insights

07 August 2019

Meaning: Section 1-Not Finding Meaning

Questioner of the Sphinx

Not Finding the Meaning

At the center of the painting, a man is kneeling next to the lips of a statue of a sphinx. The man is wearing a cloth robe that covers most of his body except the left side of his chest and his left arm. He leans with his ears toward the sphinx, as if listening to it whisper. But the sphinx’s lips are sealed.

The attentiveness in the man’s posture tells that the sphinx was anything but generous with wisdom.

The man is standing on sand that extends, along with old ruins, into the distance. Only the head of the sphinx can be seen; the body is buried in the sand, as are the pillars and ruins. Next to the man is a stick he probably used to help him trudge through the sand so he could question the sphinx. In the right corner are a skull and a rectangular structure that looks like a tomb.

It was December of 2016, two weeks after I was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. I was in Boston, seeking a second opinion from Harvard and wandering through the Museum of Fine Art looking for meaning. I was staring at the painting of the Questioner of the Sphinx (by Elihu Vedder, 1836–1923).

Although my medical questions had all been answered, I left the city, like the questioner of the sphinx, with only more existential questions. The most urgent question I had was about the meaning of my life, especially now that it appeared to have been shortened.

How do other people find meaning?

I know the question is problematic, but it is relevant. Problematic because we may not have two people agreeing on the meaning of the word “meaning”; and relevant because we use the reference to meaning every day as if it is essential to ourexistence.

When I asked the thirty-nine participants in my study about meaning, they referred to something. The words meant something to them.

They had answers. Even those who said they didn’t have any answers had answers.

I struggled with the question, and I knew I was not alone in my struggle.

Donna, a thirty-seven-year-old woman, framed the issue in her way. She understood the meaning in the sense of purpose, and cancer made her rethink purpose on an individual level, as a person. Donna had lost what she once thought was her purpose in life. “How to find meaning? Hmm. That’s a tough one,” Donna remarked. “Cancer has forced me to focus and reflect on what’s my purpose in life.”

Donna had a sense of what having a purpose had been like. “I have a 9-year-old niece, and I had always thought that my purpose in life was to have a child of my own.” But when Donna was diagnosed with cancer, that purpose was no longer attainable. “So, it’s as if my purpose in life was ripped away from me,” she said.

She has to be on the anticancer medication the rest of her life, and with that, she cannot biologically have a child of her own because the medicine would cause congenital abnormalities in her offspring. Therefore, even if she were to live another twenty years, it would not change the fact that she would not have biological children of her own. So now Donna is trying to find a purpose somewhere else, but she does not yet know what that is.

Stories of finding meaning in the illness are known to survivors. But unless the person experiences the epiphany themselves, all those stories are just words.

There was Nancy, a thirty-six-year-old woman, for instance. She rejected the notion that she found meaning anywhere in her experience with cancer. “I don’t think I have found meaning; I don’t think I have,” she responded. “I think if anything, this just reinforced to me the idea that life is just chaos and that there is no purpose to things.”

Nancy perceived that she’d had a significant derailing of her life path. Although many people came to console her by bringing their reasonings or understandings of the world, she could not find condolences in their words. Nancy heard people say, “Just let go,” and “Everything happens for a reason.” But these did not fit with how she saw things.

You know, no! No! There are horrible, horrible things that happen in this world, absolutely atrocious, way worse than what has happened to me. And they didn’t happen for a reason.

Nancy could not relate to an understanding that finds a reason for everything that happens. She could not let go of calling things what they are. Things can be ugly, and that sucks. Life sucks at times and for no reason. So Nancy could not find meaning. “I don’t think I found it—I haven’t found any meaning in it. If anything, it’s that life is very fleeting.”

Roads to Meaning and Resilience with Cancer. Pages 20-22

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