Years ago a good friend of mine wrote to me about the birth of his child and said, “I’d been in search of meaning my whole life, and there it was.”
Of course this is the usual thing we hear after a child is born, but coming from someone as creative as him, and as aware of religion and art as he is, it made me pause. I have said before that for me art is primarily an experience that helps the artist and the audience create empathy and alleviate loneliness. Because of this, art and religion have never lost their meaning for me, but for my friend both pursuits definitely had. Only the birth of his child could fill that space.
Seeing this made me realize something very simple: The only real problem is meaning, and our ability to find it or create it. We can make anything mean whatever we want, from a stubbed toe to our chosen religious text, and very often the same event can yield elation or despair, can be made to mean everything or nothing at all. And if we can’t find or manufacture meaning out of something wholesome and rich, we will eventually do it with something divisive and destructive.
And so the problem isn’t religious violence, political violence, racial or nationalistic hatreds, rape or murder or child abuse or drug addiction, cultural snobbery or just the most everyday cruelty. The problem is why anyone finds meaning in enacting any of these things. The problem is why, for such people, meaning is so difficult to find outside of negativity and harm.
The problem, very often, isn’t just that people do things we consider to be bad or even evil, but that the things we consider to be good and virtuous aren’t convincing or meaningful enough to affect their behavior. The question to ask is why religion or love, family or culture—why do they fail, or seem naïve or simplistic or manipulative, or just a joke?
I would suggest that one answer has something to do with our tendency to look for meaning overwhelmingly in external events. From all directions the message is blared that true meaning can only come from group experiences, rather than private ones, and that for an experience or opinion to have meaning, it must be seen and shared (and nowadays liked). Even worthy social causes of all kinds are demanding perpetual engagement, and anyone who steps away for a moment is considered part of the problem. The only worthwhile actions and thoughts, from the cheapest to the most sophisticated, can only be justified by their public and practical character.
This lie is corrosive enough; but more broadly, how many criminals have we heard admit they only sought fulfillment in violence after they were left with “nothing”—a “nothing” that usually corresponded to a failed relationship, a failed career, or some sort of social embarrassment? Never having been convinced that there might be other kinds of fulfillment, the desire for outward and visible achievement is doubled down on: power is sought through the violent control of others, and celebrity (or infamy) is sought through the attention given to their crimes. The idea that an achievement can remain entirely private and only require power over our own selves and our own minds, remains a ridiculous notion.
This reminds me of when I left a comment on a blog a long time ago that said some of these same things. The author of the blog was one of those jealous and embittered writers who thought he deserved the kind of success that was eluding him. In response to what I wrote, I was accused of being a “troll”—something I had to look up, since back in 2006 I’d never heard of the term. The strange ideas I was spouting were so unbelievable that it was assumed I was trying to piss everyone off on purpose.
There is of course nothing wrong with wanting to be successful at whatever we do, and nothing wrong with being upset when this success doesn’t happen. (I’ve had my own issues with this.) But if our entire lives are bound up in the success of a job or a relationship, in the outcome of an election or in the writing of a book, or even in the raising of children—then we are bound to be broken in half. There has to be a point at which all of us can sit in a room with our own thoughts and rediscover our own privacy, our own hidden life. And what we find there has to mean as much as every public gesture.
A recent retiree told me the story of going upstairs in his house one day in autumn. The neighborhood was so quiet, he said, that he could hear the leaves landing on the garage, and sliding off. Of such moments revolutionaries and activists are not made, but it is a grave mistake to imagine 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 novel 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.