[This post is the second in a multi-part series called Everything You Thought You Knew About Meaning is Wrong. To be in touch about it, you can always reach me at [email protected] or visit me at https://ericmaisel.com/. Please enjoy the series!]
Let’s say that you had enough food, water, air, sex, amusements, gadgets, income, and the other things we could name that together look like they ought to be enough to satisfy our needs. Would you be content? Or would you still be restive, unhappy, and maybe even suicidal if you didn’t also experience the thing called “meaning”?
Well, many people might indeed feel content. But a sizable number would not. They would crave, in addition to having their material needs met, a certain feeling, without which they would feel down, disheartened, and disappointed, even though their material needs were being met. That missing feeling is “the feeling that life is meaningful,” which, when you think about it, is a very odd feeling indeed.
Why do we crave that feeling? What is it about that feeling that we need or think we need? Why does it appear to be so hard to make do with “what is” without pestering ourselves with an additional, “Well, but”? Given that it is transparently easy to understand that there is no singular, objective, provided-from-on-high meaning to chase—since that is clear—why do so many intelligent, talented, accomplished human beings feel bereft because they aren’t experiencing a certain feeling? Can needing meaning become an addiction?
Consider an analogy. Let’s say that you got it into your head that life was “supposed” to feel joyful at all times. But say that it wasn’t feeling joyful at the moment. Life was currently feeling … just ordinary. On the one hand, you know perfectly well that life isn’t really “supposed to feel joyful” at all times—that that’s just wishful thinking and reflects a certain immaturity baked into the species. On the other hand, and maybe because of that “supposed to” pressure, you find yourself nevertheless feeling that lack of joy as emotional pain. Wouldn’t you sensibly say the following to yourself?
Wouldn’t you say, “I seem to have gotten it into my head that life is supposed to feel joyful at all times. But I know that’s absurd. Life can’t feel one particular way all the time. So, let me excise that idea and come around to the much more sensible idea that life can feel joyful sometimes, and that my job is to notice what brings me joy—and to do those things. If wandering in the woods brings me joy, let me wander in the woods. And if, when I come back from my walk and have a pile of bills to face, I am not going to expect to still feel joyful. Why would I still feel joyful? Let me wrap my head around this truth, that joy is naturally going to come and go—life can’t feel joyful every split second.”
Isn’t that obviously true? Now, let me replace “joy” with “meaning” in that paragraph:
“I seem have gotten it into my head that life is supposed to feel meaningful at all times. But I know that’s absurd. Life can’t feel one particular way all the time. So, let me excise that idea and come around to the much more sensible idea that life can feel meaningful sometimes, and that my job is to notice what brings me meaning—and to do those things. If wandering in the woods brings me meaning, let me wander in the woods. And if, when I come back from my walk and have a pile of bills to face, I am not going to expect to still feel meaningful. Why would I still feel meaningful? Let me wrap my head around this truth, that meaning is naturally going to come and go—life can’t feel meaningful every split second.”
Isn’t this also obviously true?
What flows from this obvious truth, that meaning, rather than representing “something out there” like the universe’s wishes, the answer to a cosmic question, or the missing part to an occult puzzle, is that, as a feeling, it is bound to come and go. All feelings do. There is no reason to expect life to feel meaningful at all times and, indeed, it would be absurd to expect it to feel meaningful at all times.
Second, when it isn’t present—when a certain feeling is absent—that ought to signify nothing in particular, except that the feeling of meaningfulness isn’t present at that moment. That ought to amount to no big deal. Yet the absence of that feeling tends to play a huge deal in the lives of people, who, because that feeling isn’t present, will say, “Life is meaningless!” This is an amazing misunderstanding: to leap from the absence of a feeling to some dramatic conclusion about life. Yet people do this all the time, creating their own despair.
What is at the root of this strange phenomenon? Something very simple: our need to feel that life is important. It looks as if we have great difficulty tolerating the following thought: “If life is just this, I can’t stand it. It can’t be ‘just this.’ It had better not be ‘just this’! I don’t accept that it is ‘just this’! I need life to be more than just me existing, suffering, slaving, and then not existing. It can’t be just that!”
Well, life isn’t “just that.” There is a completely different way to construe life, one that puts to rest the need that “life feel meaningful”—that is, “that life feel important.” We will get to that “different way of construing life” in a bit. But first, we have to make absolutely sure that our core premise, that meaning is merely a feeling, is really clear to you. Let me do a bit more explaining, so as to help that understanding settle.
READ PART ONE HERE: Everything You Thought You Knew About Meaning Is Wrong: The Even Harder Problem
This Post is republished on Medium.
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