[This post is the third 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!]
If I were to ask you, “Is life joyful?”, you would immediately see the problem with the question. You would simply answer, “Sometimes” and “It depends.”
But if I were to ask you, “Is life meaningful?”, you would suddenly get very fuzzy. You wouldn’t know how to answer. The question might even throw you into a tizzy.
That’s because the question “Is life meaningful?” is demanding that you answer a very different question: “Is the universe purposeful and, if it is, in what sense?” That’s what that question, framed that way, is demanding by way of an answer. It is demanding that you provide an answer to the question, “What does the universe want?” And, of course, not only don’t you know, but you can sense the unfairness and absurdity of that question. What does the universe want? Are you kidding me?
“Is life meaningful?” is a frankly unfair question. It isn’t asking you about you, which is something you know about. It isn’t asking, “What do you experience as meaningful?”, which may be a difficult question to answer but which is at least a fair question. No, it is asking you to explain the universe. How patently absurd!
Once you recognize the unfairness and absurdity of that question, “Is life meaningful?”, you can begin to ask the much fairer question, “How does that thing called ‘meaning’ operate in my life?” You might also ask yourself all sorts of useful corollary questions: “What have I experienced as meaningful?” and “What did I think would feel meaningful and, when I went down that path, didn’t?” and “How can it be that a given thing might feel meaningful one day and not feel meaningful the next?”
As you begin to ask yourself these more appropriate questions, questions that anchor meaning to you as a feature of your life and that don’t ask you to explain the universe, then you will find yourself wending your way to the following conclusion: “Oh, I see. It isn’t that a sunset, a Buddhist text, a baby’s smile, a promotion at work, winning the Pulitzer Prize, or helping an old lady across the streets is intrinsically meaningful—I might not experience any of that as personally meaningful. Things are not intrinsically meaningful—they are either experienced as meaningful or they aren’t experienced that way. Wow. That’s interesting.”
And your next thought might be: “Well, and what does that imply or suggest? Maybe it suggests that what I am after is the experience of meaning. But how do I create, conjure up, or chase an experience? How do I know what to try? How do I know what to do? What is this strange activity, trying to produce experiences of meaning? Or … is the task or answer maybe a completely different one? Maybe what’s wanted is to simply no longer need those experiences? That’s interesting. What if I were to say to myself, ‘Struggling to create experiences of meaning is actually a waste of my time. Let me just live.’ Might that work?”
This hints at two different sorts of answers to “the problem of meaning.” One is to discern how to create, coax into existence, or otherwise conjure experiences of meaning. The other is to announce that those experiences are rather beside the point. And maybe those two ideas can be combined into a very simple-to-say (if not simple-to-do) program: “I will endeavor to make meaning without, at the same time, caring all that much about meaning.”
Isn’t that interesting?
But … if I’m no longer caring that much about meaning, what am I caring about? Because I do need to care about something, don’t I? Or else, won’t I be living a “careless” life? Or maybe that’s okay, to live “carelessly”? But that doesn’t sit very well. I can’t see myself just eating lots of roasted peanuts and watching sitcom after sitcom. That picture doesn’t sit well. So, if I’m letting go of caring about meaning, and if, at the same time, I had better care about something, what is that “something”?
Not value as in valuable, but value as in, “I have values.”
This is a leap ahead to an idea we’ll encounter down the road, the idea of value-based meaning-making. But let us continue to move slowly through this territory, as there is much to unlearn and much to freshly understand.
For instance, consider the following. Let’s say that you begin a teaching career and experience it as hard but meaningful. Teaching provides you with the experience of meaning. But some years later, you discover not only that teaching feels harder but also that it has lost its feeling of meaningfulness. What happened?
If there was something like objective meaning, then you would have to say that you simply got it wrong, that you bet on the wrong horse, that meaning wasn’t in teaching, it was somewhere else all along. You got fooled or fooled yourself into thinking that “teaching was a meaningful occupation.” But, of course, that isn’t the case. You didn’t get fooled and you didn’t bet on the wrong horse. The following happened.
What happened was that, for all sorts of reasons, your subjective experience of teaching shifted, and while it felt meaningful to begin with, it no longer feels meaningful today. You didn’t get it wrong or make a mistake. Rather, things shifted. Maybe your current principal is a tyrant; maybe your students have gotten more disruptive and less attentive; maybe you’re bored teaching to the curriculum and repeating yourself year-in and year-out. No doubt, there are reasons.
Or there may not be any clear, nameable reasons. Maybe the luster simply wore off teaching. Something shifted, for nameable or unnameable reasons, and here you find yourself, no longer experiencing teaching as meaningful. Isn’t it that this happens all the time in life, that something that felt meaningful no longer does, proof that meaning is a feeling? Teaching used to feel one way; now it feels another way. Isn’t that, in this scenario, exactly what happened?
Meaning is a feeling. Something that produced that feeling one day may not, for all sorts of reasons, produce that feeling on another day. These shifts do not mean that you have made a mistake. They signify the following: that experiences of meaning do not stick like glue to an activity. Do something today and it may feel meaningful. Do exactly the same thing tomorrow and it may not feel meaningful. Something shifted, life is like that, and no tragedy occurred. Can you relax into the understanding that these shifts will and must occur?
READ PART ONE HERE: Everything You Thought You Knew About Meaning Is Wrong: The Even Harder Problem
READ PART TWO: On Craving the Feeling of Meaning
This Post is republished on Medium.
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