Me, Meaning, and Meaninglessness

I’ve always been one of those people who try to look for signs in the fabric of the everyday. I remember periods of time feeling ‘impending doom’ when, lo and behold, doom hit (and pretty hard, too); on other occasions, I’ve found that buying a Big Issue brings in a karmic reward, almost without fail. Coincidence? Perhaps, but I’ve generally been inclined not to believe in coincidence, to believe (or is it hope) that everything is leading somewhere. And so, the other night I’m having a cigarette and thinking about the future, and the current status of an application caught in and wondering what I should expect, delving into gut and context for some sign of what’s to come. I think over my life-narrative, that inextricable mass of decisions and circumstance, all guided, as it were, by some hidden hand. ‘Yes’, I say aloud (this being 3am, a worthy hour for soul-searching), ‘it’s all got to be leading somewhere; it all means something…right?’

‘Well, no, I suppose it might not. Does every biography inherently mean anything? That heart and soul of each individual’s life’s script…it’s a projection, some infantile fantasy. No, no, wait. It has to mean something! But then…’ And here I’ll stop with the transcript. Suffice to say that I had an existential crisis on my hands: what the hell is the meaning of life? Now I tried to answer, of course, I tried with everything I had. But it didn’t help. I study religion. I study meaning-making systems. I look at the theology of it, basically the description of an ordered, structured universe; I look at the mechanics of it, more social scientific, like the way ritual actions, (e.g. ‘sharing the peace’ at church services), brings abstractions into concrete reality (in this case a sense of unity, forgiveness, purity, and love). I study movements like Scientology which seem at first glance to be ridiculous and nonsensical, only to discover an internal logic and harmony which quite ably makes sense of this world. People don’t hold belief systems that don’t make sense, relatively speaking. There are all sorts of ways of doing it, working out the paradox of life/death, and where the hell we come from, where the hell matter and time come from. And we can’t forget the more ‘profane’ aspects of meaning-making: some sort of ethical framework, our sense of national pride (or lack of it), good manners, our hopes and dreams and what makes that ‘right’… Trouble is that when you study a lot of them, these ‘meaning-making systems’, and even more when you study it conceptually, you trivialise each and every one of them. Relativism might truly be the most isolating perspective within human existence.

Perhaps this should be expected. I’ve always thought, albeit unfairly, that the natural sciences take this world, study it, and dispense with the whole meaning-making enterprise. In part, perhaps they do. But the social sciences, through which I study religion; they really take meaning-making apart! We pin it down, probe it, and cut off meaning’s wings. I daily dissect individuals’ authentic attempts at finding meaning within the brute fact of our existence and pull out a bloody heart to examine which, unsurprisingly, lies dead yet melancholic in the academic’s study. Peter Berger said that as society grew more complex, and belief systems found themselves within a plurality, the plausibility of each would suffer. This process is tenfold for those of us who choose to probe each belief system in turn and yet, deep down, want nothing more than to believe in something plausible. Some say that it’s the therapists that need therapy the most; those who study meaning-making systems find meaning-making systems ultimately meaningless.

Of course, if the study of meaning-making was so completely fatalistic all the time (i.e. during the snowy March night) nobody would do it: I’d be personally (and forcefully) turning away first-years at the first available door. There’s still a beauty to it all, that subtlety of theological contours into some grandiose, empowering whole wherein purpose and salvation lie, waiting; that relentless competitive homeland of commerce, the urge to stand tall amongst everyone else knowing that you’re really made it, your salvation realised through sweat and dedication; to that artist who wants simply to leave something behind worth the future’s present, thus lingering on in some small, transcendent, irrational way. Certainly, there’s all that. And frameworks that grant meaning, in all cases, support people, almost invisibly, when they act within its premises, and according to its pattern. One loses oneself in the moment – is that not simply because in those precious instances one’s context swallows you whole and through active participation therein any nagging uncertainties (on whatever level of consciousness) can’t pause to think?

Delving into the innards of meaning-making can be a dangerous game. And that’s why it doesn’t pay to play it all the time. If you study that which ‘makes people tick’ (to the extent that they can’t even hear the ticking, most of the time) then, as it’s subjected to the social scientific lens, it loses any sense of universal meaning. Whilst the natural sciences, on some level, stop short of a final ‘why’, meaning-making systems tacitly supply it. I fear that probing that might be going too far, or at least it would be if we didn’t sometimes take a break or, even after concluding on a cold night that there is no meaning, take a look around us. There’s meaning all around – whatever there is to hand.

But then that’s hardly a convincing conclusion. Perhaps that’s the point. Is the meaninglessness of life its meaning, in an utterly (postmodern) reflexive sense for the experiential reality of the individual? Who knows? ‘It’s time to go to sleep’, I said…

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