Coherence: Making Sense of Life (and Death)

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Making things coherent means imbuing them with meaning - weaving each new experience into our personal narratives, insights, or spiritual sensibility.

The Rev. W. Joseph Mann kicked off this series of meditations on the Leading Causes of Life, Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray's fresh look at what makes life worth living. We’ve touched on Hope and Blessing.  Here's the next installment – Coherence.

Making things coherent means imbuing them with meaning - weaving each new experience into our personal narratives, insights, or spiritual sensibility.  An example of coherence from my life: like many children who lose a parent to illness, I chose to work in healthcare early in my career.  I was employed by a children's hospital as a cardiac imaging technician, doing ultrasound and EKG tests on children who were ill with congenital heart disease, cancer, lung disease or serious infections.  I relished spending my days with children, doing tests that didn't hurt them.  I told myself that the "meaning" of my work was narrowly defined by those parameters: Helping. Children.  Painless. Competent. Serving.

Medicine offers a singular narrative of coherence.  A person is either healthy or ill; there are reasons why cells, fluids, and electrolytes behave or misbehave. Death is the predictable consequence of certain biological realities. Young practitioners rarely invite spiritual understanding into this black-and-white arena, and I was no exception.

It wasn't until a few years later, after I'd worked in a neonatal ICU and served as a hospice volunteer and as an early HIV/AIDS educator, that I realized that I was in pursuit of deeper coherence in my health work.  I found myself searching for the meaning of life and death and cloaking myself in the secret hope that my bravery in taking on difficult, often sad, work would shield me from loss.  Yet even though my understanding of coherence had evolved, possessing a sense of spiritual coherence was not as important as figuring out how it all worked (and stacking the deck in my favor).

But when my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer, suddenly the coherence question re-emerged.  This time, thanks to his willingness to accept his diagnosis (and engage with cancer care in a hopeful way), and his spiritual surrender to the reality that even meaningful lives end, I could risk a look at a deeper narrative. What was God up to?  What was the new invitation for me to explore?

All baptized Christians enter the narrative of salvation, and grow to claim its coherence as they mature.  For me, spiritual vitality rests on the narrative that we are loved, forgiven, and invited into relationships over and over again. Human relationships will end, but our friends and children remember what was coherent for us – how we create meaning from our experiences.  It is an ongoing process, thanks be to God.

Robin Swift, MPH
Health Programs Director
Clergy Health Initiative

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