Praying for Meaning
Have you ever wondered why certain events, either very positive or very negative, happen to you? Maybe you've had an important relationship break-up, or you did quite poorly on a critical exam. On the other hand, maybe you unexpectedly got the perfect job, or you inherited a pile of money. We often try different theories to explain these outcomes to ourselves. Am I just cursed? Does nothing go right for me? Or maybe I'm just really lucky and great things seem to happen out of the blue. The explanations we give ourselves establish the meaning of the events in our lives. Research indicates that the meaning we ascribe to painful circumstances determines in part, how well we cope with adversity, whether we emerge resilient or whether we feel overwhelmed.
A classic example is that of a soldier wounded in battle. The soldier may be in great pain but nonetheless, be happy because she/he survived and is going home. Another person, wounded in a drive-by shooting on a city street, may be equally in pain but be miserable because of the unfairness of the injury. Again, the meaning we associate with the circumstance affects our mood and recovery.
One important outcome of prayer is that it can open the door to spiritual meaning. In spiritual meaning, we ascribe a spiritual context or purpose for an event so that the event takes on a positive and fulfilling role in our lives. This morning, while walking my dog through an intersection, I narrowly avoided getting hit by a car. Was that event a reflection of my bad luck or an opportunity given to me to experience gratitude and a renewed sense of purpose in life? Similarly, are your negative experiences gifts that are preparing you for what is ahead?
Prayer can invite the emergence of a spiritual meaning which then transforms the momentary adversity into a longer term opportunity. Consider the quote often attributed to Mother Teresa: "If we pray, we will believe. If we believe, we will love. If we love, we will serve." Prayer leads to a change in how we think, or in the meaning that events have for us. Spiritual meaning leads to a transformation in how we feel and act. Certainly, research has found that spiritual meaning-making can be associated with positive adjustment to difficult circumstances like mental illness or infertility.
One particularly adaptive idea of spiritual meaning-making is the idea of having a personal purpose, mission or destiny in life. I ran into an old college friend at a reunion and asked him how his life had gone over the many years since we had graduated. He said something that encapsulated this concept of mission. He said his personal mission statement was all about raising his two daughters. Sounds simple but actually, it's quite profound. What he really was saying was that everything in his life was weighed against his ultimate objective of successfully raising his daughters. If events furthered that mission, they were pursued. If not, they were ignored. If living an unhealthy lifestyle undermined his cause, he would live a healthy lifestyle. If maintaining a happy home life supported his goal, he would do all he could to have a good marriage and be home for his family.
What is your mission? What is your purpose in life? Do you have a sense that there is an inner voice nudging you in a particular direction? Let me suggest you try a little values clarification meditation. Prayerfully imagine that you are dying of natural causes at the ripe old age of 92. What would you say if asked what was your most important accomplishment? What was the greatest lesson you ever learned in your life? Your greatest regret? Finally, how would you respond if asked what the legacy is that you want to leave for others?
Many find these types of prayerful meditations to be helpful in thinking about basic values or directions they may want to pursue in life. Whatever your goal or mission, praying for meaning can enable that purpose to emerge as a guiding and health-giving influence in your life.