There’s a debate I’ve been wanting to have with anyone who’d be willing about whether ‘meaning’ is constructed or found/discovered.
I’ve always leaned towards ‘found’ because meaning necessarily means a story bigger than my own. If I construct it then I’m the author, but the author needs a story too. The other thing about self-constructed story or meaning is that it doesn’t fit with other people’s stories unless there’s a meta-narrative (uh oh, theology alert). And if it does fit then it’s not just my story, I have to discover how mine fits with others’ and all stories, which brings us back to what meaning means. Yet – and maybe I’ll contradict myself here – we do participate in its formation; meaning-for-us wouldn’t exist without us living, loving and creating as we do. But I think it’s derivative, like happiness. It comes out of the blue, when we’re seeking and doing something else.
That something else I want to say is ‘purpose’. And like meaning, it’s common purpose, something that involves me in other people’s lives.
Relational Proximity Dimension #5 is Purpose/Commonality: Our sense of connectedness and relationship is greater to the degree we have things in common or share a common purpose or identity. A good relationship has a direction to it, something that is common between the members that holds it together.
Despite my desire and advocacy for directness, the best relationships seem to consist in something external, something that compels us individually towards a third party, yet brings us together: a purpose or identity that somehow forms the relationship and makes it what it is. The absence of a third party, a common purpose – especially the absence of your conscious awareness of that common purpose – makes for a much harder relationship. It makes it hard to know what is worth fighting for, worth sacrificing for, worth dying for one another.
It happens on multiple levels and in a thousand ways: sports club, family, a project, a company, artistic performance, nationality, marriage, accident, a book … on and on. The thing that makes life and relationships so rich is the bazillion ways we find purposeful (even if frivolous) things to do with each other. Think of any relationship and I think you’ll find that its health, depth, significance, correlates with how strong your sense of common purpose is. It could be your work group, but if you’re closer one person than another, there’s likely something else that binds you, but it’s still something “else”.
And ultimately, maybe it’s someone else. I did give you a theology alert! In an ultimate sense, these smaller and greater spheres of meaning we experience and seek, do find themselves cohering in a big story. We want our lives to matter, to someone. Not just ‘matter’. So true meaning is derivative, it comes because of someone. And I contend, I think with many who have contended for thousands of years, that a personal God, who loves us, is the one in whom we will find ultimate meaning. We may not find it in this lifetime, but as a child can rest confidently in the knowledge of its mother’s love without knowing what everything means, so can we in God’s. There’s more to say about it – such as what keeps us from God and from each other – but it won’t surprise you to know that Scripture describes Jesus Christ as the mediator who paradoxically draws us closer than you could possibly imagine. So I’ll leave it here with the words of Dietrich Bonheoffer:
There is no way from one person to another. However loving and sympathetic we try to be, however sound our psychology, however frank and open our behaviour, we cannot penetrate the incognito of the other man, for there are no direct relationships, not even between soul and soul. Christ stands between us, and we can only get into touch with our neighbours through him. That is why intercession is the most promising way to reach our neighbours, and corporate prayer, offered in the name of Christ, the purest form of fellowship….
The same Mediator who makes us individuals is also the founder of a new fellowship. He stands in the center between my neighbour and myself. He divides, but he also unites. Thus although the direct way to our neighbour is barred, we now find the new and only real way to him–the way which passes through the Mediator. [Discipleship, 106-113]
Post-script: What led to this post was a prayer meeting at church tonight. Part of the prayer that I had to lead was “Prayer for the Nation” (i.e. the USA). I’m English, the guy who led it is Ghanaian-born, our church has people from 60 nations in it, our home is the USA for now; I have my family (siblings etc.) and family (wife, children); I’m involved in great projects at work; I live on my street here; I play guitar with a neighbor; I’m a Christian. In all these are layers and spheres of purpose and meaning. I’m clueless what they all mean, how they fit together. But in all the different ways these different purposes and commonalities explain my relationships very well.