The Meaning of Meaning

The things that give meaning to our lives relieve us of the need to ask, “What will I do next?” This is one reason why the loss of a loved one, a job, a personal faculty or skill, one’s health or one’s home, or even the loss of a routine or a possession can be so devastating. It leaves us bereft, at a loss of what to do with life and love and energy. For, these cherished things had heretofore set the tone, the scene, and the agenda for our daily lives. Through them, we knew what life is about and how our days would be passed. Without them, the future may seem uncertain and bleak. One carries on, since life has its own day-to-day momentum. But anxiety follows loss, which is a loss of meaning.

Meaning is about choices we make—of what to value and what to do. Anxiety attends freedom of choice, which thus is burdensome. When we lose that which gives structure and direction to life, we are then faced all over again with fundamental choices that can be riddled with anxiety. The other side of this coin is that we made such choices in the first place partly to be done with the anxiety of choosing. Understanding this can help us better appreciate what we have not lost, what has not been thwarted by external events or losses beyond our control. One prefers, of course, to make choices that will prevail and and not have to be made all over again, each year or week or moment. Human society is founded on this desire and has conspired to make that stability possible in many ways. We make contracts and social arrangements toward that end. But human society is not inherently stable in the ways we hope; much less can nature be relied upon.

One lives by habit and routine, since these structure our lives, eliminate the need for constant decisions, and establish a stable environment we can count on. This reliability is the enduring appeal of culture and institutions—of the man-made world of systems, protocols, algorithms, artifacts and machines, which are not subject to the uncertainties that inhere in nature. But even these are unreliable to the extent they depend on human participation and natural materials and forces.

Just as culture is the order we impose on nature, meaning is the narrative that we project onto an unstable natural and social background. It is a structured story we attempt to impose on life. That works, for brief periods in limited ways, in the measure that life seems to conform to our hopes. Yet, the fact that meaning may endure for extended periods is serendipitous. We may be grateful for it, but it is never guaranteed. It is only by chance (some would say by grace) that we can take anything for granted. Loss reminds us that meaning is fragile and choice is always imminent—which is another way to say that conscious attention is often required.

The other side of this coin is not to take things for granted. Rather than count on reality to remain as we wish, according to choices we hoped would be definitive, we can renew the investment we make in the things we hope to find meaningful, moment to moment as we go along. This implies knowing, on the one hand, that we can change our minds; and, on the other hand, that reality may refuse to cooperate with our desires.

One is relatively unhindered in the realms of imagination and thought. However, meaning is naturally found outside us in the real world, which constrains us in myriad ways. There is a trade-off between the freedom inherent in subjectivity and the meaning that inheres biologically in what is given or imposed by the external world. It is as though one can have free will or ready-made meaning, but not both. The ultimate price of freedom may be to live in a world that seems arbitrary, inhuman, and empty of meaning. And that may seem reason enough to choose something other than such freedom.

But meaning is not a quality residing potentially or actually in things or symbols. It is rather a capacity residing in us, the makers of meaning. That is because experience is not simply a direct revelation of the world, but a product of our brains interacting in and with the world. As in language, meaning in life exists only by convention and agreement. Hence, nothing—not even human life—is inherently meaningful or valuable. (By the same token, neither can anything be inherently meaningless.) Rather, it is up to us to give (or take back) meaning and value where we see fit. That is an easy enough statement to make; but it is hardly easy to stomach the full truth of it, or to live with that truth in all its implications. For, it takes the burden off external reality to be meaningful and puts it on our shoulders as the creators and destroyers of meaning. This burden can be very intimidating, especially since we are naturally conditioned to look outward into the world for every satisfaction, and to rely on it as the source of meaning and direction—just as we once relied on our parents.

One thinks of convention as agreement among individuals, for the sake of communicating and getting along. But there is communication within the individual as well. There is a language even of unconscious thought, with its own conventions. The nervous system, after all, is a network of internal connections, mutually communicating. The brain invests experience with meaning, in the way that language users invest their language with meaning, whether one is aware of this activity or not. Of course, like society, the brain can also change its conventions, which (by definition) are neither true nor false. If they are to some extent hard-wired within us, it is for biological reasons outside the conventions themselves. The very idea of truth or reality is a habit we have formed because of our biological nature, which compels us to look at the world as real and necessary rather than as arbitrary, illusory, or a matter of convention. We could not otherwise have survived to be here thinking about it. Yet, the fact that we can think about it allows us to question any given meaning, potentially resulting in its loss.

One is often advised that a “meaningful life” can best be found in service to some cause bigger than oneself. This stratagem works psychologically to the extent that one believes in the cause. However, it trades on our biologically inbuilt awe for a natural reality that is indeed vaster than the individual and even the species. We are in the natural habit of looking outside ourselves for meaning and purpose, since our very existence depends on that external reality. Like other primates, we are also intensely social organisms, who are finely tuned to the needs of others, to the group and its dynamics. The values behind these habits are ultimately a matter of biological and social conditioning, within which one may indeed find satisfaction in pursuing a cause or in serving others. Yet, even this grounding provides no ultimate psychological security or defense against nihilism. For, one is also at liberty to question the conditioning and the act of finding meaning in values that are biologically or socially conditioned. (Indeed, to think of it as “conditioning” already calls it into question!) One might come to look with suspicion upon such meaning as no more than another arbitrary and empty convention—a spell cast by biology, one’s parents, or society. Where one can be enchanted, one can also become disenchanted!

Where does this leave us? Well, with the uncomfortable notion that there is no escape from personal responsibility for how one sees and relates to the world. After the initial shock, this realization can be accepted as simply how things are. Life is as meaningful or meaningless as we take it to be; the things that we cherish are valued because we value them. This does not negate the qualities or properties of those things; it merely insists that valuation is something we do. Significantly, there is no plain verb in the English language that means “to give meaning,” as the verb ‘to value’ means to actively give value. Language does not support taking responsibility for meaning, and we are thus not in the habit. Since different people (not to mention other creatures) give meaning differently, there may be disagreement. What emerges is not a common reality or consensus, but a community of beings capable of perceiving and bestowing meaning on what is perceived. Perhaps that is meaning enough.