My Meaning, Or Not

In a really piece at The Atlantic about parents who cope with children diagnosed as psychopaths, Barbara Bradley Hagerty writes this as she discusses life for a profoundly troubled 11-year-old girl she calls Samantha:

Watching them in the darkened room, I contemplate for the hundredth time the arbitrary nature of good and evil. If Samantha’s brain is wired for callousness, if she fails to experience empathy or remorse because she lacks the neural equipment, can we say she is evil? “These kids can’t help it,” Adrian Raine says. “Kids don’t grow up wanting to be psychopaths or serial killers. They grow up wanting to become baseball players or great football stars. It’s not a choice.”

Yet, Raine says, even if we don’t label them evil, we must try to head off their evil acts. It’s a daily struggle, planting the seeds of emotions that usually come so naturally—empathy, caring, remorse—in the rocky soil of a callous brain. Samantha has lived for more than two years at San Marcos, where the staff has tried to shape her behavior with regular therapy and a program that, like Mendota’s, dispenses quick but limited punishment for bad behavior and offers prizes and privileges—candy, Pokémon cards, late nights on weekends—for good behavior.

Jen and Danny have spotted green shoots of empathy. Samantha has made a friend, and recently comforted the girl after her social worker quit. They’ve detected traces of self-awareness and even remorse: Samantha knows that her thoughts about hurting people are wrong, and she tries to suppress them. But the cognitive training cannot always compete with the urge to strangle an annoying classmate, which she tried to do just the other day. “It builds up, and then I have to do it,” Samantha explains. “I can’t keep it away.”

This is an outsider’s musing about the meaning and purpose of someone’s life, about how to cope with young people seemingly incapable of empathy and all-too-capable of harming others.

We do this all the time, and while we often times muse on the meaning of good and evil in the face of what we conclude (at least right now) to be a random, biological inheritance. “This is not a choice.”

And yet, meaning and sense must come out of this. We make them. We try to figure out the point and purpose of a life and events we didn’t or even couldn’t choose. (Even as choice is the idol on our altars before which we all bow and sacrifice.) Yes, Samantha will have to figure out who she and the purpose of her life. But to say she is the only one is to take autonomy too far. Her mother, her friends, the people she meets and encounters, will tell her story too. In the end, their version of her life — their understanding of why she is — will likely be more important then her own.

This is hard, because our ethic on this is one of absolute autonomy — no one has any right to tell Samantha’s story, determine Samantha’s meaning, except Samantha herself.

But I go back to the Gospels. Jesus does not tell his own story. We do not get things from the point of view of Jesus. The story of Jesus is told by people who are not Jesus. We have several different takes on who Jesus is, and who we are given who we think Jesus is. I could go a little farther, and that whatever the provenance of scripture, what comes through is an anonymous narrator who is close to the action but not attached or invested in its outcomes, a narrator who is omniscient and in which God, rather than the author, is simply another character whose actions are related with almost no judgment and whose motivations are a near complete mystery.

It is our story, but it is only kind of told by us, told about us by someone who sits a little bit outside of us. It is God’s story too, but it isn’t told by God, it’s told about God.

If we take the relational nature of our lives at face value, then we aren’t autonomous in many meaningful ways — certainly not as autonomous or self-defining as we’d like. We don’t determine our own meaning. We don’t impose our own meaning. We can’t. We struggle to define our lives to ourselves, and express some of what that meaning is to the cosmos, but those around us — and possibly the cosmos itself — will come to its own conclusions about who and what we are, and what we mean.

We can tell our own stories, but we cannot impose that meaning on others. We don’t have that power. It may be the only meaning we ever have of Samantha are the stories told about her.

So, when I consider the suffering of the world, and those who suffer, I find myself increasingly drawn to an unpleasant conclusion for a modern — suffering exists, in part, as something for the world to look it, to consider, even contemplate, and then respond to. Think of how Jesus describes the judgement of the nations in the second half of Matthew 25. We’d like the suffering to tell their own stories, create their own lives and futures that do not involve suffering, but that understanding puts us in a place where the only meaning suffering has is its elimination. And we can extract nothing else. Liberation is one response, but it has become our only response, and for many deeply committed Christians, it has become the only faithful response. Especially when we speak of inequality and violence as measured against our ideals of justice and equality.

And so we increasingly cannot find meaning in suffering. Cannot discern meaning in the suffering of others, especially when we are powerless to do anything about it. Cannot faithfully live out grace and mercy in a world where power, agency, autonomy, accountability are all we have. Grace and mercy, the true power of forgiveness, can only really exist in a world where our power and agency are not a possibility. (Though God’s always is.)

I know what my life means to me — I wrote a book, told that story, got it published — but I also am becoming increasingly convinced that my life is also not my own and never was. Whatever my suffering meant — it was mine, it was all I had, and I understand both its limits in the scheme of things and its blessing, that it opened me up to a world much bigger than I am, to at least try and meet those whose suffering was and is much greater than mine and very different than mine — I am only partly in charge of what it means.

We are not in charge of who we are. Not as individuals, not as communities, not as assemblies, not as nations or peoples. We struggle to tell our own stories, but in the end, stories will be told about us. And we won’t write them.

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