jersey city, the 'burbs, refugees, reflection, life and such

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

the giving of meaning

I interact with a lot of the psycho-analyst types...which is probably rational given that I work in a program that is under the Cross-Cultural Counseling Center at IINJ. Currently, most of our counseling grad-student interns are leaving as their semesters are coming to a close, and thus they have to say goodbye to their clients that they have been see for therapy for the past several months.

Last week, I had a conversation with one of those interns who has been counseling the same (survivor of torture) client for almost 2 years. She shared with me how hard it is for both her and her client that she now must make a clean break in ties with him. She also told me about the next phase of her program and how she has a different internship as a clinician at a mental institution, working with patients with severe mental disturbance. I asked her (so far) which has been more challenging for her; working with asylee survivors of torture or working with mentally ill patients.

She paused and acknowledged that both groups of people are severely marginalized, making neither job easy to emotionally shoulder. However, she said that it has been a lot easier for her to find and give meaning to working with asylum seekers, who, if they can heal from their past trauma and get through the asylum process, will have a shot at achieving "The American Dream" and building a new and potentially fulfilling life for themselves. Working with patients with incurable mental disorders however, doesn't give the therapist a lot to assign meaning to. She went on to tell me about one of her current patients who spends most of his days locked in a padded room because in the past he has hurt both himself and has harmed his caretakers. He is suffering from advanced schizophrenia. Many of those patients in that institution need to be monitored carefully when they are out of their rooms so they literally do not escape and attempt to jump off the Staten Island Bridge. She said that in situations like that, it is difficult to assign meaning to the relationship or to the purpose of the therapy.

"Assign Meaning"… I have heard that phrase many times this year. Usually, this has been in the context of the grad-student intern meetings that I sat in on with the supervisor of the counseling department. It has come up in conversation over working with clients to get ready for court, working with clients to sift through past trauma, working with clients as they try to literally start their lives over here, working through our own "issues" of how we try to assign our own personal meanings to the client's experience, realizing that to mentally cope we have private ways of assigning meaning to what we do and acknowledging that each culture and each religion has it's own way of "assigning meaning" to life's events and life's problems and then learning to listen to and accept others' "assigned meaning" of life. Anotherwords, humans have this drive, no matter what their background or culture, to “assign meaning” to the events of life…especially to the hard events.Each time I hear “assign meaning”, something inside me cringes slightly. Somehow, it seems that this rhetoric of "assigning meaning" is one nicely labeled semantic game of what humanity has been playing since the beginning of history. Or, perhaps it’s more of a dilemma.

As an anthropology major, I studied this concept from the macro/community context level. Every culture has different ways of assigning meaning to the things of life. Different symbols, concepts, events, material things and language have culturally assigned meanings. However, I think that this talk in my office of “assigning meaning” hits at a much more fundamental and universal concept that wants to answer the purpose to the meaning of life, and if there is a purpose to our existence and the relationships that we form. It’s almost asking, what is my philosophy of life in the face of this tragedy or seemingly pointless interaction with this person who seems to be leading a life that will only continue to be tragic?

For my fellow co-workers (many of whom are openly non-religious or only religious in terms of culture), personally "assigning meaning" to life and death seems to be a normal psychological process, just like assigning words to objects and concepts so that we can think about them and communicate about them clearly. But like words and language, most of them seem to believe that each culture and each person's ideas about the use of meaning can be different. Somehow, this then allows us to then move on once we process it (by labeling it with our meaning).Yes, I acknowledge that we all want to find tangible, personal meaning for things that happen in life, especially if they do not happen the way that we plan or the way that we think they ought to happen. Everyone wants to find meaning in the seemingly meaningless things of life. Even Christians often fall into the trap of using trite phrases to assign meaning to things that are tragic. Romans 8:28 is sure thrown around a lot when we are faced with major loss. So is that verse about "I know the plans I have for you..." in Isaiah. But are quoting those verses just the Christian version of stamping a personal meaning onto something like a shattered dream? Can we take those stamps and apply them to the man in the padded cell that will probably never lead a normal life or have people that deeply love him?

As a Christian, I do believe that all human life does have purpose (no matter how insignificant or pathetic that life is) and that meaning is not subject to how people might try to assign it. All are created in the image of God. Part of our purpose is relationship, not just to God, but also to each other. But when I think about all the senseless tragedy in this world, I do want to tack something on to it that will give it a more tangible reason for existing, for something that seems so utterly purposeless, so that it can be more palatable to me. It's almost become tempting for me to accept a secular psycho-analyst view that this as a normal human response and perhaps an evolutionary, adaptive way of coping with the cold facts of life that allows us to keep living so that we don't just die of despair.

But is this just a very natural, very human thing to do: assign meaning so that we can just cope? Is life all about assigning personal meaning? And does this just come from our culture, background and personality? It just seems to be so ultimately pointless; that we believe that each culture and each person assigns it's own meaning to life's triumphs and failures, pleasures and pain, and ultimately, death…but in the end, it REALLY doesn't mean anything because it's a just an adaptive human response so that we can continue on with life and reproducing life. In the end, doesn't THAT seem meaningless?

We can find personal meaning when we see the results of something, but how does that theory hold up when we don’t see the results? What’s the meaning then? Was there still a purpose in our interacting with the man in the padded cell? Is there a purpose to that person’s existence?

I think that God would say that there is always meaning to interacting with our fellow man, and therefore I can say so too, even if I can’t tangibly see the purpose. God is the one that gives meaning to all life. However, it could be that the psycho-analyst’s response to that would be that’s just my way of coping with reality…

(I feel like I need a good Ravi Zacharius quote here…when I finish reading “Can Man Live without God?” I’ll pick one out and post it.)


Blogger Elizabeth said...

Janelle - So glad you happened upon my blog through Stina´s (she´s my cousin!) Thanks for your kind words of encouragement... it´s been a rough road of learning, and yet I have so much HOPE, which I know only comes from the Lord.

Thanks again!

4:11 PM  

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