Meditations On Meaning

I denied myself noth­ing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no plea­sure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I sur­veyed all that my hands had done, and what I had toiled to achieve, every­thing was mean­ing­less, a chas­ing after the wind; noth­ing was gained under the sun.” Eccle­si­astes 2:10–11

Once upon a time in a land far away, mean­ing in human life was sim­ple (though not easy) to acquire. It was dic­tated to you, either phys­i­cally because you were starv­ing and liv­ing on the edge of death in the case of the ear­li­est civ­i­liza­tions or cul­tur­ally through your king, monarch, dic­ta­tor or God. For the greater part of human his­tory, the idea of find­ing mean­ing was as silly to most peo­ple as the idea of buy­ing bot­tled water for $2 was to my grand­fa­ther. Before the huge advance­ments in qual­ity of life, espe­cially in the devel­oped world in the 20th cen­tury, the idea of try­ing to find mean­ing in your life was lim­ited to ful­fill­ing the base needs of shel­ter and food in many cases. If you were lucky enough to have shel­ter and food, mean­ing was likely imposed on you through reli­gion, at least in the West­ern world.

How­ever, man’s search for mean­ing has always existed at some level in soci­ety as evi­denced by the entire book of Eccle­si­astes where The Teacher, at the end of his life, details his cor­po­real search for any mean­ing. He finds all sec­u­lar mean­ing wanting-wisdom, plea­sure, toil, riches, none of them infer any mean­ing on ones life. He con­cludes that only through God can we achieve mean­ing because it is only through God that we may expe­ri­ence life ever­last­ing. And this is how it was for a long time, and still is for a great many.

Then the exis­ten­tial­ists came along and screwed every­thing up. When Niet­zsche sur­veyed the sci­en­tific and philo­soph­i­cal land­scape known to man at the time and declared “God is dead”, he effec­tively killed off the only way we could impart mean­ing on our lives. With­out God (and real­ize it’s a mis­take to take Nietzche’s words lit­er­ally; they rep­re­sent the idea that we pal­try humans had acquired enough knowl­edge to decide that the mytholo­gies which had ruled our con­scious for mil­len­nia were no longer nec­es­sary as expla­na­tions for our phys­i­cal world) The Teacher from Eccle­si­astes is left rud­der­less in a voy­age to find mean­ing. With­out God (or Bud­dha or Mohammed or Zeus or what­ever the­o­log­i­cal imple­men­ta­tion of a Higher Power the cul­ture we were born into believes), who can we turn to embody our puny lives with mean­ing (and why is so impor­tant)? Or so Niet­zche said albeit more poet­i­cally and eloquently.

The mate­ri­al­ism of the late 20th cen­tury only served to make mat­ters worse. As soci­ety became more sec­u­lar in nature, far­ther removed from the thought of a mean­ing­ful God, it also became more mate­ri­al­is­tic. “Keep­ing up with the Jones” became the rule. But we found that with each thing we acquired, the amount of mean­ing it imparted on our lives less­ened, like any addict can tell you about the par­tic­u­lar drug of choice. The con­stant search for some­thing else to acquire for our fix of exter­nally pro­vided mean­ing rapidly becomes an exhaust­ing rat race as the mate­ri­al­is­tic pel­lets the dis­penser keeps kick­ing out seem to be less and less potent. Whether we turned to mate­r­ial things, alco­hol, drugs or sex, we found that mean­ing was always fad­ing away from our grasp.

With God out of the way and our basest desires met by a con­tin­u­ally increas­ing stan­dard of liv­ing, we dis­cov­ered that life was still empty. The­olo­gians would argue that by turn­ing our focus away from the inter­nal face of God and focus­ing on the sec­u­lar, exter­nal mate­ri­al­is­tic world, we effec­tively killed our chances of ever find­ing mean­ing. The Teacher in Eccle­si­astes had to be on to some­thing, right? And in fact he was though I can’t speak to what God has to do with it since if I could, I’d likely be a great deal more famous. What The Teacher was on to was the fact that mean­ing must be cre­ated from an intrin­sic inter­nal process that avoids the pit­falls of con­stantly chas­ing wis­dom or riches or plea­sure. Our chronic dis­sat­is­fac­tion with our lives in the face of increas­ing stan­dards of liv­ing like health and phys­i­cal com­forts is one of the great para­doxes of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion. Hap­pi­ness, which in many ways is a syn­onym for mean­ing, comes not from the exter­nal pur­suit of some goal but from the inter­nal fac­tors that we use to inter­pret our own real­ity. How we inte­grate the events of our lives inter­nally dic­tates our level of hap­pi­ness with those events. That’s why a lowly coal worker in the mines of West Vir­ginia can seem like the hap­pi­est per­son on earth while a titan of busi­ness liv­ing on the Upper East side of Man­hat­tan can com­mit sui­cide in despair in spite of every­thing he owns. Hap­pi­ness can­not be acquired exter­nally. It has to come from within through a set of char­ac­ter­is­tics that dic­tate how we view the events of our lives.

That’s the premise of a book I just fin­ished read­ing called Flow — the psy­chol­ogy of opti­mal expe­ri­ence. Essen­tially, to be truly happy, our goals must be inde­pen­dent of the cul­tural envi­ron­ment we find our­selves in. Our goals and the achieve­ment of them must be intrin­sicly derived and not set based on our beliefs about what soci­ety or any­one else thinks is appro­pri­ate. Buy­ing a new car to impress the neigh­bors will result in that famil­iar feel­ing of reach­ing a long-sought goal only to dis­cover the hap­pi­ness accrued is fleet­ing and mean­ing­less. Mate­ri­al­is­tic goals are inher­ently risky for this very rea­son. But men­tal or phys­i­cal goals are equally dangerous.

Most of us know the feel­ing of achiev­ing a long term goal. Maybe we want to run a marathon or learn a new lan­guage or travel to a new coun­try. A great deal of effort goes into achiev­ing this goal and when we do, we are strangely let down. So we set another goal and work towards it. The inher­ent prob­lem with this approach is the entire focus is on the future. We are taught and molded from the begin­ning of our con­scious days that things in the future are worth striv­ing for. We study so that we can go to col­lege. We go to col­lege because it will allow us to get a bet­ter job. We work hard in our job so that we might get pro­moted. We save money so that we might retire. This focus on the future is evi­dent in all cul­tures but it is ingrained in West­ern civ­i­liza­tion. Of course, our cul­ture dic­tates this because a civ­i­liza­tion filled with peo­ple who care noth­ing for the future won’t last very long. Soci­ety is the bene­fac­tor of our focus on the future at the expense of our abil­ity to cre­ate an enjoy­able life.

An enjoy­able life, both at the micro and macro level, is built through a focus and atten­tion on the present. This doesn’t mean avoid all long term goals. But to imbue mean­ing on life, the achieve­ment of those goals must involve the abil­ity to focus on and enjoy the day to day steps required to reach them. Some­one who trains for a marathon with­out actu­ally enjoy­ing the train­ing will be able to cross it off her bucket list but the over­all event will be mean­ing­less. A per­son who learns a new lan­guage with­out being fully focused and atten­tive to the small steps along the way will be dis­ap­pointed in the result. Enjoy­ment and mean­ing come from doing some­thing for its own sake and noth­ing more. As soon as we decide to do some­thing for any other extrin­sic rea­son, mean­ing is impos­si­ble. This is what “Flow” is.

The gen­eral dis­con­tent that is so preva­lent among human­ity in the face of increased stan­dards of liv­ing is cre­ated because we have always assumed that if we could just [insert any par­tic­u­lar goal you care about here], then we’d be happy. But it turns out the old saw about how life is a jour­ney not a des­ti­na­tion is in fact true. With­out the abil­ity to treat every­thing along life’s path as a jour­ney to be expe­ri­enced and enjoyed, the des­ti­na­tion will always be dis­ap­point­ing. And in fact, once we can turn atten­tion to the actual jour­ney, the des­ti­na­tion becomes irrelevant.

The exis­ten­tial anx­i­ety, that exis­ten­tial hum that Kurt Von­negut talked about and said only went away with heroin use, is our con­stant com­pan­ion because some­thing within us expects our life to be mean­ing­ful but we are ill equipped to cre­ate that mean­ing our­selves. So we con­stantly chase some­thing in the future, a new car, a new job, a new wife, a new reli­gion, only to find out that that new thing is just as devoid of mean­ing as the last one was because we can­not learn to focus on the present and all the won­ders it affords us. The psy­cho­log­i­cal evi­dence pre­sented in the book points to happy, ful­filled peo­ple as those who can find enjoy­ment in the jour­ney regard­less of the des­ti­na­tion. There are peo­ple who have been in har­row­ing cir­cum­stances who still report enjoy­ment and ful­fill­ment because they are able to focus their atten­tion on the present and work their way out of the predica­ment while oth­ers imme­di­ately fail and die because they can­not see beyond their sit­u­a­tion. Mean­ing doesn’t just come from the enjoy­able times in life, it’s present always in lives of this nature.

I’ll admit, hap­pi­ness and enjoy­ment have not been what you might con­sider hall­marks of my life. I have always been focused on the future either through the poten­tial of a job that might be bet­ter, a rela­tion­ship that might be bet­ter or more money that might afford some­thing else to acquire. My abil­ity to focus on the present has been retarded though hope­fully not stunted. Nine months ago, I left a job in hopes of find­ing some­thing that could make me happy. Now I real­ize I was on the wrong jour­ney, that noth­ing in the exter­nal world could make me happy. I’m about to start a job that those same nine months ago would have sounded unin­ter­est­ing and unsexy. Today, after a great deal of learn­ing, I’m gen­uinely excited to be work­ing there. I’m look­ing for­ward to work­ing with a good friend on chal­lenges I don’t yet know any­thing about. I’m still not good at get­ting over that exis­ten­tial anx­i­ety but I’m get­ting bet­ter at it. This book has helped a great deal in realign­ing my focus on what increases mean­ing in life but it’s going to be hard. Still, I’m look­ing for­ward to the challenge.

I’m hop­ing to have sev­eral more essays come out of what I’ve read and learned from this book. For now, I highly rec­om­mend it to any­one who finds their cur­rent lives full of despair or anx­i­ety. It’s a fan­tas­tic expo­si­tion on what the attrib­utes and char­ac­ter­is­tics are of fill­ing your life with enjoy­ment and meaning.

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