Finding Purpose in the Face of Tragedy and Adversity
Purposefully creating goodness from random suffering and senseless malevolence.
Posted Nov 17, 2018
The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death ... our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.
People want to know that their lives matter. But to whom or what? Religious people want the universe to care. Secular people just want people to care. The secular, naturalistic perspective is that meaning in life is something that we make ourselves, driven by our innate motivation and by our intensely social instincts. We can and do care about our own lives and about those of our fellow human beings, even if the universe doesn’t. We are “wired” to care—we have evolved to care, whether the universe cares or not.
Legacy, and making good from bad1
Regardless of whether people believe that “everything happens for a reason” or believe in a higher plan, and regardless of how resilient or vulnerable they are, most are able to derive some meaning in the face of adversity if some good comes from their suffering and misfortune, for themselves or others. And people are often remarkably adept at achieving this. The good that people make from bad usually does not make the bad event “worthwhile,” let alone indicate that the event was cosmically intended, but it can help people deal with their trauma and derive some meaning from it.
Most of us are inclined to strive to make the world a better, more caring place for ourselves and others, and many of us are motivated to produce a good result from a terrible event. Some people believe that this “inner strength” is itself God-given, but it is empowering to realize that this motivation comes from within us. We tend to acquire greater personal growth, insight, and compassion through adversity than when we are cruising comfortably through life, and we are in a better position to identify with and help others experiencing adversity after we have experienced it ourselves.
Our social relationships are a powerful source of meaningfulness, in good times and in bad. The simple empathy and emotional support that people instinctively offer each other in times of tragedy and suffering are highly meaningful to the sufferer—even if only through consolation. This support helps us feel that what happens to us matters to other people. Ultimately, we care most about what other human beings think of us, not whether the cosmos cares about us.
When we contemplate our own deaths, most of us hope we will leave a legacy, no matter how modest. It can be comforting and validating to know that we have had a strong positive impact on others. It can also be consoling to see that something good might come out of something bad—perhaps some positive impact on others.
In the worst cases—when meaning is hard to find
Of course, it can often be challenging to find meaning in death and dying. Bear with me for a moment and allow yourself to consider this hard fact: There is no avoiding the reality that many lives end tragically or brutally, without inherently meaningful endings. In the very worst scenarios, when we are powerless to help people in such circumstances, there is still something partially consoling we can do: bear witness, and show that we care. We can try to derive life lessons from the experiences of these people. If there is an opportunity, we should tell them the profound impact they have on us. (I have been fortunate and privileged to have the opportunity to do this with some of my terminally ill cancer patients.) We should commit to applying the lessons from their suffering to teach and help others, on an individual or societal level.
This is also the basis of the exhortation to “never forget” an atrocity. Our empathy is enhanced when we bear in mind that such lives and deaths could just as easily have been our own. Sometimes we can only express and demonstrate the impact of a person’s life after they have died. We hope in that case that they died knowing that their life and death would matter to others.
Dedication to a cause
One common response to tragedy and misfortune is the drive to make some lasting change that will reduce the chance of a similar misfortune befalling others. We see this in efforts to improve early warning systems for earthquakes, tsunamis, and tornadoes; in coroners’ inquests and improved safety regulations following accidents caused by human error; in donations for medical research endowed in the name of a person who has died from a particular disease or from suicide; and in campaigns for greater public safety in the aftermath of senseless killings.
One good example of this response is Jean-François Larivée, the husband of Maryse Laganière, one of fourteen women shot in the infamous December 1989 massacre at L’Ecole Polytechnique engineering school in Montreal. The gunman was a young man who was paranoid about feminism; he killed himself at the scene. Mr. Larivée was included in a December 2012 newspaper article exploring how people manage to carry on after a loved one has been murdered (the article was motivated by another senseless massacre: Newtown, Connecticut):
Because there was no one alive to confront and hold responsible, Mr. Larivée instead threw himself into the causes of gun control and violence against women. “I wake up at 3 in the morning, asking, ‘What was the meaning of her life?’ Was that what she was supposed to do? To die at 25? What does this thing mean? I cannot give a meaning to the life of someone else. I can only do those things ... to give meaning to my life that lost her. To calm down the pain in myself.”2
The direct result of these efforts was the Canadian federal gun registry.
Mental health awareness campaigns are another good example. I once treated a young man nicknamed Kit who was tormented by schizophrenia. I worked with him over several years and liked him very much. He had an incisive mind; an interest in science; many talents; and a sophisticated, dry sense of humor. It was painful to see his lost potential, and ultimately, I was unable to rid him of his demons. His suicide was devastating to everyone.
I greatly admire his courageous parents, who in the years since his death have made considerable achievements in raising public awareness of, and support for, serious mental illness in youth. They found purpose and meaning by taking Kit’s story public in many media interviews in the immediate aftermath of his death: “[Connecting with other people with similar struggles] was empowering, David said, as he and Lesley search for ways to keep telling their story and help others overcome the fear. ... If they couldn’t save Kit, there are still others that need their help.”3 By using Kit’s death here as an example, I hope to extend his legacy.
The psychiatrist Irvin Yalom referred to the impact our lives have on others as “rippling,” emphasizing that such influences may be subtle and may be unknown to the person who generates the effects:
Rippling refers to the fact that each of us creates—often without our conscious intent or knowledge—concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even generations. That is, the effect we may have on other people is, in turn, passed on to others, much as the ripples in a pond go on and on until they’re no longer visible but continuing at a nano level. The idea that we can leave something of ourselves, even beyond our knowing, offers a potent answer to those who claim that meaninglessness inevitably flows from one’s finitude and transiency.4
1. This article was adapted from: Ralph Lewis, Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If The Universe Doesn’t (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018).
2. Ian Brown, “How Do You Forgive the Unforgivable?” Globe and Mail, December 22, 2012, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/how-do-you-forgive-the-unforgivable/article6673873/?page=3.
3. Jennifer Pagliaro, “Mental Illness: Suicide, Schizophrenia and One Family’s Losing Battle to Save Their Son,” Toronto Star, March 15, 2013, http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2013/03/15/mental_illness_suicide_schizophrenia_and_one_familys_losing_battle_to_save_their_son.html.
4. Irvin D. Yalom, Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), p. 83.