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How Stories Help Us Find Meaning in Our Professions

Professionals today are struggling with a sense of purpose partly due to a naturalistic worldview—the belief that reality consists of matter and motion alone. Naturalism leads some to see work as a daily grind that only serves as a means to an end. For others, work becomes an idol that will ultimately fail to deliver on its promises. Finally, for those who cling to meaningfulness (without objective grounds for meaning), the purpose of work takes its cues from cultural tides. And at worst, professions warp into expressions of human depravity.

When it comes to medicine, altruism is important. But without a worldview that supports the goodness of helping others and the value of all patients, altruism dies. Career goals and monetary incentives become primary.  Physicians no longer focus on the value of the patient but the wants of the patient, which can include abortion and physician-assisted suicide. Physicians are reduced to automatons, and they become disenchanted. They burn out and the medical field suffers.

Medical professions need meaning to ground their profession.

How We Can Address the Problem

How do we begin to confront this problem of meaninglessness? How can we reorient our colleagues and ourselves to good work in serving others? These four steps can help us approach this kind of scenario:

  1. Identify a problem (meaninglessness) and understand how it affects people made in the image of God (people crave and need meaning).
  2. Identify the deeper problem (naturalism).
  3. Show how the problem stems from the deeper problem (naturalism reduces people to matter and motion).
  4. Show how the problem challenges the legitimacy of the underlying worldview (craving meaning suggests the world cannot just be a product of chaos/mindless chance).

Every profession faces unique challenges, but we must engage the foundational level of naturalism. We must find bridges with other image-bearers of God, remembering that it is impossible for any person to escape their nature as relational, meaning-seeking creatures.

In this case, we can attempt to correct an intellectual deficit (belief in naturalism) through subjective dissatisfaction (longings of the heart placed there by God). In our current climate, appeals to experience are often more powerful than rationalistic arguments and more accessible.

We can take soul cravings and show how they can ultimately be met in Christ. This often requires many steps, as the intellectual foundations in many professions require both tactful deconstruction and gradual reconstruction. Doing this requires an intimate knowledge of one’s own professional field and the beliefs and desires through which connections to the gospel-centered worldview can be drawn. This is a first step in contextualization, which Tim Keller defines as:

Giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.

In the world of medicine, I have attempted to accomplish this first step through stories.

Worldviews and Stories in Medicine

Medical professionals are dissatisfied with naturalistic understandings of the human person as a meaningless, complex array of chemicals. The rise of palliative care, spiritual care, research on spirituality and health, incorporation of humanities in medicine, and narrative medicine all suggest that people are seeking more.

The connection between naturalism and this reductionist view of humans is seldom made. But the drive to view humanity as something more is a point of entry for discussion. This desire for meaning is part of what it means to be made in God’s image.

Stories are worldviews in action and can be appreciated at a wide level. Stories are non-threatening and avoid emotionally charged terms like atheism or secular humanism. More importantly, stories invite reflection. The late cultural critic Neil Postman once said, “Without air, our cells die. Without a story, our selves die.” The stories we place ourselves in provide meaning and context to the facts of everyday life.

When we ask ourselves questions about where we come from, what the purpose of life is, and where we are going, we knit together our answers in stories. Naturalism’s answers to these questions are impersonal chaos, nothing, and nowhere. Meaning becomes something that we fabricate and don’t find (i.e., pretending something is there when you know it is not). This is ultimately dissatisfying and has led thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre (Existentialism Is a Humanism) and Bertrand Russell (Why I Am Not a Christian) to describe godlessness as a philosophy of despair.

We must ask our colleagues: “Why do we care about meaning in suffering if we’re nothing but matter and motion? Why do we try to cure disease?” Viewing medicine through another lens, one that sees inherent beauty in humans and the world creates the possibility of meaning. We can take these desires to suggest to our colleagues that maybe naturalism is missing something. We crave meaning because we were created in the image of the One who gives all things meaning.  We cure diseases because we live in the story of the One who will vanquish evil forever. 

For some, the desire for meaning can be stronger than the commitment to naturalism. We know that this attraction to stories cannot be eliminated because we are at our core storytelling creatures who live in the grand story of God forever vanquishing evil.

In medicine, recounting stories reminds us that patients are people that traverse life’s trials, have cherished relationships, and have emotional contexts. It is easy to forget this amidst the pressures of autonomy, technology, and utilitarian ideology.

Stories, as C.S. Lewis said, provide a “new dimension of depth” to daily life. A mundane patient encounter becomes the story of a hero seeking counsel on how to slay the villainous disease. In these stories, we long for what Tolkien called the “eucatastrophe.” It is the event that will lead us to the happy ending, mirroring the greatest event in the history of man, Christ’s birth. Pausing and reflecting on a story reminds us of the image of God in patients and in ourselves.

Thus stories can be of benefit to medicine in two critical ways. First, they tap into our basic desire for meaning. This establishes an entry point for discussing how naturalism is inadequate as a worldview, while providing elements of an alternative. Second, stories provide context to daily work at the minute level and in God’s grand narrative. This reminds us of the value of our patients and helps us better serve them amidst various clinical pressures

This begins a conversation that creates intellectual foundations on which discussions about the gospel are increasingly possible. While we know that the rejection of God is a heart problem, nobody can escape his God-given nature. His image is stamped upon us all, and we can take gradual steps to make this apparent to our neighbours and show how the gospel ultimately satisfies.

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