I was walking down the main thoroughfare in my neighborhood—my very staid suburban neighborhood—when I became aware of someone behind me. I half-turned around to see a man on a bicycle coming up slowly on my right, so slowly that we were able to make eye contact and a quick, friendly nod as he pedaled past me.

As he cycled ahead of me, my brain performed an automatic scan. It’s not like a never saw a guy in a pink tutu before Man on bike. Check. Wearing cool black-and-yellow spandex biking gear. Check. Wearing a helmet. Check. Wearing a big video camera mounted on his helmet. Huh? And ... what ... am .... I ... looking ... at? The next incoming phrase, and he’s wearing a pink effervescent tutu, was so bizarre and out of context that my brain had trouble putting the words to what my eyes were in fact seeing.

It’s not like I never saw a guy in a pink tutu before; a man by the name of “Rollerina” was a known fixture who roller-skated at high speed in the streets of New York City where I lived in the late 1970s. But it’s out of character for where I reside now, and it didn’t jive because nothing else about the biker said pink tulle. Except for maybe the camera thing. What was that about?

A few more steps. and I noticed a small black sign stuck into the ground on my right. The white letters read: “Early detection makes the best prevention.” Detection of what? Prevention of what? As I kept walking, I noticed more little signs along the way, showing footprints and arrows. And then I saw them: a group of women wearing pink shirts. Finally, it hit me. Of course! It’s the March for Breast Cancer Awareness! And the guy is filming it, and he’s wearing a pink tutu in solidarity. It makes perfect sense!

That “aha moment” allowed my brain to relax, for I was suddenly in a state of “coherence.” Now that my brain could comprehend what my eyes were seeing, I could create a mental construct, an explanatory story that made sense because until the pieces of the picture fell into place, my brain—that little meaning-making, story-telling machine—was out of sorts.

Finding Meaning in the Chaos

In this particular instance, my confusion was short-lived. More often, however, there are times in our lives—periods that can last for years or a lifetime—when we lack that coherence, where life events seem tragically painful or incomprehensibly sad. At those times, when we are left holding pieces of a puzzle that don’t seem to fit, we are most challenged to trust that such a coherent picture actually does exist.

Perhaps we are simply not seeing the missing pieces, and we need to look harder or search with a new set of eyes. Absent that, we can choose to view life as chaotic and meaningless. Or we can come to believe that the seemingly disconnected fragments of our life nevertheless make up a unified whole, and that like the proverbial back of a tapestry, one day its beauty will reveal itself to us. You could say it’s the long view of life—the very long view.

In Vayeishev, we read the familiar story of Joseph, who goes from enjoying the prestige of being Jacob’s favorite son (good) to being thrown into a pit by his brothers and ultimately sold as a slave to Potiphar (bad). Joseph, however, quickly rose to become Potiphar’s second in command (good), but when Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph of attempted rape, he was back in the pit of prison again (bad). Ultimately, Joseph becomes Pharaoh’s second in command (good), and saves and reunites his family (very good).

Taken separately, each aspect of the Joseph story is extreme—either painfully heartrending or appearing to defy reason, unfolding in a cosmic “aha” that has reverberated for millennia.

As the well-known Holocaust survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl explains:

Consider a movie: It consists of thousands upon thousands of individual pictures, and each of them makes sense Attaining a state of coherence gives us more than a happy brain and carries meaning, yet the meaning of the whole film cannot be seen before its last sequence is shown. However, we cannot understand the whole film without having first understood each of its components, each of the individual pictures. Isn’t it the same with life? Doesn’t the final meaning of life, too, reveal itself, if at all, only at its end, on the verge of death?

Attaining a state of coherence gives us more than a happy brain. It is fundamental to our well-being and ability to cope with the stressors and challenges of life. In between those moments of revelation (when suddenly everything makes sense) is the challenge to cling to the belief that sense is there to be made, revealed in the next moment, the next year, at the end of life or even over the course of lifetimes.

Continues Frankl, “This is the core of the human spirit ... If we can find something to live for—if we can find some meaning to put at the center of our lives—even the worst kind of suffering becomes bearable.” (Man’s Search for Meaning)

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. When in your life have things seemed bad, yet ultimately became the backdrop for something good to happen?
  2. When you look at some of the most challenging and difficult times you have experienced, what aspects of yourself and strengths have emerged specifically because of the situation you faced and lived through?
  3. How would your perception of a stressful situation change if you projected yourself five, 10, 15 or more years into the future?