Friday, December 16, 2011

Finding the Meaning of Life in Cell Biology and Literary Theory

What is the meaning of life?

That question scares me. It's big. It's beyond big. At this point in my life, I'm convinced we're not meant to answer it anyway. The irony is that I love answering questions about meaning. I'm an English major to my core. Life, however, isn't one of the Canterbury Tales or a Jane Austen novel or a poem by T.S. Eliot. It's not even a Shakespearean play, as painful as that is for me to admit. Reading the meaning in our lives isn't like reading a masterpiece of literature.

Or is it?

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Judge Taylor says, "People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for." What we believe or don't believe about the meaning of life becomes the perspective from which we look and listen for the meaning of life, our life's literary theory, if you will. And it's important to have a good theory, or life gets really wonky.

I have a friend whose teenage son is questioning the existence of God. This young man has been a beacon of faith until now, and his loss of faith strikes a chord with me. When I was about his age, I lost my faith, too. My life had become so painful, so confusing, so emotionally chaotic that I simply couldn't believe there was a benevolent God anywhere. If God was as good as I'd been taught in Sunday school, how could I hurt so very much? Why didn't He help me? Why was I still alive? Screw you, God, and that donkey you rode in on.

Clearly I had a radical change of perspective at some point, and I remember the moment vividly.  I was an 18-year-old undergraduate sitting in Professor Mary Nijhout's cell biology class in the spring semester of 1985. Professor Nijhout was lecturing brilliantly on muscle contraction at the molecular level, drawing complex, multicolored diagrams on the chalk board in a lecture hall that seated several hundred students. As I contemplated the incredible elegance of actin and myocin filaments and the sheer number of chemical reactions taking place in my hand to copy Professor Nijhout's complex diagrams, I experienced a flash of awareness of the awesomeness of creation...and the unlikelihood of its having happened by accident. I said a brief prayer of apology to God for doubting and continued taking notes.

Rather a different experience from the apostle Paul's on the road to Damascus, but there it is.

My depression didn't lift immediately; chemical imbalances in the teenage brain don't resolve themselves overnight or in a flash of awareness in a Duke University lecture hall or on the psychologist's couch. I still didn't have an answer to the question of why I hurt so badly if God was an omniscient, omnipotent good guy. I still don't have that answer.

But with God on my side, I didn't feel quite so hopeless. I saw the presence of George and my mother and my sister in my life as life-lines from God, part of a larger story whose meaning was hidden from me. Their love pulled me back and gave me a new perspective on my own story. I started reading my life from the perspective of hope and faith, and eventually hope and faith won. I can't answer the bigger questions about the meaning of life or why bad things happen, but I think I have a bead on a more useful question: 

What are we supposed to do with our lives?

The answer, I think, is in the interaction of actin and myocin filaments. It's in helping each other do something, in pulling or pushing or connecting with other people along the way to achieve something more wonderful than we can do alone and ultimately more wonderful than we can ever understand. The answer is in our relationship to others in the world.

That young man's crisis of faith, his depression, and his teenage angst have turned him into a filament floating alone in a cell. I know exactly how that feels. He can't do much except try to figure out how to reconnect to something, and given the loving and caring people around him, I have faith that he'll reconnect eventually. 

Actin and myocin filaments were made to do a job, and they do that job well. What job were we made to do? What do we humans have that actin and myocin filaments don't? Consciousness. Self-awareness. The ability to think about and question creation, to feel pain and disappointment and doubt and love and joy and faith. The ability to connect with other humans in meaningful ways.

God doesn't give us meaning like a waiter handing us our entree on a silver platter. God gives us lives to create meaning through our actions and words. We always have a choice, whether we see it or not. We can choose to connect with something bigger and better than ourselves, and make our lives meaningful. We can choose to use our actions and words to help others. We can transform our suffering into compassion and understanding, find ways to reach out to others, to pull others toward comfort and light and joy.

Jesus' life set an example for us...a life of action and words lived out from the perspective of love and compassion and mercy and forgiveness. Ordinary people all over the world--Christians, atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, whatever--live His example every single day. Consider Aaron Alvin Sr (turning his life from drugs to helping others) and Master Sgt. Robert Allen (reaching out to his wife 7,000 miles away) and countless others who remain forever anonymous to us. None of them knows the answer to the question of the meaning of life.

They just live their lives with meaning.

This Christmas, consider how you are creating meaning in your own life. Perhaps your meaning is within the four walls of your home as you care for and raise children. Perhaps it's in your job. Perhaps it's in the pursuit of education. Perhaps it's in your volunteer work or your charitable giving or a simple phone call to a friend you haven't spoken to for months or that back rub you gave your wife as she washed dishes the other night. I encourage you to consider Christ's example, whether you believe Him to be the son of God or not, and celebrate your connection to hope and joy and love. Choose to mean something good.

Merry Christmas.


  1. Thank you for your words and your reaching out to others. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  2. Elegantly written. Merry Christmas to you and your family. As you transition to your new living space, may you find blessing in it!

  3. There's nothing more to say. This is so beautifully and reader-friendly written. Thank you, dear friend.

  4. Susan, thank you so much for writing this. I'm going to post a link to this post on my FaceBook wall, because I want my friends and family to have the opportunity to read it.

  5. have been listening to Chuck Swindol as he goes through the Bible. Job and then the minor prophets - very inspiring. His sovereignty and the knowledge that He is there despite whether I feel He is there or not is what keeps me going. In addition, the knowledge that the hard times make me stronger, build character, build faith and provide and opportunity for me to be there for someone who is walking a similar path. That is why Phil 1:6 is my life verse :) Blessings.

  6. "God gives us lives to create meaning through our actions and words. We always have a choice, whether we see it or not. We can choose to connect with something bigger and better than ourselves, and make our lives meaningful."

    Powerful words from a lady who makes her life meaningful with her actions and her words.

    Thank you, Susan. And a very Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  7. Thank you for writing this Susan - well done! God bless you for glorifying God in what you do.

  8. I'm quite teary after reading this. I think I need to re read it slowly. My heart aches for my sister and her chemical imbalances. She has been ill so long that I need to see a fresh that God is in control and to see my role in it accordinly.
    To live with meaning is an amazingly powerful thing to choose to do. Thank you.

  9. Smilie Girl, hugs to you and to your sister.

  10. Beautifully written and so meaningful to me. Thank you, Susan. During my own faith crisis at age 19, my dear friend talked to me about "leap of faith." I never forgot his words.

  11. Beautiful words, Susan. Thank-you.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!