Book 2: Tempests of Meaning
Book II. Tempests of Meaning
1. Meaning comes and goes. That’s its nature. Or rather, that’s our nature. Sometimes we experience life as meaningful. Sometimes we don’t. Just as sometimes we experience life as joyful and sometimes we don’t. These are equivalent situations.2. Why does meaninglessness hurt so much? Because it is the “feeling” equivalent of the thought, “Nothing matters.” We say, “This meeting is so boring!”, move to calling life a cheat and our life ridiculous, and pain floods in through that open door.3. For how long can we just fill up time? For some people, forever! For others, not even ten minutes. Some people are keenly aware of the presence and the absence of the feeling of meaning. If you are one of those, a crisis is always brewing!
4. Our species can be rightly divided into two groups, those who take existence for granted and those who question the nature of existence. The second group never rests. More self-pestering about the purpose of life! When, in fact, there are only choices.
5. Why can the tiniest thing make a day and the tiniest thing ruin a day? Because we are always calculating how life is going and the smallest thing can tip that calculation one way or the other. This existential brinksmanship is the great silent stressor.
6. Four people are sitting around a restaurant table, chatting and seeming happy. They get up—and each is immediately sad. What happened? The comfort of sociability abruptly ended and a strong whiff of meaninglessness returned.
7. There are answers to the question, “Can I experience life as meaningful?” But there is no salvation. You can live your life experiencing meaning but you still aren’t saved. Salvation is the pipedream—crave it and you cultivate despair.
8. This moment passes. You evaluate it: “Boring.” So, you make the leap: “Life is boring.” Do you see how that leap is an unnecessary indulgence? You did not need to reevaluate all of life because of those five or ten or fifteen minutes!
9. Instinct is the enemy of the experience of meaning. That we betray our partner with an affair because of instinctual hunger is a meaning killer. But we are pathetically vulnerable—which means that we regularly kill off our own meaning.
10. You buy a book because its title calls to you in the place of meaning. Then you don’t read it. Or you read it but it strikes you as slight and familiar. Did that sequence of hope and disappointment amount to a meaning wound?
11. It is that time of day. Maybe, 3 p.m. Meaning isn’t holding. Doing the next right thing feels unbearable. Your body is ready to throw in the towel. You want to reach for some soothing, for oblivion, for an addiction. What to do?
12. When you say, “Nothing matters,” you are also saying, “This doesn’t matter.” Whatever “this” is, you’ve robbed it of its power to produce meaning. You had an excellent intention, you said, “Nothing matters,” and boom! You ruined now.
13. You claim that something is important to you. Say, it’s writing. But you don’t write. How likely are you to experience meaning if you aren’t doing what you claim is important? How odd that you would expect meaning without honoring your intentions!
14. You cultivate the experience of meaning. You coax it. You try this and you try that. Sometimes you surrender, trying that as a tactic. You become a meaning tactician, a meaning strategist. You say, “Dark day. Trouble brewing. Let me try this!”
15. All you want to do is crawl into bed. And scream. And really not bother with all the ridiculous nonsense of living. Yes, you know about meaning coming and going—but it’s gone now and you can’t possibly “work on meaning.” This is called despair.
16. You create a gorgeous thing. Maybe your best thing ever. Then you plummet into a deep hole, your deepest hole ever. Why all this pain on the heels of such a victory? Because beauty smells of mortality, just as ripeness smells of decay.
17. We would like at least some things to always feel meaningful. Shouldn’t holding your child’s hand never let you down? But it sometimes will. That truth, however, is no indictment of hand-holding! Because, more often than not, it won’t let you down.
18. What meaning opportunities are least likely to let you down? My list is short. Keeping quiet company with my wife. Pulling thoughts together. Family. Fighting the rising tide. Certain writers. Service of a particular sort. Corned beef.
19. I keep investing meaning in writing about meaning. That investment doesn’t always pay off. Sometimes I’m too aware that I’m repeating myself. Sometimes I’m too aware that only a few people are listening. Sometimes it makes me dizzy. So be it.
20. What would be the height of maturity with respect to meaning? To not need it. To do the next right thing, and the next, whether or not it felt meaningful. To stop craving meaning and hating its absence. But what human can rise to such heights?
21. When we race around, we don’t conceptualize that as flight. But often it is. Often it is flight from meaninglessness. To stop would be to smell the void. So, we rush around. But we smell the void anyway. It’s in the air we breathe as we rush.
22. We are powerful and we are powerless. Sisyphus may smile but he is still tethered to a boulder. And for all eternity. Our powerlessness harms our ability to find life meaningful. How meaningful can life feel while tethered to a boulder?
23. Maybe it feels meaningful to support a certain candidate. Then you learn he’s a toad. How could supporting him still feel meaningful? You might still support him—but now, while feeling nauseous. Your reasons remain but not any feelings of meaning!
24. Which means: we have our reasons for doing things but the doing of them may not feel meaningful. We must accept that a percentage of our day is not going to feel very meaningful. But what if that percentage reaches 86% or 94%? How bleak is that!
25. But might 1% of meaning suffice? Or just 30 seconds? What if you had just a single experience of meaning on a given day, a brief shining heart tug in a sea of chores. Might that save the whole day? Might that justify existence? Might that be enough?
26. Say that you manage to encapsulate your many life purposes into a phrase of just a few words: for instance, “I do the next right thing.” You now have your complete guidance. Hasn’t meaning vanished as a problem? If only!
27. No, it didn’t vanish as a problem. By accepting life as a project and by refusing to be made seasick by the tumbling waves of meaning and meaninglessness, you did calm the sea a bit. But more storms are coming. The storms keep coming.
28. On a really dreary day, can meaning hold? The pull is to slide toward “Nothing matters” and “Why bother?” Toward “Life is a cheat” and “I’ve been wronged.” Toward “It’s all too much” and “Screw it!” What a steep slide, all in an instant!
29. How can you do the next right thing if you don’t believe in what you’re doing? You used to believe in teaching anthropology—but no more. You used to believe in the beauty of numbers—but no more. So, now you have neither purpose nor meaning. Ouch!
30. So, should you look to new purpose or to new meaning? You could go either way, couldn’t you? You could announce, “Let me try this on as a new purpose.” Or, “Let me make a meaning investment here and see what happens.” Either is a reasonable effort!
31. But how was it that meaning drained out of anthropology or numbers? How did our experience of something change so radically over time that the thing lost its existential cachet? How can something be worth everything and then nothing?
32. I loved “the novel.” I loved reading them and writing them. Then, over the course of forty years, I stopped believing in its importance. I wasn’t down on it or angry with it, as if it had failed me. Rather, its importance got rejiggered.
33. Reality rejiggers. You see teaching children as an admirable life purpose. Then comes the world of tests, principals, colleagues, parents, and a loss of innocence. The ideal falls hard to the real. Teaching becomes a struggle. Meaning crisis!
34. Or perhaps meaning does hold. Hurrah! You love teaching from the day you start until the day you retire. What a blessing and lucky accident, that the place where you invested meaning paid lifelong dividends. What a blessing and how lucky!
35. Must so much—our whole life really—rest on accidents of good luck, like loving teaching from beginning to end? It looks as if it just might. You audition as an actor. You win no auditions. No luck strikes. How can meaning possibly hold?
36. You keep trying. You say, “I’m not giving up.” You say, “I feel terrible right now but it will get better.” You say, “I matter and my efforts matter.” You say, “I love myself completely.” Still, nothing lucky happens. How can meaning possibly hold?
37. And maybe you didn’t help luck along all that much. Maybe you didn’t do everything you should have. Maybe you botched this and made a mess of that. Now you have that pain to reckon with, too, that further meaning drain. Is meaning holding?
38. “Meaning” is a subjective psychological experience. It’s a plus or minus feeling about life’s value. Who you are, what you’ve done, what’s been done to you, how you think, all of that matters. A pratfall a long twenty years ago—and a meaning crisis now!
39. And what if you were seriously harmed in the bosom of your family? Don’t we see people harmed that way and robbed of joy? Robbed of spontaneity? Robbed of life? What if you got robbed of the ability to experience life as meaningful?
40. You start with a huge repertoire of psychological experiences. You are curious. A slap eliminates that. You speak your mind. A yell and you’re silenced. One by one, the experiences that might have made life feel meaningful are chased out of you.
41. Or maybe you rebel and embark on a wild ride. Still, nothing feels meaningful. That bit of sex. Nothing. That drug. Nothing. The sharpest point, the craziest antic: nothing. You were harmed and now you’re chasing a feeling that is not available.
42. Exactly this is at the root of the confusion between “searching for meaning” and hungering for a feeling. Meaning is not a pot of gold to be located. It’s nowhere! You can’t search for it, any more than you can search for awe or wonder. Impossible!
43. The night sky isn’t awesome or wonderful. It’s just the night sky. But you might experience something as you look up at it. You might go outside to have an experience. But the night sky did nothing. Something welled up inside of you —or it didn’t.
44. You didn’t go outside searching. You went outside hoping, anticipating, and hazarding a guess, based on your history of meaningful experiences. Just as you hazard a guess that you might love teaching, baking bread, or having children.
45. Stop searching for meaning, looking for meaning, or trying to find meaning, as if meaning was hiding under a bushel or got lost when you changed jackets. No guru has got it in his pocket or his podcast. But you’ve known that all along!
46. Instead say, “I understand meaning. It comes and goes. It’s just what it is. It may prove elusive and it may even get lost for weeks and months on end. But my understanding of it is firm! I know exactly what it is, this strange, quixotic human feeling!”
47. And you possess tactics for coaxing it into existence. For one, you do things that once felt meaningful—maybe they’ll prove meaningful again. Maybe you’ll read that book you once loved and see what you feel. Maybe meaning will well right up!
48. And you’ll try things with a likelihood of feeling meaningful. You’ll try being of service. That has a chance. You’ll try fighting for a cause. That has a chance. You’ll try walking by the ocean. That has a chance. Consult your list of meaning opportunities!
49. But you won’t go seeking meaning, as if it could be found at the top of some mountain. To seek meaning is to not face life. The project of your life is defeated by a search for meaning. You may be able to coax meaning into existence but stop hunting for it!
50. You can live your life purposes right now and you can do the next right thing right now, but only if you are here right now, living the project of your life. You can rush off to Paris, if you like, but don’t go hoping that Paris is where meaning resides!
51. The fruitless search for meaning is a hunt for reasons to believe that there is something “more” than ordinary life, a hunt for some secret something that would prove that we cosmically matter. Yes, we matter—just not to the universe.
52. Let the universe laugh at that, if it likes. Ah, but it has no way of laughing. So, no need to plug our ears to defend ourselves against that laughter. We are no cosmic joke. There is only vast, eternal silence there—and our life here.
53. Maybe you crave excellent reasons for accepting your human lot. Maybe you pine for a secret explanation as to why we’re here, what purpose we serve as a species, and what purpose you serve as an individual. Let that go. Just stand up instead.
54. You say that you aren’t experiencing meaning. But how could that possibly reduce your responsibility to do the next right thing? Did tyranny suddenly vanish? Did cruelty? Did misery? Warrior, forget about meaning! Stand up instead.
55. Universal meaning is an authoritarian idea. Personal, subjective meaning is a democratic idea. Authoritarians are happy to tell you what to believe. They say they have information right from the source of all things. But isn’t that just a version of bullying?
56. To start a sentence with “The meaning of life is” is to betray our common humanity. To start a sentence with “The purpose of life is” is the same betrayal. How dare anyone try to bend all life purposes to their will. Completely unacceptable!
57. But what if you’ve been harmed and robbed of the ability to experience life as meaningful? You make an effort, you hazard a guess, you try this, you try that, but your efforts don’t pay off. How demoralizing! Is there anything to be done?
58. Yes. Currently a psychological experience isn’t available to you. But your thoughts still are. You can think your way to a good life. You can say, “Living with purpose is plenty and maybe the experience of meaning will follow.” You can do that!
59. But what if you can’t identify your life purposes because nothing feels important enough to qualify? Then you must announce, “I deem this and that important, even though they don’t feel important.” That is an odd game, but it is the right game.
60. And look, meaning is holding! For three straight weeks you’ve been smiling, or smiling a bit. Then comes a terrible blow. You learn that your mate is cheating on you. You learn that your company wants to move you to a desolate country. What then?
61. Or maybe your freedoms are abruptly curtailed. Or you’re diagnosed with an illness. Or your rent increases and you can no longer afford your apartment. Or your industry vanishes to technology and automation. In each case … what then?
62. Then you must deal with that crisis and you must also repair meaning. You undergo radiation or you make a career change and you also repair meaning. The fabric got ripped and you pull out your needle and thread and stitch meaning back together.
63. You repair it by reminding yourself that meaning is a wellspring that can and will return. That, even with your life purposes rejiggered, you are not bereft of purpose. That, this blow notwithstanding, you don’t have to evaluate life as worthless.
64. It is a sunny day. You feel spirited. You feel alive. You even feel lucky. You are so tempted to exclaim, “Life is meaningful!” But you know better. You know that life isn’t meaningful or not meaningful. Rather, you are having one lucky day of meaning!
65. And, yes, one lucky day of meaning can be followed by another. You are enjoying what you are doing. You are enjoying life. Plus, you are doing all the hard things, those life purpose choices that require heavy lifting. So, meaning is settled now, right? Ha!
66. A woman came up to me after a talk I gave. “Making meaning is just a game,” she said, “one that I can see right through.” “Yes,” I replied, “but it’s the best game in town.” Indeed, the void is always there. But so is the prospect of personal responsibility.
67. No matter what, our life remains our project. We can do good—or not. We can stand up—or not. We can think deeply—or not. We can care—or not. We can love—or not. Don’t blame the universe if we opt for purposelessness. That’s on us.
68. Do you have permission to throw in the towel? Well, who’s to say otherwise? You have no personal services contract with the universe. But the choice to throw in the towel won’t make you proud. At the last instant, you’ll whisper, “I’m better than this.”
69. But, how to release the heaviness? The despair? The anxiety? The emptiness? The anger? You do it by saying, “I do the next right thing, despite what I know about the universe and despite how I’m feeling.” Can you do that amazing, difficult thing?
70. You are not taking a stand for or against the universe. You are taking a stand as a human being. You are saying, “I buy the idea of personal dignity.” The universe won’t care that you made that decision. But won’t you?
71. Meaning is a wellspring and renewable resource. If your tire is flat, you patch it or you replace it. If your career is flat, you reinvest meaning in it or you start a new career. You don’t say, “Meaning is gone for all time.” That’s a huge mistake.
72. The thought, “Meaning is gone for all time,” invites despair. It creates a deep hole and, when you fall into that hole, how hard it is to get out again! Now nothing feels worth doing. What an effort even to remove your socks! So, you sleep in your clothes.
73. Climbing out of that hole seems impossible. Yes, the sun is shining high above. But how does that help you? Who cares that it is beautiful up there? Down in that hole it is miserable. If the hole were a physical thing, you would never get out of it.
74. But it is psychological. And ladders appear in the darkness. Is love a ladder out? Is helping a child? Is fighting evil? A ladder appears—will you climb up it? Or are you too demoralized for that? Maybe today you are. But what about tomorrow?
75. Remember when you were nine, sitting in a comfy chair in a silent room, reading a book that moved you? That is no false memory. That can’t be disputed or deconstructed. That was a genuinely meaningful experience. And if a child can have it …
76. Ah, but you and I know too much now, don’t we? There is too much water under the bridge. Too many disappointments, too much that didn’t pan out, too few beautiful dreams left. And such a vast sea of mundanity all around us …
77. Tease out of that sea of mundanity the three or five or seven or nine important things, the things of this moment or of all time, that you recognize as important or anoint as important. Do they not really feel important? Then anoint them as important!
78. In the silence that ensues, even as you can see the game you are playing, even as you can hear the laughter, you decide to matter. Call it absurd, call it comical, but that is still the right answer: even as you smell emptiness, you ratify human dignity.
79. You live the project of your life. If it turns out that you are eternal, lovely. If the universe is smiling down on you, lovely. And if there is nothing, so be it. Forget the universe, forget the indignity, and say, “I do the next right thing. That’s my choice.”
80. If the polar ice caps melt, your life is still your project. If bullies appear on all sides, ruining everything, your life is still your project. You are a resistance fighter in the battle for human dignity. Yes, you could collaborate with nothingness. But don’t!
81. And sometimes you’ll experience meaning. How will that feel? Like pure joy? Like a piercing? Like wistfulness? Like the sea surging through you? Like understanding? Well, that feeling will pass. And the project of your life will continue.
82. Even if someone foretells your fate, the project of your life continues. Whatever those tea leaves, Tarot cards, or natal charts say, the project of your life continues. Whatever is or isn’t or ever will be, the project of your life continues.
83. We are very accustomed to words like anxiety, depression, and addiction. We need a new vocabulary made up of phrases like meaning opportunities, meaning investments, meaning leaks, meaning drains, and meaning substitutes. And meaning crises!
84. With that new vocabulary, desperate dramas of seeking would end. No need to flee meaninglessness, as if it were a monster, or chase after it, as if it were the holy grail. You would settle in and live, happy, despairing, anxious, calm and all the rest.
85. What is meaning? Just a sometimes constant, sometimes occasional, sometimes absent feeling, just an odd, everyday human thing. Meaning comes and goes; and through all that cataclysmic shifting, you can live a life of purpose, if you will.