May 2021: Creating Meaning From Our Experiences

Michael A. Marinelli, Ed.D. '76
Dear Members of the Archmere Community, 

“Things happen for a reason,” is a coined phrase we hear, but what would be the reason for a pandemic? This question is similar to the one, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” which Rabbi Harold Kushner addresses in his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He writes, “We could bear nearly any pain or disappointment if we thought there was a reason behind it, a purpose, to it.” Michael Coren, who writes for comments that “This oft-repeated question says nothing about God, but everything about human beings.” In other words, it does not take into account that our lives on earth are infinitely shorter than our lives in eternity. If we consider the question, “How am I to respond when something bad happens to me or to those I love,” perhaps we can create meaning from the experience. 
Psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Lewis wrote an article for Psychology Today in which he discusses the secular world view of the randomness of things. Lewis suggests that our religious beliefs impose meaning on the randomness of the universe. He comments that while he is not a religious person, he works with patients who are deeply rooted in their faith, and he uses their strong beliefs to help them manage through difficult events or issues in their lives. 
In physics, we teach about entropy, defined as “a thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system's thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system. The second law of thermodynamics says that entropy always increases with time" (Oxford Languages). So, is our faith a placebo that we use only to cope with the harsh reality that the world was created out of randomness without any grand design from an all-powerful and omniscient God? And is faith and belief in God a choice or a gift? 
We talk about the gift of faith we received as Christians at Baptism, and how it is fortified through the sacraments of the Church. We just celebrated Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to the apostles and gave them the faith and courage to preach the Gospel in different languages to all people. Interestingly, this event in some way begins to reverse the Old Testament story in the book of Genesis of the Tower of Babel. The Babylonians wanted to construct a tower to reach heaven, but God interrupted their arrogant plan by making all of the workers speak in different languages so they could not understand one another and complete the tower. This was the biblical explanation at the time for why people from different lands spoke different languages, but it also suggests the underlying concept of entropy or the randomness and disorder in the world. The gifts of the Holy Spirit to the apostles began to reverse that disorder and chaos by giving them the ability to speak and to be understood in various languages, making the Word of God through the teachings of Jesus, living and active in the world. The intervention of God in the world brings peace, understanding, and order. Our religious beliefs infuse meaning to a world that seems to be unordered and random. We choose to behave in ways consistent with those beliefs, thereby making God’s presence felt in the world; we help bring order out of chaos.
However, contrary to the idea that the world is unordered and random, I learned about the Fibonacci Sequence from our students. It is a series of numbers, where the next number is found by adding the two numbers before it. Several years ago, as we installed the Stations of the Cross garden on campus, we needed to find a way to conceal a large HVAC unit on the outside of the Justin E. Diny Science Center. We constructed a series of three, free-standing curved walls, with the center wall being the tallest. I asked students in the art department to develop a concept for the “fifteenth station,” the Resurrection of Jesus. They presented a glass tile design based on graphing the Fibonacci Sequence, which is a spiral. It happens that this spiral is found in nature. Plants grow new cells in a spiral, and the relationship of the position of one cell to the next turns out to be "The Golden Ratio", defined as the ratio between any two consecutive numbers in the Fibonacci Sequence. The students saw this graphical representation of the Sequence that continues to infinity as a representation of eternal life, expressed as new life in nature. It makes me think of the opening line of the hymn, “Canticle of the Sun” by Marty Haugen, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and all creation is shouting for joy!” The finished multi-colored spiral created by the students and art teacher, Mrs. Jody Hoffman, draws the viewer into a point of infinity, creating depth, dimension and movement. I think it is a wonderful representation of what the Resurrection experience might be like for all of us.
I believe that God is ever present, and it is how we respond to challenges that we see God’s presence manifested in the world. While we have faced hardships, losses, and disappointments through the days of the pandemic, we have also witnessed amazing acts of kindness and heroism. Many of us have been able to continue our work through creative solutions and advanced technologies.
We have actually enjoyed the benefits of forced change, thinking about the alfresco events of our school year, most recently the Baccalaureate Mass on Pentecost Sunday for our graduating seniors held on the back terrace and in the tents on the lawn of the Patio. It is often said that good things are sometimes deconstructed so that better things can take place. When that happens, we may experience a bitter-sweet feeling, similar to how some of our graduating seniors may be feeling sad about leaving Archmere and their friends and teachers, but are excited to move on to the next chapter in their lives.
Coming to some resolution about the pandemic experience and how it has affected us psychologically and emotionally is something that will be a part of our discussions for years to come. It is important that we acknowledge that we have been changed in some way by the experience, and understand how we are feeling about it. For me, breaking open my feelings in the context of my faith feels right. I don’t consider my Catholic Christian beliefs a “crutch” to help explain the randomness of things; rather, I find it to be logical that there is more to our existence than the reality we experience each day. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways—oracle of the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
As this unique school year ends, my prayer for the graduating seniors and our returning students is that they continue to seek out God in their lives, however and in whatever religious tradition God becomes real and present to them. I hope they realize that they are here in this life for a special reason, as they are each uniquely made in God’s image and likeness. People happen for a reason – not just things, and these people – our wonderful students – are God’s gifts to us. Enjoy a restful, happy, and healthy summer!

Michael A. Marinelli, Ed.D. ‘76
Archmere Academy is a private, Catholic, college preparatory co-educational academy,
grades 9-12 founded in 1932 by the Norbertine Fathers.