Dark clouds, silver linings, and the quest for the meaning of life



“For some damn reason, we give and get our energy from dark clouds much more than from silver linings. True joy is harder to access and even harder to hold onto than anger or fear. The False Self is energized by problems and by self-created goals almost moment by moment; the True Self (the soul) needs and feeds on a different fuel: union and contentment itself and, especially, deep resonance (meaning) of any kind.” -Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond

This quote is amazingly insightful. As a natural pessimist, it speaks to my soul on so many levels. The “negative” side of our emotional/psychological constitution is a whole lot better at motivating us than the “fluffy” side - which, if we are honest, is very sadly how we tend to think of things like joy, contentment, and peace.


A problems-oriented, pessimistic approach to life can give you a frantic amount of energy, it’s true. There’s a lot more energy in the thunderclouds and volcanoes than there is in the blue skies and green pastures. But thunderclouds and volcano eruptions pass pretty quickly, not to mention that they often leave a trail of destruction behind them. And if you’re living life with a thunder-cloud attitude, then your pessimistic energy is going to be at least annoying if not downright ugly.


So I’m coming out of the closet, so to speak: I no longer consider myself a pessimist. It’s true, I once thought it was just in my nature and I only had to do my best to be a healthy, mature, thoughtful person while knowing that the glass was always half empty. I even thought that we all need someone who’s willing to point out the flawed and broken things in every situation. I defended my natural pessimism pretty vehemently, thinking that it was not something that could change, that it was built into my personality. It’s true, there is a sense in which it is built into me, but we all know that not everything we are predisposed to do is good.


After years of soul-searching and painfully slow maturing (with plenty of relapses along the way), I’ve realized that I’m not exactly becoming an optimist either; although my general outlook feels much more optimistic now. Instead, I see that I am becoming a person full of hope. I’m not particularly in favor of the word “optimist” because it tends to mean someone who is “always looking on the bright side” and not seeing - or maybe not being willing to talk about - the brokenness and the ugliness. I know this doesn’t describe all self-identified “optimists” (just like grouchy, Scrooge-like party poopers doesn’t describe all pessimists), but if it does describe you, then you might need to become a recovering optimist as much as I am a recovering pessimist.

Hope is the resolute, almost stubborn commitment to knowing that there is something deeper than the problems - and even the fleeting pleasures - that are right in front of me. (Click to share on Twitter)

So I’m not an optimist. Now, I’m just a person of hope. I’m not talking about the wishy-washy, “oh I really hope it all works out” kind here. I’m talking about the resolute, almost stubborn commitment to knowing that there is something deeper than the problems - and even the fleeting pleasures - that are right in front of me. I think this is what Rohr is getting at when he talks about the “different fuel” of union, contentment, and meaning. In fact, although Rohr doesn’t put it this way, we might consider these three as sort of a step-ladder to real, deep-seated hope.


1. Union


The word means being at one. A feeling of mutual connectedness is key to becoming a person of hope. The obvious first answer for a Christian is being united with God. This goes beyond mere “religion,” though. Being united with God is more like marriage vows than dating. But what happens when you don’t feel at one with God? When you’re in a dark night of the soul and nothing feels more distant than the divine? When prayer no longer motivates you but feels like an agonizing waste of time?


Well, I’m not sure how to answer that, but I’ll tell you what I’ve learned as I’ve been in (and continue to experience) some of those same feelings: maybe sometimes we just need to keep moving forward and trust that those marriage vows still hold up; or maybe we need to stop, take a deep breath, and re-evaluate our spiritual lives and our soul’s orientation. Either way, union with God is the first step to hope.


Then, of course, there is union with other people. Without a person or people to share our souls with, in the deepest sense of the phrase, we are missing out on a major ingredient of a hope-filled life. We need others to hold us up when we feel like falling (and vice versa), to rejoice with us when things are good, and to walk the long, slow path of life with us.


The ultimate goal goes beyond union with specific things and moves into union with all of humanity and all of creation. This might sound too “Eastern” for you, but I believe true hope requires - or maybe produces, I’m not quite sure yet - an understanding that we are part of a much bigger whole; and that whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. There is a grand story behind all of it, and we get to be part of it.


2. Contentment


I don’t think we can really achieve true contentment without a strong sense of our union with God, others, and the whole world, which is why I’ve chosen to put this section as the second step on the ladder. The dictionary definition says that contentment is “a state of happiness or satisfaction.” But I think we are going to be very confused and disappointed if we work from that definition, since happiness and satisfaction are fleeting based on circumstances, whereas Paul (a man of great hope, despite all his flaws) says he has learned to be “content in all things” (Philippians 4:11) while writing from a prison cell.


I think that it is fully possible, indeed even necessary, to be content without being satisfied. Satisfaction is great, but in my mind it means being happy with things the way they are right now. And let’s face it, a lot of the time, we aren’t. Even when we don’t feel specifically unhappy, living in this broken, chaotic world means always knowing there are things that need to change; so I don’t know if we can ever be truly, fully, 100% satisfied.


But contentment is different. Contentment means choosing to be at peace in the present moment, and as I’ve written before, finding peace means cultivating presence and patience. When we find contentment, we have found hope, and this means that we are even more ready to face the things we are “unsatisfied” with and work for change more effectively.


3. Meaning: the “deep resonance”


“What is the meaning of life?” is a question that has kept humanity busy for a long, long time. I’m not sure we will ever be able to lay out the logical, well-calculated answer, like an answer to an algebra problem. But when we have discovered union and contentment, then meaning will naturally flow forth. It becomes a “deep resonance” in our souls, as Rohr says, rather than just an answer in our heads. Of course, all of this begs the question, “What does meaning mean? What is meaning?” After all, “resonance” is a pretty subjective word for something that we naturally feel should be more objective and, well, meaningful.


Meaning knows where it comes from and where it is going, even when it doesn’t have all the details (it almost never does). Meaning makes sense of things that don’t seem to make sense. And most importantly, although seemingly contradictory to the last sentence, meaning is able to hold on to the tensions and paradoxes of life; because so many times, being able to hold things in tension is pretty much the only way to “make sense” of them.


So much of life seems to make no sense, so many things seem to be true and not true at the same time and in different ways, and so many things seem impossible to understand. But the “deep resonance” in our souls that we call meaning is able to hold it all in tension because there is a deeper foundation than the externals. In this sense, meaning is intimately tied up with hope.


And in the end, the most powerful energy of all doesn’t come from pessimistic thunder-clouds and volcanoes or optimistic sunny skies and flower patches. It comes from hope hidden in the depths of our souls, a bedrock foundation that cannot be moved. (Click to share on Twitter)

©2019 by Corey Farr.