Meaning-making— the spiritual is political

NOTE: The following perspective is largely based on my experience of white people’s spiritual-bypassing use of “everything happens for a reason.” Not the idea of “Give it time, God will reveal the reason” which I have come to understand as being based more in an idea of “you don’t have to make meaning of this just yet, you can reflect and connect with your spirituality first.” I appreciate and want to extend my respect for how people’s relationship to God can be a valuable avenue into a sense of agency and purpose.

The world is on fire and there are a lot of reasons as to why that is. Overt acts of racism are exploding globally because of conscious efforts by white people to hold to their values of white supremacy that are reinforced by colonial and capitalist systems built on white supremacist values. The corona virus or COVID-19 is a direct results of climate change and part of a cluster of symptoms related to extreme environmental changes that impact our earth as much as our bacterial growth and viral mutations.

And yet, when we talk about something “happened for a reason” we aren’t usually talking about the true reason of events, are we? What we are really trying to do is search for spiritual understanding— we are trying to put poetics to chaos. To feel better. We’re trying to self-sooth, to absolve others or ourselves, to feel taken care-of by God, to any other number of reassuring ideas.

But there is a big problem with trying to decipher spiritual reasons. And the solution is to develop spiritual purpose through meaning-making.

Saying something “happened for a reason” in a spiritual sense is invalidating, victim-blaming, and oftentimes more oppressive than comforting. Imagine telling someone their friend’s death due to trans misogyny is serving a greater purpose? No, it does not serve a greater purpose. Death at the hands of another hateful person does not liberate, support, or inspire. We should continue fighting every day to avoid those kinds of outcomes. 

But giving meaning to an experience, deciding where to file it away in the fabric of the world or your life and identity, is different. Giving something meaning allows us to stay grounded and expand our understanding of the human experience in all its messiness. Giving something context and clarity can be healing and restorative and develop a person’s sense of purpose or belonging, which is often at the heart of spirituality. It is not the same as something happening for a reason.

Here’s another way to look at:

Spiritual reason calls on us to create a story of what happened that allows us to accept what happens to us (keep the powerful in power) and move on (surrender our agency). There is no need to take responsibility or hold anything or anyone accountable.

Spiritual meaning-making encourages reflecting on our agency within an experience and acknowledging both the power and uncontrollable chaos of reality. This perspective calls on us to respond to injustices (embrace our agency). To consider who or what to hold accountable for making change (dismantle power).

I don’t believe things happen for a greater reason, or the reasons are ultimately not about us and therefore not that satisfying and even enraging. I do believe in the poetry of chaos allowing for seemingly orchestrated moments of enlightenment about ourselves or the human experience. I do believe the resilience from traumatic events is truly awesome. I also know that I can’t always be in a state of blissed-out understanding and sometimes trauma is just awful and feels empty. Neither (what I see as) truth invalidates the other— the cruelty and suffering of life is as much present as deep feelings of connection, understanding and clarity.

Having had some time to reflect on COVID-19 and white supremacy around the world, what kinds of personal meaning-making will you create? With yourself? With others? How does your spirituality inform your agency and showing-up for your own and each others humanity?