Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

The Meaning of Life

orange blue painting/decoupage project Isn’t it a little arrogant to title a blog post “The Meaning of Life?” Yeah, I suppose it would be if I thought I knew how to connect the experience of meaning with an imperative for achieving it. Mostly I just want to enter into conversation about life and the living of it. Rilke wasn’t wrong: “the things that we can live by are falling away more than ever / replaced by an act without its symbol.”

And that’s the thrust of this blog. It seems more and more self evident to me that meaning is connected to resonnance. That I matter here–wherever that here is. That there is some way (call it tao, or now, or love, or the accumulation of capital–not that I would call it that) of living that centers us with a resonant space where we experience meaning in life.

I asked myself a simple question this morning: What do you want to do in your life? The answer was also simple. I want to write a treatise on domestication, I want to finish the science-fiction series that I’ve started, I want to finish the novel that I’m working on… And part way through the list I saw a couple of patterns emerging.

First, I like writing. And writing is somehow connected to the way I think about meaning in my life. And second, none of that writing involves the living of the life that I want to have. Where are my wife and my unborn child in that list? Where are my friends and family? This social matrix is my meaning in life. I am not only defined by it in practical terms (who am I?), I am defined by existentially (what do I mean?).

Then it hit me. The first list left me thinking of life in terms of moments that I could parcel out in order to accomplish everything that I thought defined me. It’s very human of us to think that way. “How am I useful to my tribe?” is so deeply ingrained in us that we often tend to think of meaning in terms of punctilliar accomplishments. And this is not untrue. Social matrices, at least the strong ones, the healthy ones, are predicated on reciprocity.

In a capitalist culture where Nietzsche’s will to power (secure and enhance in Heidegger’s terminology) is not only inherent to our being but extrinsically reinforced as well, it is easy to expect meaning to follow from usefulness. But our existential anxieties run deeper than shelter and calories.

It strikes me that our decisions in life, though often couched in terms of meaning, are counterproductive because we fail to realize what actually matters. I would love to write books. And hope to throughout my life. There is a significant part of me that finds fulfillment through the process of writing (and hopefully publishing). But when that desire is placed within the larger context of me, it becomes a part of life rather than its sole trajectory.

Choosing meaning, choosing to live a meaningful life, is terribly difficult because we are so often deeply conflicted about the way of it. As I said at the outset, it strikes me that act divorced from symbol is part of the trouble. Meaning is predicated (yes I used the word twice in one blog, sorry) on having acts centered within their symbolic resonant space. That means coming to terms with culture. It means knowing yourself. It means paying attention to your larger social matrix and the affective ties therein. When these “means” start to make sense, meaning–at least the way of it–starts to become self evident.

One Comment

  1. how interesting…was just pondering this morning that I feel so completely unmoored right now because I have no defining parameters at the moment. I have no job, no career, not even my own physical space. Who am I when I am not accomplishing ‘things’? is what is floating around in my brain at the moment. Can I only define myself by tangibles?