Mark D. White turns forty, quotes Tolstoy, realizes the meaning of life is up to him, and wonders when “good” is “good enough”.
Today I turn forty. Being a reflective person by nature, I have spent a good deal of time tallying up my accomplishments and disappointments, and contemplating the meaning of life. But this process didn’t start just in the weeks leading up to my 40th birthday, but rather about a year and a half ago.
I have accomplished more in my professional life than I ever thought I would. In summer 2010 I was working on four books in different stages of production, and I felt like I was on a treadmill—working very hard but not sure where I was going. I began to wonder if this was really what I wanted to do anymore (if it ever was). The work was fulfilling in the sense that I felt productive, which had always been enough, but no longer.
It was around that time that I discovered Tolstoy’s My Confession, and in it I found someone facing the same questions, despite having achieved tremendous literary success and acclaim:
So I lived; but five years ago something very strange began to happen to me. At first I experienced moments of perplexity and arrest of life, and though I did not know what to do or how to live; and I felt lost and became dejected. But this passed and I went on living as before. Then these moments of perplexity began to recur oftener and oftener, and always in the same form. They were always expressed by the questions: What is it for? What does it lead to?
I understood that it was no casual indisposition but something very important, and that if these questions constantly repeated themselves they would have to be answered. And I tried to answer them. The questions seemed such stupid, simple, childish ones; but as soon as I touched them and tried to solve them I at once became convinced, first, that they are not childish and stupid but the most important and profound of life’s questions; and secondly that, occupying myself with my Samara estate, the education of my son, or the writing of a book, I had to know why I was doing it. As long as I did not know why, I could do nothing and could not live.
I felt that what I had been standing on had collapsed and that I had nothing left under my feet. What I had lived on no longer existed, and there was nothing left.
I’ve read a lot about the meaning of life over the last year and a half, and the most important thing I’ve gotten from it is the existentialist insight that life has no meaning other than what you give it. This is an astonishing opportunity for spiritual freedom and self-creation, but also a tremendous responsibility—nothing, and no one, is going to give your life meaning for you. It’s up to you.
I have plenty of little goals, but no one big, overarching one that will keep me working on the little ones. I’ve had a steady stream of interesting opportunities to keep me busy—and keep me from thinking about why I was doing all of it. A good friend of mine, with whom I’ve discussed meaning a lot lately, often expresses amazement that I manage to get so much done with no further motivation than, well, to get so much done. The problem is, I’ve started to wonder how too.
After my marriage of fifteen years ended, I spent about a year in a relationship that changed my life in many ways. When we parted, the woman told me that above all, and despite everything that went wrong between us, “you are a good man.” Out of all the wonderful things she said to me over that year, that is the one that stuck with me, because that’s what I aspire to—and it is the area in which I most fear falling short. The same friend mentioned above went so far as to suggest that being a good person may be where I find meaning in my life. But that leaves open the question of what it means to be “good,” and so I keep asking. Is it enough to avoid doing harm, or does one have to do good as well? And do we really want to think in term of what is “enough” anyway?
Remember the four books I was working on during summer 2010? After I finished those, and assorted other writing commitments through that fall, my plan was to start 2011 with a blank slate and a clear head, in order to think about what I really wanted to write. I’m in the very fortunate situation of being able to write whatever I want, whenever I want, and be reasonably assured that it will be published by somebody, somewhere. But it’s becoming hard to see why I should.
The woman from my post-marriage relationship once told me, when I shared these doubts with her, that I have important things to say and it would be a shame if I didn’t say them. And actually, I do believe that, but for some reason it isn’t enough to motivate me to work on them. I have so many ideas in my head (and sketched out in various notebooks and Word files), as well as offers from good presses, blogs, and websites to publish them, but I don’t know if I’ll ever write them.
I need a reason to, and I just hope it doesn’t take another forty years to find it.
photo: bensutherland / flickr