The big question: What’s the meaning of life? Put it another way: Why are we here on earth, towards what purpose? If we dare answer our answer will embarrass and disappoint. We are here to reproduce, we might say. We are here to recognize Jesus Christ as our personal savior. We are here to experience eating a flourless chocolate cake.
But wait, even by trying to answer the question – what’s the meaning of life? – we’re jumping the gun a little bit. It may be helpful to look at what we actually mean when we look for a meaning to life. What is it that we’re looking for?
We can find meaning in our everyday actions easily enough. For example, I work so that I can get paid. My work has a reason – money. A more complicated example: The painting is beautiful because the colors are chosen well. (Why this reason is more complicated than the previous, I will leave to the reader – this essay is too packed already). Either way, we can posit meaning for things by seeing them instrumentally, as means to an end. But then we get into a problem so simple it’s boring: if we se everything as defined by something else then we are caught in a circular argument. While it seems sensible to say that I work to make money; why do I make money? Why – to buy stuff. Well, why do I buy stuff? These questions can go on forever. Unless we consider intrinsic good. That is, good that’s good just in itself. There seems to be a point where either you must find a transcendent meaning or else recognize meaning as a tissue-thin bankrupt concept reserved for the illiterate masses.
This is not academic. We want a deeper meaning that transcends our everyday meanings. We work, eat and strive – and we want to understand this working eating and striving as being important. And we need a meaning. More often than not, we will not be satisfied by worldly reasons: we need to find intrinsic or transcendent meaning. I see religion as a smorgasbord of transcendent meaning.
But just look at the variety of transcendent meanings that are proffered to us, and you realize that there is something deeply unsatisfying about any of them. No single explanation for the meaningfulness of life seems, by the lights of the evidence at hand, to be any better suited to a life than any other. We choose one, it seems, randomly. And so the question “What meaning has our lives” becomes a question that makes us laugh at ourselves, say something ironic, and keep on living our lives. We recognize that we’re not going to be able to answer the question satisfactorily, so we tend not to hold up our answers for criticism or thought unless some crisis forces us to.
Yet it is not like we have given up hope for a transcendent meaning. We’ve just stopped expressing our hope. And so we stop being open and critical about what meaning we give our lives.
I believe that there can never be a transcendent meaning to life. That the sensations, events, and stories that build our lives are without meaning beyond the human world. The world is chaotic, there is nothing even close to a providential supernatural order to the universe. Everything beyond human understanding is blind colorless accident, neither good nor evil, nameless and cosmic and ineffable.
Which is not to say that I don’t think life has meaning. I think it does. But it’s just a human meaning, not a transcendent meaning. We force the chaotic explosion of our senses to make sense through acts of story-telling and memory. And it is through these actions that we make our own meaning. There is no other meaning. And that’s okay. But to recognize that is to recognize a fundamental humbleness about the things we think as important.
To make that last point make sense, I’m going to have to flesh out what I mean by telling stories. Which I will do right now, if you manage to hold tight.
How do we go about making a story out of the events of our lives? Let’s look first at how we remember a particular experience. Out of a mass of sensual data – out of the storm of sights, sounds, smells, and thoughts that assault us every second – we pick out only a selection to form a memory.
I will pick out these sensations with some story in mind. If I have dinner with a friend, and am angry with him, I will remember sensations that back up my feeling of anger. I will give particular credence, say, to his annoying laugh, or to my discomfort. If I am very happy with him, I will chose a different cast of sensations. The point being, what is remembered and what is relegated to forgetfulness depends on what story I want to tell. Memory, far from being some objective recording device, is more of a collaged art-work, a coherent story patched together from a selection of available material.
So, in my reckoning, the very texture of all lived experience is already marked by the will towards narrative. There is no meaningful sensation that we have that comes to our consciousness free from its dependency on story. More importantly, once sensations are understood as more than mere sensations – when we begin to consider them, not as flashes of light or whiffs of air, but as meaningful occurrences like a movie, or the scent of coffee in the morning – we must consider them within the context of the story they are attempting to tell.
So we are creatures driven by the desire to make a narrative of the world, to string together the random occurrences of life in some sensible, artistic string.
But the problem is that often we mess up in our attempts at making a narrative of our experiences. For instance, we can craft a narrative out of a situation that isn’t really appropriate – by selectively choosing particular sensations instead of others, or by self-delusion. Don’t think that this is some silly academic problem, here: think of a boy who has a crush on a girl, and will imagine every little thing the girl does as evidence that she, too, has feelings for him. These narrative delusions are perhaps easy to spot when they are so drastic, but they happen to in innumerable, small and subtle ways: when we are pissed off at the world and take a cashier’s tiredness as haughtiness, when we consider the weather as a mirror of our souls, when we are having a good day and imagine the birds are singing for us.
But even if we succeed in making up narratives that are sensible to ourselves and others, which fit in with the rest of our communities’ reckonings as what makes an acceptable narrative – that is, if we manage to imagine our lives in a more-or-less sensible manner – we have only done half the work in front of us. What’s even more important, and vastly tougher (and a subject for another essay) is how we can make good stories, not just serviceable stories.
But back to the question at hand. Why do we mess up so much? Well, because we are naturally in a bind, as far as existence goes. We like to posit order to things, and reasons. Why? Well, because when we look at the things in our lives and assume that we can rationally understand what they’re doing, we can better interact with them. It’s a super useful tool to have. But the problem is that while we can find small-scale and medium scale reasons (that rock fell because somebody pushed it; she dumped me because I didn’t brush my teeth) we eventually get into a reasoning dead end when we butt our heads against more profound levels of understanding: what’s the reason for It All!? And the sad truth of it is, that the world itself is without reason. Reason only exists within human beings. Something without human interpretation – without a human looking at it and understanding it – that has nothing of reason to it.
But we want things, everything, to have a reason. When we have a bird shit on our heads or are not accepted for a job, it’s hard to accept that as a random meaningless event mostly outside of our control. We want to ascribe meaning to it. The trouble being, that the majority of the things that happen to us are either meaningless or their meaning is obscured to us. We walk into a restaurant and are served by a rude waitress. We would like to understand her rudeness. Maybe she doesn’t like us, maybe she’s a bitch. But the meaning of her mood is most likely forever obscured to us, and therefore resists subsumation into a narrative. This works for large-scale events far better than it does for quotidian ones: it is one of those constant questions of human life why people who are good and kind and constant are not rewarded by the world, while rapacious, mean, and nasty people end up sitting on piles of gold coins, laughing maniacally. Well, it is only a question if you believe that the universe has a meaning above-and-beyond that which human understanding ascribes it: that is, it only becomes a problem if you believe that there should be some reward for goodness, some meaningful pay-off for somebody’s actions.
It may not be terribly comforting to think of your life as having no meaning. I believe that understanding that the only meaning a life has comes from inside it provides a person for an opportunity to consciously craft their own lives, and arrange their sensations, doings, beliefs, and things in an artistic manner.
But that question – we’ll hold off on it for a while. What I want to talk about right now is how this need to make everything into a narrative can actually make people’s lives largely incoherent – or at least inflexible.
Look at how the narrative drive of much of born-again Christianity works. Every random event has meaning by virtue of that event leading to a precipitating revelation in the believer’s life. Lo, and they are saved from the life of sin etc. And their life afterwards is portioned out into careful measured regions of sacred and profane, and while some things may be most definitely good and other’s evil, the real comfort of such overwhelming belief is not of holiness, but of meaning. The evil is not merely insensible, or accidental. It is evil. The good is not just expedient or pleasurable. It is holy. It is immensely comforting, because it explains every single moment of a person’s life, it fills each moment with meaning.
But the problem from this perspective will be apparent to anyone who has fallen on the foul side of the equation: there is a certain rigidity in this zealous meaning that renders the true believer somewhat stubborn, epistemically. But it is this epistemic rigidity that is the comfort of extreme belief.
This applies, not only to born again Christians, but to fundamentalists of many stripes: Marxists as well as Jihadists: Punk kids and heroin addicts as well as gurus and hippies.
The real lesson to be drawn is not that these fundamentalists are evil or annoying or wrong – but that their methods of making memory is not as useful as other methods. In being so strict, they loose out on a flexibility that can give a more flexible thinker comfort and joy. Soon I will write an essay that details another kind of belief and memory fixation: an artistic, or liberated, memory.
So, to sum up my point: We search for transcendent meaning for our life. But there is no such thing as any particular transcendent meaning. Instead, we construct our lives as great stories. But we have choice as far as these stories go. So there are better and worse ways to organize a life. That’s all.
Comments welcome, of course. You know – if you made it this far, you deserve to lay a comment down, just to humor us all.