Friday, January 10, 2014

What the Meaning of "Meaning" Is

Maybe I'm not looking at this is the right way, but I've never really been able to understand what people mean by "meaning." There have been times when I've mentioned that I don't believe in deities, and someone would say: "It must be sad that your life has no meaning." And I'd always respond, "Well, what is it supposed to mean?" (The ensuing conversation never ends well for me.) Perhaps it's because I don't realize that I miss it, but I'm unperturbed by a lack of meaning in my life - in much the same way that I'm unperturbed by never having been to another galaxy. Without really understanding what I'm allegedly missing, I can't really feel the loss.

Although people can normally tell me why they're glad that their life has meaning (and this usually comes down to giving them a reason to live another day), it seems that it's hard for people to articulate what that meaning actually is. Which, I suppose, is why there are about three-quarters of a trillion jokes about some guy climbing a mountain to ask a guru about "the meaning of life," only to get some screwy answer. I guess it makes sense, as it's been reported that religiosity tends to correlate with people having a sense of meaning, and as near as I can tell, meaning or purpose are just as much a matter of faith as a divinity.

To a degree, it seems that for many people their faith is their meaning. Which I suppose I understand, but that always raises the question (for me, anyway) of how they explain people who lack faith, but have meaning in their lives. Which is normally where things go off the rails. Maybe the issue is that I look for "meaning" to be something unique, an element unto itself, rather than simply a re-labeling of something else, such as joy, perceived purpose or faith.

The Universe is a big place, and I'm just a very small, and very temporary, part of it. I'm okay with that because I can't really understand why I shouldn't be. And maybe that's why "meaning" has no resonance for me. It could be that I'm simply not egotistical enough, but as I move through my life, I find myself a part of any number of things that are bigger than I am, in that what happens with them is of great importance in my life, yet those things wouldn't notice if, right now, I ceased to exist. In the grand scheme of things, I don't see how it's possible for one life - or even a thousand lives, to "mean" anything. But when I look up at the night sky, I see marvels, all because of the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. And I am content.

1 comment:

Ben said...

I think most religious people never think about this question deeply enough to understand what you mean. Most of them tend to repeat pat answers that they have never attempted to understand deeply. I tend to think that the overbearing happiness some religious people have is merely an attempt to justify their own beliefs, to try to prove to people that "SEE, my beliefs DO make me happier!" As if the quality of their happiness can be meaningfully measured against mine.

There are a couple of common sense ways of looking at this idea that occurred to me as I was reading your post. For one example, when we read a story, we often ask what the story means. In other words, what was the theme? What were the overarching ideas that helped the story hang together and have coherence? A story is just a sequence of events, and you might look at your life that way. At this point in your life, or when your life is over, is there some overarching theme that could be applied to it? I think this is the question that many people are attempting to answer when they give speeches at funerals. They mention all the things that were important to a person, the major personality traits, the big life events.

Another way of looking at it is to ask about cause and effect. When Apple's stock drops significantly, people might ask what that means. What they're really asking is one of two questions: what caused it, and what effect will it have. It might mean that something bad happened, like Steve Jobs dying. But more importantly, the meaning of that event is what effect it has on Apple, on employees, consumers, and investors. How does it change their lives? This idea is like asking where we come from and where we are going after we die. Since there's no way to prove any possible answers to those questions, the answers automatically have to rely on faith to be believed.