Meaning. It’s a weighty word. When let slip in any conversation, it suddenly feels like something’s blown a hole in the hull of the ship and no one knows what to say to plug it. Usually it ends up being a lot of cheap, temporary filler.
What is the meaning of capitalism? What is the meaning of morning coffee? What is the meaning of celebrities? What is the meaning of love? Pain? Natural disasters?
What is the meaning of life? Why are we all here?
Our lives are governed by a deep sense that there should be purpose. Try living for a week, or even a day, as if each and every activity you do and every person and thing you encounter is truly meaningless and has no ultimate purpose. It’s not only difficult–it’s depressing. It’s hard to digest even the considered notion that the people you know and love are just meat hung up on bones, acting out self-centered, evolutionary impulses largely out of their control, and will soon be merely dust–their lives a pointless accident and all but forgotten. That work, family, travel, ethics, food, exercise, love, health, education, rest, ideas…all mean nothing.
Meaning is something that we cannot live without.
Meaning may simply be a constant exercise in utility: doing one thing to accomplish a specific end or result. The purpose of morning coffee is to get caffeinated alertness; alertness is to get through the workday; getting through the workday is to do enough work to keep your job–then get the hell out of there and go home for a beer and some takeout; all of this done Monday through Friday simply to get closer and closer to the weekend when you can do more of the stuff you like. Perhaps everything that you do is to try to arrive at ends like happiness, pleasure, status, wealth–whereby those things serve as the ultimate meaningfulness of your life.
Or, for many, meaning has a more detailed and traditional metanarrative. Religions at their core, across the spectrum of belief systems, are all stories about what imbues life with meaning. They try to make sense of the world of our experience by things like: following such-and-such laws; appeasing the deity; taking care of what the divine has made; becoming a player in a cosmic plan to make the world a different sort of place; doing the right things to arrive at a different sort of place when you die; self-denial. Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and on and on, are all different versions of a transcendent story of purpose. Secular humanism, atheism, agnosticism, and the like, are simply more recent shared-narratives with a particularly non-theistic articulation of purpose at the core.
We all adhere to patterns, practices, and systems of meaning–new or old.
But for as much as we need meaning from an existential standpoint, we don’t reflect much on the attachments we’ve made, and whether they actually lead to a fulfilling way of life. We hold them out of habit, complacency, and fear of change.
Most employees at any given business can’t really articulate why the business even exists; and yet, everyone shows up and grinds the gears each and every day. Is a paycheck meaningful enough? Why spend 10 or 20 years working somewhere that you hardly care why the business is there?
Why do cigarettes exist? Are they cool? A harmless indulgence? If not, should they exist?
Why do cubicles exist? Are they effective? Are they worth the physiological and psychological toll they take on people who spend hours in them week after week? Does it make a difference if one day you might earn the corner window desk?
Why do plastics exist? Are all those containers tossed on sidewalks and in landfills and oceans outweighed by the convenience of being able to buy a bottle of water at a gas station or individually-wrapped servings of coffee? Do we have an obligation to repair that damage?
Why does pornography exist? Is it a true representation of romantic passion–of real love and connection with another person? Are its working conditions healthy and dignified for its employees? Is it a harmless dalliance for its viewers?
Why does religious fundamentalism (atheists included) exist? Does it do anything more than create animosity and paranoia by dividing the world into groups of us and them, and either looking down on, subjugating, or trying to convert the them to the us? Does it actually appear that a violent storm is some deity’s wrath for the sins of a group of people? Are all believers of theistic religions either violent terrorists or naive, unsophisticated hillbillies?
The eternal question is, “why?” Why this instead of that? Why do they do what they do? Why does this happen the way that it does? Why do I do this? Why do I believe this? Why did my parents believe this? Why does this exist?
“Why?” should govern every idea and action in which we each partake. No matter our background and the culture we live in, there should be sense to what we do, and good sense. When we’re all asking “why?,” we start growing closer as individuals and societies toward a way of life that is fulfilling and flourishing and humanizing. We might actually come to be on the same page about some things–no matter what the differences in our ultimate meaning or religious attachments are. Things we could call common sense. We’ll look back and say, “Why did we ever think and do that?”
Life is meant to have meaning; we can’t live without it. But the way that we make meaning and the structures of meaning we attach ourselves to should make sense, and we should never cease to dig and discover new depths of meaning by asking: