Meaning Making Machines

Michael Maddaus was the juvenile delinquent son of a violent alcoholic step-father and suicidal mother. To avoid doing prison time, he joined the Navy; then he earned a community college degree and eventually became a highly regarded surgeon on the faculty of the University of Minnesota’s medical school. After undergoing surgery himself, he became addicted to painkillers. He entered an in-patient substance abuse treatment program, graduated, and began to focus more on his family and on cultivating practices of gratitude and mindfulness. Now Maddaus speaks and writes about cultivating resilience in the face of life’s setbacks.


In one blog post, Maddaus states that to overcome adversity, one must become a “meaning making machine.” He quotes Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl recalled that the turning point for him in the concentration camp was when he realized that he needed to have a purpose beyond merely surviving to the end of the day. He imagined himself in the future, freed from his captors, giving lectures on how he survived the camp, and helping others understand what he and his fellow prisoners had gone through.

Over the past year, circumstances have made us prisoners of short-term thinking and survival tactics. How can I survive one more day of not seeing friends and family? How can I work from home and be a teacher’s assistant to my kids for yet another day? How can I make it to the end of the month without a job? Can I bear to watch the news tonight? Can I afford not to? But what if we grasped hold of a longer-term view, even in the midst of the uncertainties and difficulties of today?

Laura and I have been reading through the Letter to the Ephesians for our morning devotions. Now here is a letter that really forces you to think long-term! God chose us, says the Apostle Paul, and destined us for adoption as God’s children before God created the world. God’s will is to gather up all things in God. God has laid up an inheritance for us in heaven, and the gift of the Holy Spirit is a down-payment on that inheritance. The inheritance is rich beyond measure. There is a sense in which we have already taken our place at the side of Christ, but in the meantime, God calls us to live a life of good works here and now (Ephesians 1:1-2:10).

Maybe you’ve heard the old saying, “A person should not be so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.” This is true. On the other hand, the Apostle Paul also wrote, “If for this life only we had hoped, we above all are most to be pitied.” Remember that beyond the pandemic and political violence of the moment, and the perennial suffering of this present age lies a new world and a new age in which death and disease and injustice will be destroyed. Hope in the age to come not only will help us survive the present moment, it also will inspire us to make the present moment better than it otherwise would have been.


*This post first ran in our daily e-newsletter. To sign up for our e-communications, go to our home page.


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