My self is an anthology of stories.
-- Don Cupitt, Life, Life
I have learned to make important decisions by asking, “Can I tell this story about myself?” I was raised to enumerate the reasons for everything. I made lists of reasons, for and against, on opposite sides of a ledger. I said, looking at the balance of the page, “All right then, that’s what I’ll do! -- or not do!” And then the truth would intervene.
I once thought I was an atheist because I couldn’t prove God by syllogism. I thought I should deduce my politics from undeniable axioms. But the world isn’t a political debating club or a dogmatic treatise, and it doesn’t matter whether I win the argument. What matters is that I live sustainably, and that’s the end for which reason serves as means. When reason turns impractical, it turns irrational.
Will this story bear its weight? Can I tell it so you’ll hear it? To tell the story I must see you face to face. It matters not so much what you say as what I see in your eyes. If I can’t tell it to you, then it doesn’t have enough truth to live with.
In a regime that now thank god recedes into the past, my supervisor shut me down as I talked about a client. “Stop right there: that’s story-telling!”
She wanted to cut the gab and get the data. The legal definition of a hospice patient is medical, and a nurse’s proper report is an inventory of medical data, readings on the dashboard. We need to know pulse and pressure, loss or gain of weight, ease or difficulty of breathing, degree of alertness or disorientation, details of consumption and excretion, the staging of pressure ulcers, the site and severity and quality of pain. The medical meaning is in the pattern of these present data: once we know the facts and vectors we’ll know what there is medically to do.
We spiritual counselors also find data. Chaplains too seek meaning. But we can’t take readings from a dashboard.
I had a colleague who wrote in his notes about “increase” or “decrease” in the client’s “spiritual well-being.” Someone taught him to do this so he could sound like a doctor. But the soul has no crankcase and there’s no dipstick to read it with. To speak of an “increase in spiritual well-being” is nothing more than to say “I think he’s doing better,” but say it pompously.
There’s no instrument to measure the state of a soul, but what if there were? I who enter the room in good health and an hour later will go home, I am no one to judge the client’s state of being, to call it well or ill. The soul’s exit from the world is not supposed to be pretty, any more than its entrance is. This one’s terror, that one’s bitterness, the other one’s anger – these may be proper answers to a rotten hand of cards that God has dealt. I’m not God’s bodyguard. Let Her defend Herself.
Meaning is not a pattern of data on the dashboard, or a quart of well-being dumped down a funnel. Life’s Meaning is not the answer to an examination. To talk about it is bad poetry. The very form of the question, “What is the Meaning of Life?” is invalid. It’s like asking, when it rains, where the “It” is that’s raining.
We only talk about meaning when we have lost it, because when life is meaningful we’re too busy to talk. Life seems meaningful – ceases to be meaningless – when there’s something still to do. If you can tell a story that’s not yet finished and you’re included in it, you are not lost. To complete some work, or mend a quarrel, or see a grandchild married, or leave a testament, or even just to sing a song, this song of grief. I cannot choose the task or write the plot, but sometimes by listening I draw it out. Sometimes I get to name or bless it.
And so I say in hindsight to a past regime, who shut me down for story-telling, “Damn right it’s story-telling. That’s my job.”