The shadow side of meaning

Posted by Kenetha Stanton on

Blame Blame by !anaughty!, on Flickr. Used via Creative Commons licensing.

Humans are meaning-making creatures. We want to know why things happen as they do. We want to know how to live better lives. We want to know how life works.

Finding meaning in our lives is a necessary part of most of our journeys. It motivates us, it sustains us through difficult times, and it is an organizing principle in what often seems to be a chaotic world. We need meaning.

But there is a shadow side to our hunt for meaning, too. What we really want most of the time is to control the world around us so that we can keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. If we know what causes bad things to happen, then we can exert control over those causes in order to prevent the negative consequences.

Given the fact that we are actually quite fragile creatures in a large, unpredictable world, having as much control as possible over what happens to us is a reasonable goal, but it can lead to unhealthy outcomes—for ourselves and for others.

It can be helpful to know the risk factors for certain illnesses because it allows us to make better choices about the way we take care of ourselves. But when we see someone who is struggling with a certain illness, it is tempting to focus more on blaming them for their illness (they should have eaten better, exercised more, gotten more sleep, dealt with their emotional or psychological issues, etc.) in our attempt to make sure we avoid the same fate than to show them compassion.

We do the same thing when we blame the poor for their poverty in an attempt to reassure ourselves that we are not at risk for similar financial disaster, when we blame the oppressed for their oppression so we can feel safe from ever facing similar oppression, when we blame the victim for the abuse or misfortune they have suffered to feel protected from something similar happening to us, when we blame the broken and bruised and hurting among us for their own pain and grief as a means of making sure it can't happen to us.

In these attempts to feel safe, we routinely add to the burdens that the most burdened among us already carry. Our fear of facing similar struggles prevents us from being able to show compassion to those who need it most.

Religion, which has been humankind's primary meaning-making method for all of history, is vulnerable to the same temptation. While most (if not all) religions advocate showing compassion to the downtrodden and helping those that need it as an important part of living a good life, religion can also become just one more way of holding the fear at bay by blaming others for their misfortune—but this time in the name of the religion's god.

When something bad happens to someone, we blame them for not sufficiently living up to the demands of our deity—they must have sinned, they didn't believe enough, they didn't perform the practices of that religion well enough (be it prayer or sacrifice or labor for the cause or attendance at religious gatherings).

Our religion therefore becomes just one more way we aim for control by becoming a means of manipulating a deity that is more powerful than ourselves by following the right set of rules so that the deity will do as we wish. It becomes one more way to blame others for their misfortunes so that we can feel protected and so that we do not feel obligated to help all that much (after all, they deserved what they got).

We don't need religion to do this, of course. There are just as many who are not religious who are busy blaming people for their misfortunes for other reasons, but religion allows us to do this in God's name, which is even more damaging for all involved.

The challenge is to find ways to make meaning in the world without slipping into the blame game. It is helpful to know which choices are likely to lead to better, healthier outcomes for ourselves and our loved ones. Humans do thrive when their lives have meaning and purpose. We do benefit from make sense of the world around us.

But the moment we move from trying to understand causes in order to better address an issue to blaming the victim for their pain or misfortune, we have entered the shadow side of meaning-making. As soon as we find ourselves feeling superior to the one who is suffering, we have stepped away from compassion into judgment, which is a distortion of true meaning.

When we are more interested in knowing what caused their misfortune in order to prevent it from happening to us than we are in doing what we can to help, we have become part of the problem. When our "faith" becomes a means of controlling the world around us, it is not faith at all.

Giving up the idea that I can control what happens to me (either directly or indirectly through my attempts to make God do what I want) is not easy. I find myself struggling with this all the time. I want to find ways that will ensure my safety at all times in all ways. All too often, my mind goes much too quickly to trying to figure out what someone did to deserve whatever misfortune they are facing so I can make sure I protect myself from the same thing.

The more I let go of that blame game, though, and of needing to understand why everything happens as it does, the more I am able to be compassionate to the one who needs it. I still have a long way to go in trying to let go of this shadow side of meaning altogether, but I'm finding the small steps I'm taking in that direction to be life-giving.

And that is meaningful, in the good sense of the word.

How do you find meaning in your own life? Do you ever find yourself jumping to finding blame in others' misfortunes in order to prevent such a thing happening to you? If so, how do fight that tendency in yourself to better stay in a place of compassion?

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