One of our quests as individuals is to make meaning within our lives. That is one of the purposes of religion, to frame moments of time and infuse them with the understanding that we are part of something greater than ourselves, that what happens to us is a part of who we are as individuals, that we have the ability to grow and change.
Making meaning is not rationalizing, about saying “everything happens for a reason.” It doesn’t. It is about fully integrating the event into our life’s narrative and perhaps emerging from the challenging episode with some new insight or learning so that when we enter the next stage of our journey we are better prepared, or more aware, or have a different outlook.
Easier said than done. It is mightily hard to do, especially when it comes to the stumbling blocks we face.
Having recently come out of a serious illness, I have struggling with this. The events and circumstances of my recent illness were a whirlwind as they were going on. Now, as people approach and say how scary it was, and as I read about the rarity of meningitis and its not insignificant mortality rate (plus the rate of impairments for those who do survive), I reflect on the seriousness which was my situation. And while I have come out of the other end of it and escaped danger, I still worry about my condition (am I more forgetful since the illness or am I imagining that?) and I still struggled spiritually with what it all means.
On the spiritual side, when someone is stricken with a serious illness, and then recovers, there are two poles one can lean towards: the illness or the recovery. Focusing on this illness-asking why did I get sick in the first place-leaves one in a place of vulnerability, of the fleeting nature of the world, of the complete lack of control we have when one day we are healthy and the next day we are not. Focusing on the recovery-on I was very ill but I recovered-brings one to a place of gratitude, of appreciating the preciousness of life and all it contains. And I admit, for the past few weeks I was stuck in the former, and was focused on how vulnerable and weak I felt, and was depressed about the turn of events.
Until last week. I was attending a conference back east, the alumni retreat of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship in which I participated last year. I had planned to go for a while, long before I got sick, and was able to make it to the conference. It was a tremendous experience of learning from great teachers and colleagues on a wide range of topics.
I found myself in a workshop lead by a wonderful colleague, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, who is a neighbor to the north in that she serves a congregation in Vancouver, BC. In the workshop she pushed us on the idea of meaning making through our ability to examine events, particularly a chain of events, and discern any links or connections, a concept called synchronicity.
We were introduced to this text by the Jungian psychologist Janet Dallett:
Discontinuous events are usually though of as chance occurrences. In many instances this is sufficient explanation. Sometimes, however, we come up against happenings whose coincidence in time does not appear to be random, even though there is no causal relationship between them…In synchronistic occurrences the connecting factor is meaning rather than causality.
In the workshop we had the opportunity to discuss in hevruta(study pairs) experiences where we might have seen synchronicity operating in our lives.
At first this was hard. I couldn’t see beyond the past four weeks of hospital, medicine, bed rest, headaches, etc. But then I realized where I was, sitting in a retreat center thousands of miles from home. I had made the plans to go east months ago, but just a week and a half before the trip I didn’t think I would make it. While I did not have any medical restrictions on flying, I was still quite low energy, and I thought the trip may be too depleting. I had even contacted the organizer and told her I may not make it.
But in the days leading up to when I would fly I was feeling stronger and stronger, and while I was still a bit nervous, I felt much better than I did even that week and a half ago, and so I boarded the plane. The trip was fine, the conference was restorative, and I was glad I went.
Each morning we gathered for minyan, for a shacharit(morning) service. The first morning was Monday, a traditional day for reading of Torah, and I thought that I was ready tobentch gomel. Gomel is a blessing recited, usually in the context of a Torah service, by one who has escaped danger, recovered from an illness, returned from a long trip, given birth or some other experience which in some way carries risk. I had an aliyah to the Torah and then said the words: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who bestows good things on those in debt to You, and Who has granted me all good.” And the community responded, “Amen. And may the One Who has bestowed upon you good, continue to bestow upon you good.” Reciting this beracha, in a room filled with friends and colleagues, people who share my rabbinic path, in a room which radiated compassion and care and connection, was truly powerful.
So then later in the conference, sitting in the classroom with my hevruta, I drew together these two experiences into a whole. The timing of my illness allowed me to still come to the conference. If I had gotten sick a week later, perhaps, I would not have made it to the retreat. But the arc of the illness allowed me to make the trip, and be in that room, and offer that blessing, and transition from one who is ailing to one who is fully in recovery.
And here is where I shifted from one pole to the other. Rather than focus on my vulnerability and weakness, my recitation ofgomel at that time brought me to that place of gratitude. And I realize this is a better place to be.
Perhaps I was weakened physically by the meningitis. Indeed, the working theory by my doctor in the hospital is that my neurosurgery from a few years back may have made me more susceptible to contract meningitis, and thus he suggests I be more vigilant in keeping my sinuses and nasal passages clear. Plus that and general wellness is again a concern. But I hope to emerge from it stronger spiritually.
Not everyone makes meaning the same way. And again, it is not easy. But the ability to reflect and self-reflect with the goal of emerging from our life’s events with some new insight, with some shift in how we see ourselves and the world around us, is important and a blessing. It is another good thing that is bestowed upon us.