Victor Frankel’s book Man’s Search for Meaning outlines his experiences in the holocaust, the loss of his family and all that was precious to him, and his continued search and hope for meaning. It is popular for Palliative Care programs to assign this book to students as an introduction to the nature of suffering and the search for meaning. Fortunately, few people will have an extreme and challenging experience like Frankel but we all suffer and we all search for meaning.
In searching for meaning I have found it helpful to map my own experiences onto the experiences of others. Sometimes this is a colleague or friend that has gone through a similar experience, or an article or book you have read. Sometimes, it is a movie, TV show, novel or even a song that speaks to your experience. This helps you feel less alone, look at paths you might take or choose to avoid (cautionary tale) and share your meaning in that narrative.
Recently, I have been reflecting on the story of Jonah. You know, Jonah and the Whale. Actually, it is not a whale but rather a leviathan. In this story God tells Jonah to leave his home and go preach and teach in Nineveh. This is the last thing he wants to do, in fact he decides to run away, and go the opposite direction. This is where the narrative take a dramatic turn with three days in the “belly of the beast” that finally convinces Jonah to make his way to Nineveh.
For several years, Marci, my wife, and our children had wanted the two of us to move out west to be closer to family and because it was fun. I was resistant, I was fat and happy, in the Promised Land of Alabama. “Quit my job! Leave my friends and all we had accomplished! No way” If I am truthful to myself, I did know that it was time to make changes in our lives and careers but no; I was staying until I retired. Then, Marci and I both had major surgery within 6 months of each other and when we had recovered she said it was time to move. A year later, we were in Denver/Nineveh.
I wish I could say I was immediately happy about it but I wasn’t. Quickly, though, I began to meet friends and new colleagues and within the year we had approval to start the MS in Palliative Care program. I was enjoying this and so much more about my new life here in Denver/Nineveh. I believe that our move to Denver was critically important and that this new chapter of my life would not had happened if Marci had not been persistent. For which I am thankful.
In palliative care sometimes we focus on meaning making at the end-of-life, such as life reviews or dignity preservation therapy. Instead we should be looking for and making meaning all of our lives and careers. Taking time to listen or read other people’s stories and to tell your own story allows you to search for meaning. Perhaps the search for meaning is as important as finding meaning?