(Photo courtesy of Sam Bell)
To seek for meaning is a fundamental drive that we have as human beings, especially for the more sensitive souls among us. Seeking for meaning is something that differentiates us from other species. A life with a lack of meaning is fertile grounds for depression, anxiety and all kinds of other ailments. The search for meaning is embedded in our culture and history: the Internet is flooding with articles about how to find your passion or live a meaningful life; there is a history of philosophers that wrote about it; even rapper/ business mogul Jay-z muses about the meaning of life.
But the ugly, naked truth is that sometimes life will be meaningless. And that’s okay.
The point of this article is that at times life is inevitably going to seem meaningless and that looking for meaning in every moment paradoxically leads to the opposite. Does that sound strange to you? I’ll explain.
But first let me define what I mean by meaning (no pun intended). To me meaning is a certain perspective on the objects that confront us in the present moment. In this perspective, all objects around us appear as useful for whatever we’re engaged in at the moment. The device you are looking at right now, for example, is an object that confronts you in the present moment. From a meaningless point of view this is just a rectangular shaped screen beaming bright lights into your eyes. But from a meaningful perspective this weird combination of colors happen to be a string of letters which form words which form sentences which you happen to understand and appear useful to you. The device, however, is essentially the same object; it is the perspective that is different. Thus, my definition of meaningfulness is a certain perspective in which the objects around us appear as useful.
But life is tough and the objects around us are not always going to appear as being useful. Now the word appear is very important here. Whether objects appear as useful or not changes over time. So there are going to be times when the same objects that appeared as useful to you are going to appear as not useful. It’s part of the dance of life.
One branch of philosophy that has put in a lot of effort trying to find out how to live a meaningful life is existentialism. In his book Existentialism and Human Emotions ̧ philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre states that who we are is defined by our actions and that meaningfulness reveals itself through fully engaging ourselves in whatever we’re doing at the moment. He makes an important distinction between contemplating and acting. To contemplate is to direct your mind towards something without taking action while to act is to actively engage yourself, to do something.
Now most of your life will consist of a chain of contemplation followed by action, followed by contemplation and so on; I think about writing an article, type the actual words and after I’m done typing I contemplate about what to do next. However, the imperfect beings we are, a lot of us have a tendency to disengage from an action before it is completed. This could be because something else more important happens that demands our attention but more often it is out of fear. If this disengagement from acting goes on long enough we become passive and eventually retreat in our heads without doing anything; the train of life has grinded to a halt.
When I was writing the article about Iran I would catch myself staring at the screen for half an hour without typing a word. I was totally caught up in my own fear-triggered thoughts; ‘Oh my God my writing sucks so much’, ‘what will he or she think of my description of Iranians’, ‘Maybe it’s too political, let’s leave out the political stuff’. My crafty mind would come up with loads of reasons to not continue finishing the article. All of a sudden writing the article seemed utterly meaningless. Words were floating on my laptop screen without making sense to me, it didn’t appear as useful anymore.
It was weird though because just half an hour before I contemplated that writing this article was the right thing to do and in between nothing urgent happened.
So I, not without effort, decided to ignore those self-defeating thoughts and continue writing the article. It seemed meaningless but I just wrote down words for the next thirty minutes. While doing this it seemed like the most mundane thing in the world and when the thirty minutes were over the words were still dancing on my screen.
Then I just put it aside for a couple of days. When I looked at it again with a fresh perspective I actually felt proud that I at least wrote something. Of course, there were some things that I could improve and some stuff that I could add, but at least I had something I could work with. The exact same words that seemed so utterly meaningless to me just a few days before, now seemed meaningful. I saw the potential the text had to grow into the article that is now published on this exact same blog, it seemed useful to me again.
This principle applies to many areas of life; that meditation session that seems mundane, that workout set that seems useless or that school assignment that makes you wonder why the hell you ever choose that study..
Thus, even though the post-modern times we live in dictate that everything we do should be meaningful, life will inevitably seem meaningless at times. And this is totally okay. The only thing to do is to commit yourself to the course of action you are engaged in at the moment. Keep at it long enough and the meaningfulness will resurface, assuming that the course of action you contemplated beforehand is authentic.