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.