Meaning Making Machines

By | November 15, 2013

Humans are creators of meaning, and finding deep meaning in our experiences is not just another name for spirituality but it is also the very shape of human happiness.
– Richard Rohr

This nursing home, like most nursing homes, smelled of old people and stale urine. Over the years I’ve learned to carry a small cylindrical inhaler of lavender scent to ward off the repugnant aromas. After a couple of refreshing whiffs, I found Mary’s room.

Mary was lying on her bed, flat on her back, asleep. On the other side of the sheer curtain that divided the room in half, was a family in the process of admitting a new patient.

At the foot of the new patient’s bed, I could see the TV was on one of those shopping channels, or maybe it was one of those demonic infomercials. On the screen, a cherubic woman with incredibly curly red hair was hawking the new and improved Express ReadySetGo cooking pan. I watched as she placed little Vienna sausages in the compartments while some old white guy next to her on the set looked on in utter amazement, as if she were spinning lead into gold. With the sound muted, you could see just how stupid the whole product was—an item to be sold for fifty cents at some future garage sale.

Among the family members gathered with the new patient was an older man who was complaining about how far away they’d had to park. He said his feet were hurting from the walk. The patient’s granddaughter was on her cell phone, calling the doctor’s office demanding the names of the medications her grandmother was taking so they could inform the nursing home staff. A middle-aged man was talking to the new patient, who was thrashing around on the bed. “Now don’t try ’n get up, Ma,” he cooed in a sickeningly patronizing manner. “You’ll only hurt yourself.”

I finally tore myself away from the drama playing out behind the curtain and focused again on Mary. The first thing I noticed was her incredibly large triangular nose. It looked almost like one of those fake noses that came attached to thick black plastic glasses and furry eyebrows, and although it was perfectly triangular, one nostril was bigger than the other.

I began to wonder what Mary was like as a young woman? Whom had she loved? What had she hoped for? What were the things that made her heart flutter and her face flush?

After Mary woke up and I tried to introduce myself, she dove into a long monologue about how she had to get some rest before a long afternoon of cooking a big Christmas dinner with all of the fixings for her family. Mary’s body had been bed-bound in the nursing home for many months, but her mind was somewhere else. As I listened to Mary describing her plans for the day, I began to wonder if her Christmas dinner delusion was a defense mechanism to protect her from the pain of being a bed-ridden prisoner in a smelly nursing home, an escape to a time when life was filled with meaning.

Do I do the same thing? Do I create elaborate scenarios in my mind to make sense of the pain in my own reality? Do I seek comfort in a soothing sense of meaning?

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