Our search for meaning(s)

by Callum Watts

A small good thing

Growing up often feels like a process of finally understanding advice you completely ignored when it was first given to you. For me, this often has the form of thinking I’ve just discovered a profound insight about life, only to realise that it sounds entirely cliché once articulated. Perhaps it supports Plato’s idea that nothing brand new is every really learnt, because learning is really just remembering innate wisdom. More likely though, it’s just a happy reflection of the fact that there really are many general lessons to be learnt on how to live well. Happier still, these are shared and passed down not by philosophers, but by everyone, and so they become clichés. The past year of lockdowns has given me such a remembering, specifically, on the nature of how we find meaning.

Lockdown leaves us bereft of ordinary sources of meaning and value. This is extremely hard to do anything about because meaning is a little like happiness, the pursuit of it tends to scare it away. It is often the by-product of other activities, rather than the goal pursued. Like happiness, it also seems to be the case that the more our source of meaning rests on the dogged pursuit of a single thing, the more it is hostage to the what one thing, and so the more fragile it is.

For example, a person who mainly finds a sense of meaning through their work is extremely vulnerable to existential crises if their job fails to deliver that sense of purpose. The so-called midlife crisis is often (not always) a reaction to professional disappointment, a sense that one’s career has not really lived up to what was demanded of it. In this scenario the failure of a career to have delivered meaning can result in one’s whole existence appearing pointless all of a sudden.

Likewise, someone who principally finds meaning through a romantic relationship will be extremely vulnerable should that relationship end. A collapsing romantic relationship often feels like it is taking the very possibility of meaning down with it. The loss is experienced as existential. People with broken hearts will often say they feel like they have lost a part of themselves, that which gave a meaningful structure to life has disappeared.

A less dramatic example is in the way political junkies relate to politics. Many have an almost obsessive attitude towards political news and punditry, an attitude I am frequently guilty of sharing. We go through cycles of outrage and triumph that are more reminiscent of the emotional relationship an avid sports fan has to their team, than to someone who is naturally and actively participating in political life.

In each of these cases, whether it be career, romance, politics, or sport, the more pressure we put on one thing to give us meaning, the more space that thing will take up in our life, and the less room is left for us to find meaning elsewhere. Given how likely some of these things are to disappoint us, it seems like a decidedly risky strategy to allow any one of them to become the primary meaning bearing structure in our lives. But this approach of loading up all our sense of meaningfulness onto one or two pillars seems to be very common. The isolating and paralyzing nature of lockdown leaves one unable to pursue the big life things from which meaning ordinarily derives, and thus severely destabilised.

But there are other approaches to how we might deal with our search for meaningfulness. The stoic approach, with its focus on what we can and cannot control, shows us that nothing in the world can reliably bare the weight of meaning we might put on it. However, we might find it through mastery of ourselves. By performing a sort of existential levitation, we escape the need for the world itself to be meaningful, and instead discover meaning through self-control. As interesting as this kind of discipline is, it does require a penchant for introspection which can feel very demanding and quite austere. Another alternative is to become nihilists and embrace the impossibility of finding meaning in anything, introspectively or in the world. One can then engage in untrammelled and happy hedonism. Whilst this approach has a lot of appeal, the hedonistic life has been distinctly out of reach during the lockdown, and so the usual distractions from staring into the abyss have not been readily available.

A third option is to persist in the search for meaning, but looking not to one or two ‘big’ sources for it, but rather to enjoy the activity of unearthing it in the everyday. And this is the cliché that lockdown has taught me, it’s important to find meaning in the little things. Life, shorn of its ordinary momentum and adventure is narrowed down to ‘smaller’ activities that have none of the grand narrative arcs that a romance, or a career, or politics have. And if we are in the habit of looking to single ‘big life things’ to give us meaning, then this makes activities like baking, cleaning, feeding the cat, picking up the garbage, going for a walk, chatting to a friend on the phone feel futile. None of them is individually able to provide the sort of meaningfulness we’d expect from a great charitable works or romance or a fulfilling job. However, the loss of our primary source of meaning can lead us to look for something equally momentous to replace it. This stops us from noticing all the incremental increases in meaning that are available to us.

In fact, you can make your life meaningful by filling it up with lots of little moments of meaning, rather than by pursuing one thing. This is not to say that ‘big life things’ are cheapened, or are no longer meaningful, but rather that we can learn to creatively derive meaning from multiple other places as well. This can actually take the pressure off the bigger things in life, so that if they do bring with them that sense of meaning, it is felt all the more powerfully for arriving unbidden.