Last year a good friend of mine, a great artist of immense intelligence and humanity, nevertheless wrote to me about the birth of his child: “I’d been in search of meaning my whole life, and there it was.”
Surely this was the usual thing we hear after a child is born, but for him it was also deadly serious, and borne just as much from immense suffering in the past as the exuberant hyperbole of the present. He knew what beauty was, what history and tradition were, and had so many potential protections at hand to keep a sense of meaninglessness at bay; but only the birth of his child did that.
This is all to say, The only real problem is meaning.
The cynical truth is actually just a boring fact of human nature: we can make anything mean anything, from a stubbed toe to our chosen religious text; and very often the same event can yield either elation or despair, depending upon the meaning we grant to it. The choice is ours to make, and the truth is ours to declare, and if we can’t find or manufacture meaning out of something wholesome and rich, we will only do it in something divisive and destructive.
And so the problem isn’t gang violence, religious violence, political violence, racial or nationalistic hatreds, rape or murder or child abuse, cultural snobbery or just the most everyday meanness; the problem is why anyone finds meaning in these things long enough for them to endure; the problem is why, for some of us, meaning is so difficult to find elsewhere.
I would suggest that it has something to do with our propensity, mostly through outside pressure, to only find meaning in external events; everything from religion and commerce and culture seem to demand that meaning come from group experiences rather than private ones. Indeed, as I’ve asked elsewhere, how many criminals have we heard of, who came to believe that meaning through violence was justified, only when the external ways they were told to find meaning in failed them, and they were left with a sense of meaninglessness?
A recent retiree told me the story of going upstairs in his house one day in autumn, and how the neighborhood was so quiet he could hear the leaves landing on the garage roof, and sliding off. Of such moments revolutionaries and activists are not made, but it is a grave mistake to imagine that the lesson of history (let alone a culture and a media that sings for blood) is that only with big moments and big people is there any meaning at all.
The greatest religious teaching is also the hardest one, and it speaks beyond any need for religion at all: it is that we are sufficient in ourselves, we are overflowing with meaning. No one has put this better than George Eliot, in the closing words of her Middlemarch:
Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.