Meaning is a Myth

Treat Thompson



Le Fin Du Monde by Bill Mayer

Everybody wonders about the meaning of their lives at some point. We want to know that our one chance isn’t going to waste and that life itself isn’t a directionless wander.

Maria Popova neglects that cry for assurance.

She explains that life having meaning is a myth.

There is a myth we live with, the myth of finding the meaning of life — as if meaning were an undiscovered law of physics. But unlike the laws of physics — which predate us and will postdate us and made us — meaning only exists in this brief interlude of consciousness between chaos and chaos, the interlude we call life.

When you die — when these organized atoms that shimmer with fascination and feeling — disband into disorder to become unfeeling stardust once more, everything that filled your particular mind and its rosary of days with meaning will be gone too. From its particular vantage point, there will be no more meaning, for the point itself will have dissolved — there will only be other humans left, making meaning of their own lives, including any meaning they might make of the residue of yours.

Maria Popova, The Marginalian

Viktor Frankl helps Popova make her point by clarifying that we’re not asked to push through a meaningless life; we’re just asked to push through a life where the meaning is hard to understand.

This ultimate meaning necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man. What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Parker Palmer came to this realization too, concluding that life is too vast to know its meaning, so he’s just going to live it as best he can without asking questions.

I was starting my day as I often do, with coffee and poetry, when I ran across a poem on the nature of love. As I read and reread it, I began to see that brooding on the question “Does my life have meaning?” is a road to nowhere. Whether I give myself a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, there’s a flaw at the heart of the question, a flaw created by my old nemesis, the overweening ego.

Here’s the poem that opened my eyes, by the Nobel Prize winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz:

Love means to learn to look at yourself

The way one looks at distant things

For you are only one thing among many.

And whoever sees that way heals his heart,

Without knowing it, from various ills.

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things

So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.

It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:

Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

There’s truth and liberation in those last two lines. No matter how clear my goals may be, the truth is that I often don’t know whom or what I will end up serving.

All I need do is to keep living as one among many as well as I can, hoping to help myself and others grow ripe with life and love as we stand under the sun.

Parker Palmer, On the Brink of Everything

Henry Miller approached the lack of clear meaning in life the same way as Palmer, by just living as best he could.

Strange as it may seem today to say, the aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware. In this state of god-like awareness one sings; in this realm the world exists as poem. No why or wherefore, no direction, no goal, no striving, no evolving.

Henry Miller, Creative Death

Robert Warren reinforces this by pointing out that who we are doesn’t exist until we make it.

We’re not gifted a meaningful predetermined path.

In the phrase “to find myself” lurks the idea that the self is a pre-existing entity, a self like a Platonic idea existing in a mystic realm beyond time and change. No, rather an object like a nugget of gold in the placer pan, the Easter egg under the bush at an Easter-egg hunt, a four-leaf clover to promise miraculous luck.

Here is the essence of passivity, one’s quintessential luck. And the essence of absurdity, too, for the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious, performed not “away from it all,” but in the face of “it all,” for better or for worse, in work and leisure rather than in free time.

Robert Penn Warren, Democracy and Poetry