasn’t his job to make me famous, too. Looking back, I wonder what on earth kept me beating my head against the wall for as long as I did.
If only I had known at the time that the rejection didn’t mean anything at all about me. It meant plenty about him, and the fact that the music programs of the Episcopal Church are chock-full of people like him means plenty, too. And all it meant about my work was that, while good, it wasn’t transcendently fantastic enough to overcome the fact that I hadn’t gone to the right schools and cultivated the right people. But about me it meant nothing at all. Because I didn’t realize that, I made myself and a lot of people around me miserable for years.
During graduate school, I applied for a composer residency with three houses of worship. After all the participating consortia had reviewed my materials, one of them called me in for an interview, which went very well. So I was disappointed, though not shocked, when I was not chosen for the residency; after all, there were other qualified applicants. In the interest of turning a rejection into a learning opportunity, I contacted the staff member at the composers’ forum that administered the program to ask where I had gone wrong. The staffer startled me by babbling incoherently about “demographics” and “variables” is a highly stressed-out way. Having learned nothing of value to apply to my next application, I then contacted one of the participating choir directors. Though less panicky, she too hemmed and hawed in obvious discomfort. “It wasn’t you,” she said cryptically, finally admitting that I had been passed over because the chosen composer was a woman. From what I could gather, this was her third attempt at one of these residencies, and the forum wanted to avoid the appearance of gender discrimination. “Now that you know that, what are you going to do?” she asked.
I suppose I ought to have done everything—hired a lawyer and made them make it up to me—or nothing. In the best case scenario, the first option would have resulted in my being handed a thrown-together project whose point people had been pressured into it and which was destined to painful failure. The second would have spared me and everyone else the cataract of painful drops that attended the vitriolic grousing I actually did, the relation of which would fill up a large and breathtakingly boring memoir.
But here’s the point: about the forum, the incident meant only that they cared more about social engineering than about music, which everybody knew anyway; about my work, it meant once again that it was good enough to be desirable, but not to sweep all other considerations aside. Had I only known that it didn’t mean anything at all about me, I could have avoided bringing scalding pain on myself and others. But I didn’t. To me, the fact of my talent meant that I had a calling and a right to fulfill it, and that they were thwarting me and it was an outrage. Exhausting, isn’t it? I could have walked away and been much happier.
And yet, like some femme fatale, the musical world in which I was trained knew just how long it could hold out on me before trailing some tantalizing hint across my path to keep me hooked. The Vice-President of a prestigious publishing house once told me, “Your stuff is better than ninety per cent of what comes across my desk, but I can’t use it.” What does a creative person do with that? Give up and allow music you know is good, that you poured yourself into, lie unheard? Or stay hooked, and keep trying, and trying, and trying forever? When do we show the devil-we-know the door?
(Of course, I realize that the truth is far worse than this: the academic music world wasn’t stringing me along—in fact, it doesn’t even know I exist. My own brain has projected the stringing-along fantasy in self-defense, finding cruelty more endurable than indifference.)
I have a friend who grew up in the church—who majored in church music, in fact—and turned her back on it when her three-year-old niece died. What could I say to her? In the years since she told me about it, I have said nothing. I don’t how to make what I want to say—that whatever meaning there is in her niece’s death resides, not in the event itself, but in the responses to it of the people who loved her—leap the synapse that exists between one who has suffered such a thing and one who has not. Perhaps it ought not to be leapt. I also don’t know what she was taught to believe about such things; if anyone were to tell me to accept that my child’s death was part of a divine plan, I might well walk away, too.
We want to find meaning in things. When Sri Ramakrishna was dying of throat cancer, his devotees tried to make sense of his illness, some by believing that he had willed it on himself to bring his devotees together, some believing that the Divine Mother had caused it for reasons of her own.
But the young rationalists, led by Narendra [later known to the world as Swami Vivekananda] refused to ascribe a supernatural cause to a natural phenomenon. They believed that the Master’s body, a material thing, was subject, like all other material things, to physical laws.[v]
I love Vivekananda’s steady clear-sightedness. It takes courage to stop looking for meaning in events and take on instead the task of bestowing meaning by the way we live in the face of them. His stern pursuance of reason, and impatience with what he called “superstition” and “beings above the clouds” make a bracing tonic for anyone caught in the God Has a Plan for Your Life trap.
We have desires, and we call them promptings; abilities, and we call them vocations; we parse them, and call it discernment. We make choices, and navigate our way through their consequences. Things happen to us, and they do not have meaning in themselves--we endow them with meaning by our responses to them. In a Catholic church in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the celebrant announced that a beloved former priest of the parish, who was dying of cancer, was “offering up” his suffering for that community. Never having heard of such a thing outside of Irish literature, I was stunned when I realized what it really meant: by voluntarily joining his suffering with Jesus’, the priest was refusing to be a victim of his circumstances, turning instead a thing that had happened to him into a freely-offered instrument of redemption. Love, as Evelyn Underhill put it, makes all the difference between an execution and a martyrdom.
The Devil trembles when human beings know “that horrors may be in store for (them,) and are praying for the virtues wherewith to meet them.”[vi] Things may happen to us--even fatal things—but spiritual death is not visited upon us; we bring it upon ourselves.
Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”[vii]
Phillip, the semi-autobiographical protagonist of Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage, met a dissipated and largely unpublished poet in Paris named Cronshaw, who gave Phillip a remnant of a Persian carpet. The carpet, Cronshaw told him, held in it the answer to the meaning of life. Phillip kept the remnant for many years, through titanic struggles, repeated failures and almost relentless suffering as he tried to find what the world called “success” in life. One day, long after the carpet fragment had been lost, Phillip realized, with the abruptness of revelation, the truth that had eluded him for so many years: life does not have any meaning.
His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty. What he did or left undone did not matter. Failure was unimportant and success amounted to nothing…(T)hat was why Cronshaw, he imagined, had given him the Persian rug. As the weaver elaborated his pattern for no end but the pleasure of his aesthetic sense, so might a man live his life…Out of the manifold events of his life, his deeds, his feelings, his thoughts, he might make a design, regular, elaborate, complicated, or beautiful…In the vast warp of life (a river arising from no spring and flowing endlessly to no sea), with the background to his fancies that there was no meaning and that nothing was important, a man might get a personal satisfaction in selecting the various strands that worked out the pattern. There was one pattern, the most obvious, perfect, and beautiful, in which a man was born, grew to manhood, married, produced children, toiled for his bread, and died; but there were others, intricate and wonderful, in which happiness did not enter and in which success was not attempted; and in them might be discovered a more troubling grace…His life had seemed horrible when it was measured by its happiness, but now he seemed to gather strength as he realised that it might be measured by something else. Happiness mattered as little as pain. They came in, both of them, as all the other details of his life came in, to the elaboration of the design.[viii]
Whatever meaning, whatever beauty there is in life resides in our living of it, and not in the events of life themselves. Sloppy biblical interpretation often involves eisegesis, the “reading in” of meaning to the text. I have spent most of my days doing a similar thing: reading meaning into life. But meaning is not in life any more than a pattern is in the threads; we must weave our carpets for ourselves.
[i] Crafton, Barbara, Jesus Wept: When Faith and Depression Meet. Jossey-Bass, 2009.
[ii] 1 Corinthians 1:20
[iii]1 Corinthians 9:22
[iv] LaMott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor, 1995. (115)
[v] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Abridged Edition. Translated by Swami Nikhilananda. Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1988. (68)
[vi] Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters
[vii] Luke 13: 4-5
[viii] Maugham, Somerset, Of Human Bondage.