Not another (self-indulgent) Meaning of Life diatribe…
For the better part of forty years, I have been searching for the Meaning of Life in one way or another. It all started with Barbie; she did more than swan around in homemade clothes. My Barbie had her own soda shop that I made out of a Fosters Lager carton. I moved on to smoking (what I thought was) pot at school camp when I was 14. I didn’t find it there. I discovered hair product at 16 (it was the 80s and mousse was KING) and thought that the world was great. By 17 I thought I could find it through starvation – THE easy track to perfection, and so on and so forth – FFW to today – many hours on the shrink’s couch, the therapist’s office, sewing workshops, jewellery making classes, life coaching sessions and training – and I have been on this loop-de-loop of an expedition that has left me dizzy and screaming and then back to the front of the queue for another ride.
So having spent thousands of hours and dollars on the Quest for Happiness and Meaning, it came as somewhat of a surprise when the answer came to me in the work dunny.
And here’s the kicker: What if there is none. Meaning, that is? Well there I was laughing and scoffing when it hit me. Thankfully I was alone.
So, what if there’s actually no meaning? Did Monty Python make an entire movie for NOTHING?
And then there’s that old gag – the one how God was bored so he made Adam and Eve to keep him company. I’m no religious nut; I’m Catholic, fool. So what if that’s the truth and he said: “Hey you. Here’s my GIFT to YOU. No, no need to thank me. It’s just a trifle. A little something for you to have a go at; no strings attached”? How would it be if we started to just think of life as a gift, there’s no actual MEANING, He just gave this time to us to do what we want? No strings attached. How would that be? It kinda changes everything, doesn’t it?
Some of us become writers, some are parents, some are perfume makers, some become killers or politicians, knitters, some are lazy, some are athletes, some of us like to bungy jump, some like to run into burning buildings to save people, some are vegans, some drink bottled water, some drink white tea with no sugar, some have blonde hair, some paint their nails, some touch type, some paint pictures in their spare time, some read and read and read, some teach, some play, some get angry and feel there’s no use to it all.
But what if all of these people, all of us, just decide to accept that life is no different from a birthday pressie? Not some precious gift, like the self-help books keep telling us (I’ve been down that path and it’s led to more thinking about the Meaning of Life and tonnes of Borders and Amazon receipts, but I didn’t get any closer to my LIFE PURPOSE). The books tell us that life is a precious gift so I, in turn, have stressed out wondering: Shouldn’t I be doing something IMPORTANT with this precious fucking gift? Something MEANINGFUL? It’s not just some registry gift at Myer, you know.
What if it were SUPER IMPORTANT and MEANINGFUL? Even the laziness, the reading, the watching TV, the running, writing, nail painting, bungy jumping, killing, knitting, eating, bleaching, typing, and painting?
If we only succumbed to 1960s existentialism, we’d believe that nothing in this life actually matters so we may as well enjoy it to the max and not worry about consequences.
The 19th Century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, claimed that our only responsibility is to give our own life some meaning, living it passionately and sincerely in spite of the many existential obstacles and distractions – including despair, angst, absurdity, alienation, and boredom. As I see it, the problem IS the search itself; the yearning and the feeling that something is missing. And as for that little gift by the all-seeing Eye, even if there are no strings attached, can anyone really bare to squander it? Would you throw IT at the back of a cupboard like a Fisher Price toy whose batteries have run out? Isn’t life too short (and all those metaphors)? And even if there is no Meaning, should we “encourage” passion?
“Passion” I know about – that’s the thing that makes life so hard – but I’ve embarked on the Artist’s Way and have subscribed to Dr Phil’s Philosophies. But it’s Kierkegaard’s notion of giving life Meaning by living “sincerely” that I’m interested in exploring.
The problem – and it is a problem – is that as soon as we procrastinate or “think things through”, much of the sincerity is removed from the equation. Thinking doesn’t make it so. Thinking eliminates the spontaneity and, hence, authenticity. Could it be that the more we think about things, the more we change our own viewpoint to either agree or disagree or be indifferent. We look outside to the world and search for ideas that confirm our beliefs. Conversely, do we look within and change the meaning to suit our current belief?
The Search for Meaning often finds us wandering through the days second-guessing our decisions because we worry that we may have made a mistake, have chosen the wrong car, paid too much for the house, organics aren’t really organic.
The only true (sincere) sincerity comes from instantaneous reactions. We talk about gut instinct and that it can sometimes be wrong.
But what if it is never wrong?
What if gut INSTINCT is the only thing that is right?
What if it’s completely right because that is the way that we have been made to function and the only reason why it APPEARs to be wrong is because external factors and other people are exercising their right to trust or mistrust their own instinct. The world would be perfect only if everyone trusted their instinct without fail. There would be a complete trust in nature. But nothing is absolute and our instinct can only be right IF NOTHING WERE TO CHANGE and if situations existed in a bubble. Kind of like Alice in Twilight. She can see the future but it can change at any time as soon as someone changes direction or changes their mind. Life’s tricky like that.
So back to the idea of giving life Meaning. There are the traditional methods – work, babies, sport and sundry activities. I, for one, have done A LOT (not everything, just A LOT) to find Meaning through activities (babies have eluded me and work is just another activity that I choose to do so I can pay for things I don’t want or need). And every time I find an activity that is of interest (let’s see: writing, embroidery, knitting, making felt toys, coaching, sewing, teaching etc etc), I do everything possible to attach Meaning to each of them because maybe, just maybe, it’s THE THING that I’m meant to be doing. What if THAT THING, THAT ACTIVITY is my PURPOSE? What if I miss out on what I am supposed to be doing? How would I feel at the end of my days if I ignored any of these things and my life ended up having no Meaning or Purpose or Direction? And who wants to be the one who missed out on finding their bliss because they weren’t paying attention?
I like to compare myself to Martha Stewart, to Angelina Jolie, to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to Camus, to Hemingway, Drew Barrymore, to Bella Swan, and what I know for sure is that I will not have a lasting legacy like any of them (although a part of me holds on). And if I think of life as having no Meaning beyond being here and being nice to people (or not) and being happy (or satisfied) with whatever happens, then life becomes increasingly simple and I stop thinking about getting a new dining table, because it seems awfully wasteful and at the same time, I don’t care about whether it’s wasteful because there’s nothing wrong with wanting to surround myself with beauty. So, what if we did things because they felt RIGHT, TRULY RIGHT? The dining table analogy may not exactly fit into this idea of right and wrong but it’s just me being honest – I want a new one! If we were living life sincerely, as Kierkegaard suggests, we would know what is right for us. Right? It may be a new table, or not. Would we even want a new table if we lived life sincerely? Switch table for day spa or career or even self-improvement workshop. Would such needs depend on your perspective?
In Plato’s Society (or Lenin’s) the farmers would not lack. In my society, we could all be eligible for a free holiday every year. Instead of the richest 1% taking a permanent holiday, everyone would have one holiday every year. Because nobody is worth more than another. Value is a human condition, a human assignment that we are not born with. Value is learned, quite young. As a young Italian migrant at school, I coveted a vegemite sandwich and my Australian friend coveted my salami sandwich. To me, the vegemite sandwich held so much value because it’s what I wanted. Today, I covet a brand new Toyota Corolla hatch in red. My neighbour covets a silver Honda CRV 4WD and our neighbour across a few suburbs has their eye on a black BMW 6-series with leather interior. What is actually worth more? They are all equally valuable to each of us. I don’t covet the BMW, not because I can’t afford it but because I don’t need it or want it. On the other hand, I would spend the value of the BMW on 4 or 5 really good holidays. That’s what I value so it’s worth more to me than the car.
We place the same value on people. Would we pass less judgement on others (and ourselves) if we thought of life as just a little gift, with no strings attached, giving us all the freedom to choose what we are to become regardless of the value that is placed upon it? Could it mean that both Mother Teresa and Paris Hilton would be placed on the same pedestal – or not on one at all? They have chosen their paths and who is to say that one is more worthy. We can’t all be martyrs, can we? We need all sorts. What makes a doctor worth more than a farmer? Some would argue that the amount of education that a doctor has to undergo in order to make important decisions is what sets him or her apart from a farmer. But doesn’t a farmer wake early each day to do heavy labour? Could the doctor milk a cow? With training, sure, just as a farmer could wield a scalpel with training. Is Mother Teresa more valuable because of her selflessness or is that a marketing tool to get her closer to God? Paris Hilton keeps throwaway fashion outlets in business. Everyone has to eat, don’t they? If a farmer is sick, a doctor’s knowledge is worth a great deal to him. If the doctor is hungry, the farmer’s crops are worth equally as much because at that moment, they each value the other’s ability EQUALLY.
So what if my toilet musings are right? What if life lacks any true Meaning? What if life is just God’s Gift and that everything we do is just diversion, like waiting for Godot? Of course, this would be perfectly fine if we would just go and enjoy the diversion for its own sake. Like back in the day when we used to line up for hours waiting for the box office to open to buy tickets. The waiting was just as Meaningful because we were able to bond with other idiots who were prepared to stand in the freezing cold to get the best tickets.
What is Meaning? I have attached so much Meaning to children. Being assigned the role of mother is the most Meaningful in existence. But what if motherhood, or fatherhood, is simply the individual’s own search for Meaning. Even that only brings joy sporadically. I know because I see this objectively amongst my friends and people in the supermarket. I invite parents to ask themselves about the Meaning of Life and to drill down into the core of the question. I used to think that our main purpose in life was to have children, because we gave them to the world and imparted our knowledge to them (including our photos and not so cool clothes). But I was dealt a different card so I question this and ask whether it is just a never-ending cycle of passing things down through the generations. It’s a circular Meaning – we have children to pass things onto (including values and ideas) and they have children to pass things onto and so on. But are all ultimately forgotten, even those who have children. We are remembered for a couple of generations and then, do we all become just “some relative”?
If I were to lean towards an existential Meaninglessness, why do I bother to go to work in a job that holds no value (I’m not a doctor or teacher – I help produce things that are sold)? Well, I do this so that I can buy things, so I can go on holiday. And what is the purpose of these things? Once the “experience” of travel is “done” what more is there? Admittedly, this is sounding more and more nihilistic. Aren’t all of these “-isms” just creating another attachment to Meaning. Or as Nietzsche puts it: a “compensatory alternate measure of significance” – attaching significance and Meaning to something else, as long as it’s SOMETHING. The risk with nihilism is the potential for apathy and a Homer Simpson type of indolence. But who is at risk here? What could possibly be wrong with watching three seasons of Dexter in one weekend? What’s more important? What is the risk we might face?
So instead of nihilism, is the rejection of Meaning just pessimism?
Absurdist philosophers claim that disharmony arises in the chasm between our search for Meaning and the lack of Meaning in the universe – the gap between the search and the reality. We’re madly searching but not seeing the forest for the lack of trees… There’s no forest and certainly no trees. How depressing! If that’s not bad enough, Kierkegaard and French writer/philosopher Albert Camus describe the possible solutions to this gaping disharmony as follow:
1. Find God; or,
2. Accept the absurd and even embrace the absurdity of life and continue living in spite of it; or,
3. Escape Existence – suicide.
Only three options? What if, like me, you reject each of these solutions. Religious belief I have, but am not prepared to take the leap towards total immersion. Acceptance of the absurd is where I part company with this theory as Meaning is derived from the search, which is where this started in the first place. Suicide is always an option but I’m not there right now.
And that brings me to another “-ism” – Optimism. Here’s another kicker – what is optimism if not the hope of finding Meaning? Good question and one that challenges me to wonder: What if optimism were to be chunked into micro-packets so that there are multiple, simultaneous optimistic moments founded on the present so that instead of Meaning Optimism simply leads to joy? Joy in the present moment? Like a goldfish with a 3-second memory and no shark attacks? Everywhere we turn, there’s another blissful moment of pre-packed optimism, and another, oh wait, there’s another and—…
The alternative to the –isms might be to live a simple, low-tech life that does not have the diversions of a more complicated life with concerts, new cars, restaurants and nice clothes? Ultimately there are very few of us who would be giving up the life of RICHES. I, for one, am not James Packer so would only be giving up the absurdity of working to live. Or as the band Metric put it: “Buy a car to drive to work. Drive to work to pay for this car”. Swap “car” with “work clothes” or “work shoes”, “train ticket”. We imprison ourselves with all of this stuff.
I read an article recently about James Packer where he claims that the person who dies with the most toys wins. That’s his game, not mine. Does that mean I won’t renovate my house or buy that gorgeous purple trench I saw last week that I have to work three days to afford? Hmm.
We sell our time for money. Simple-living advocates such as the Amish or Quakers have eliminated the need to sell their time for money. Alternatively, a downshifting movement in the UK suggests “the more money you spend, the more time you have to be out there earning it and the less time you have to spend with the ones you love”. There’s that anecdote that goes: “on their death-bed, nobody wishes they’d spent more time at the office.” Why do we realise this when it’s too late? Why not start to live life TODAY as though it’s a gift to be played with before the batteries die?
These are the best years of my life and I’m living them in a way that doesn’t feel authentic or sincere.
Maybe I’ll go somewhere simpler instead and brush off the unnecessary responsibilities. Years ago, someone told me that they had met me when I was at uni in Geelong and I’d told them that all I wanted to do was sit at the edge of a cliff and write poetry. I don’t remember saying that but I can imagine it. Funny how, twenty-three years later, it still resonates with me. Just delete “poetry”. Funny how after all of the things I’ve bought and thrown away, the holidays I’ve taken, the alcohol I’ve thrown up, the friends I’ve swapped, the jobs I’ve loved and lost, the philosophies I’ve learned and the blood I’ve lost, funny how I should want the exact thing that I wanted BEFORE I began my search for Meaning all those years ago. How absurd that none of it, not one little bit, has made any difference except to make me feel as though it has all been a very very long way around the circle.