If you ask the question, “What is the meaning of life?”, no one has a good answer. That’s because there isn’t any “meaning to life.” But if you ask folks, “What have you experienced as meaningful?” everybody has answers. That’s because everyone’s had meaningful experiences.
This is a super-important distinction that can make the difference between a living a life where you’re pining for meaning or living a life full of meaningful experiences.
If you keep looking for the meaning of life, you will always end up disappointed. But if you check in with yourself about what you’ve actually experienced as meaningful and treat those experiences as your best education, then meaning becomes a wellspring and a renewable resource. You will never have to hunt for meaning again or pine for meaning again. You will have stepped firmly onto the path of understanding how to make meaning.
What have I found personally meaningful? That great catch I made in the outfield as a kid. I have a complete visceral memory of that catch and others like it. Being taken off a night train by East German police. Reading certain great writers. Driving armored personnel carriers in the Army. Hitchhiking across America. Just about every aspect of fatherhood, including changing diapers and wiping up drool.
I found Army drill meaningful. Is Army drill good or bad, moral or immoral? It isn’t either. I didn’t find it meaningful because it was good or moral. I found it meaningful because it connected up some internal dots about manhood, precision, excellence, honor, and who knows what else. This is a super-important point: meaningful experiences aren’t either moral or not moral. They are experienced as meaningful because of their psychological value, not their moral value. Let me come back to this crucial point in a moment.
I found some sex meaningful and other sex not meaningful. What made the difference? If the woman was excited, that helped make the experience meaningful. If the woman wasn’t particularly excited, that made the experience considerably less meaningful. Each sexual experience had its own context and was experienced in its own way, sometimes as completely forgettable, sometimes as completely memorable.
I found reading books meaningful but discussing them not meaningful. It was one thing to dive into a book and have an experience. That was exciting, stimulating, meaningful. But discussing that book? How boring! Why would you want to discuss why the author choose “vanished” over “disappeared” in a given sentence? Please! The book provided the experience; talking about it was nothing but a chore.
I found certain historical events meaningful and others, maybe of equal importance, not. In my personal inner landscape, D-Day struck me as incredibly meaningful but nothing about World War I did. Nor Korea. Nor the Civil War. Nor, strangely enough, Vietnam, even though I spent 1965 to 1968 in the Army. It was as if all of the iron filings of meaning available to me got attracted to one war and one war only: World War II. To this day, I can watch any documentary about World War II—and none about those other wars.
Sometimes the smallest of experiences, experiences that come to nothing and lead nowhere, were and remain powerfully meaningful. I remember sitting in a café in a museum in Paris. I was smoking a cigarette (I smoked in those days) and a woman came from a distant table, where all of her friends were smoking, to ask me for a light. Young and naïve, I did not understand that she had come all that way for me and not for a light.
I can still remember the touch of her hand on mine as I lit her cigarette with my lighter. To this day, that experience remains meaningful, even though nothing happened. It is still pregnant, poignant, full of mystery and longing.
What do men find meaningful? Exactly what they find meaningful. That catch they made in the outfield. Or maybe striking out. That amazing, unexpected sex. Or maybe striking out. The history of one war but not of another war. A moment with their aunt. A day stolen from school. A misadventure that hurt someone. That first AA meeting, where they sat all the way in the back. Holding their daughter for the first time.
What have you experienced as meaningful? That time you almost died driving too fast? The first time you kissed a man? The time you finally stood up to your bullying father? Each of these meaningful experiences is not just a memory but a rich reservoir. What you experienced as meaningful in the past is your very best education as to what you might again experience as meaningful. Maybe you’re estranged from your son. Remember what it felt like to drive down the road with him when he was seven, neither of you needing to say a thing? How meaningful might a reconciliation feel?
In kirism, the philosophy of life I’ve developed and to which this blog is devoted, we focus on our life purpose choices and not on meaning. It should be clear from the above why. Meaningful experiences do not create a moral framework for living. We must step to one side and create that framework ourselves by identifying and living our life purposes and by pledging to do the next right thing and the next right thing after that.
You can have both: you can identify and live your life purposes and you can also create experiences of meaning in endless profusion. You will never need to hunt for “the meaning of life” again. You are already educated about meaning by virtue of all your lived experiences. Put that education to work and make meaning every day. That is a gorgeous and powerful way to live.
I invite you to take the following challenge. Read Lighting the Way, in which kirism is introduced, live its principles, and see if you don’t experience life as tremendously more meaningful. I’m betting that you will! I hope that you’ll take this challenge and change your life for the better.