The problem with meaning

Where it all went wrong

Over the winter break, a source of mine e-mailed me a speech civic leader John Gardner gave to the Stanford Alumni Association six decades after his graduation. The address is a bevy of sage wisdom including these musings:

“The things you learn in maturity aren’t simple things such as acquiring information and skills. You learn not to engage in self-destructive behavior. You learn not to burn up energy in anxiety. You discover how to manage your tensions. You learn that self-pity and resentment are among the most toxic of drugs. You find that the world loves talent but pays off on character.

“You come to understand that most people are neither for you nor against you; they are thinking about themselves.”

Towards the end, Mr. Gardner articulates his thoughts on leading a meaningful life. “Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you. … You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life.”

As I began to inject a sense of direction in my goals for the coming year, his speech reminded me how fashionable that word has become over the past few years. Finding meaning has become the blank canvas on which we sketch our existential journey. It has become the catch all for everything the soul is yearning or desiring.

Yet today’s philosophy of meaningfulness debases and misconstrues its two pillars: belonging and a pursuit of purpose.

In our quest for meaning, humans have always derived personal fulfillment from  attachment to a broader group of people or noble ideas. Organizations have always been a platform to coalesce. When we belong to a cohort, there is an attachment to something greater than ourselves, a sense of a shared values that connect the individual to the whole. And that is why establishing some sense of belonging has always been a tenet of meaning. Meaning helps construct moral reference points to which we espouse and abide. Being ingrained in a community fosters this type of individual fulfilment while marrying our deepest fulfillment with society’s deepest needs, ultimately creating meaning for individuals.

Yet, today’s efforts to belong are void of attempts to build harmony.

As political ethicist Yuval Levin notes in his extensive work on mass gatherings in America, most groups formed today are built to magnify unhealthy tribal instincts. Angry and disheartened from decades of financial strife, splintering families, and diminishing communal gathering, Levin discovers people now largely coddle together to emit discord. And areas once known for inclusivity are archetypes of division.

Levin’s research also finds cities, once places for the unrecognized and wandering to find direction and uplifting clique, are now more segregated and isolating than ever.  

Religious institutions no longer fulfill the communal role they once did. Even with their blemishes, centers of faith have historically been avenues to help those heal their psychological wounds and often platforms to redistribute resources to the less fortunate. Today, the largest churches in America are vessels for political lobbying, ramping up partitions among their followers.

Academic institutions, once a paragon for building social cohesion and healthy collegial tribalism, have become a mecca of in-group fighting, where new groups are created in anger towards another faction absent a nobler cause. When I graduated from UC Berkeley ten years ago, there were three Indian advocacy groups on campus; today, there are 16 – the majority with similar agendas largely created out of spite and resentment towards other South Asian focused clubs.

Nor are we more effective in procuring meaning in our personal pursuits. As more have signaled their intention to envelope themselves in their passion, there is a growing cottage industry built to skirt the process of discovering one’s spiritual fulfillment. Quick diagnoses, by “self-help gurus”, are conjured up to detect and destroy the variables hindering your eternal bliss. On any given day or any given website, there’s a “how to” list with 10-12 quick steps to promise personal salvation (when conducting research for this article, there were over 500 articles on how to guides for “find meaning in your life”).

Such immediate fix prescriptions are a fantasy. Life is an arduous journey of peeling the layers of our masked selves to uncover our genuine nature. Those who find meaning carry out the painstaking task of falling, being underprepared, and carrying on after setbacks in life. Attempting to bypass such arduous endeavors leads individuals to a destination without significance.

This is, in fact, the paradox of meaning – once discovered, it garners fulfillment, but if purposefully sought, produces a feckless endpoint.

Meaning lies in the vocation we choose, the company we keep, the broader cause we serve, and the sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Enduring personal fulfillment is not something we can gain in organized anger or reductionist formulaic guides. Instead, we cultivate it over time through the voyages we choose, the pain we conquer, and the sacrifices that eventually pay dividends.

Yes, meaning is a consortium of emotions, varying from human to human. My writing mentor eloquently reminded me, “If one is conscious, one seeks meaning with every breath.” But if that journey is rooted in rage and absent of the stresses that aid us in discovering our true sense, then we curtail the possibility of living life more deeply.

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