Essay / Theology

Making Meaning in a Meaningless World: Five Ways that Won’t Work

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Trapped in a world that has no meaning? Wondering what to do with your time if there’s no point to it all? Eking out a futile existence on the shreds and shards of disappointment and despair?

Well, there’s no need to re-invent the wheel (why add inefficiency to futility?) Here are the five most popular ways to inject some meaning into the meaninglessness of life. These are time-tested methods that have been around since Epicurus and Ecclesiastes.

By the way, none of them work. Deep down, everybody knows that meaning isn’t one of those things that can be made, it must be received. But go ahead and join the game of trying out these diversionary tactics. After all, if the world is meaningless, you’ve got nothing, literally nothing, to lose.

1. Put It Off Until Later. If it becomes obvious that everything you’re doing today is pointless, just tell yourself that it’s building toward some far-off result which will somehow have a point. As long as there’s going to be something worthwhile out there eventually,”worth” can flow back into this mean”while,” right? Student loans aren’t the only thing that can be deferred! Meaning itself can be put off. Maybe it’s one of those magical emergent properties that will simply arise if you pile up enough meaningless moments and tasks. This is the best method for young people to use. In fact, they become so good at it that they usually don’t even notice they’re doing it until some time around middle age, when they can switch to other tactics. The hilarious thing is to catch a really old person justifying their lives by saying, “This experience will come in handy later,” until they realize they’re running out of later.

2. Leave It To The Kids. This tactic is structurally the same as the previous one, being just another form of redirecting attention from the meaningless present to the supposedly meaningful future. It’s pretty obvious, if you think about it, that you can’t generate any meaning by pointing downstream to somebody who’s pointing downstream to somebody who’s pointing downstream… an infinite regress doesn’t work in the forward direction either, if you’re expecting meaning to flow back into your life from a future that never gets here. The reasons this tactic is more sustainable than simply “Putting It Off Until Later” include that it requires more patience, it crosses a generational line, and it sounds unselfish. You can keep saying you’re doing it all for the kids and never notice that you’re really extorting meaning from unborn generations –meaning they don’t have! It’s a kind of existential deficit spending, and it works great just like the fiscal kind.

3. Huddle for Warmth. In a bleak world, we need to stick together. This approach has the merit of being very close to the truth, making it even easier to trick yourself with. Community really does enrich life so much that it seems plausible to many people that it could carry the whole burden of providing the reason for life. Under a heaven that either disregards us or glowers at us, we can have purpose in our common lives together if we hold hands and keep repeating the incantatory phrase, “community, community, community.” If it doesn’t seem to work, say it louder, Capitalize It, and focus more inwardly. While Moses was who-knows-where talking with god-knows-what, the Israelites had the great idea of pooling all their resources and making something they could trust for salvation. The best idols are made of solid gold gathered from The Whole Community. If you don’t have the esprit d’corps to hold a whole group together, this tactic works even more intensely with couples, on the model of “You and me against the world” or “You’re my everything.”

4. Work For The Cause! If you’re made of sterner stuff, you can give meaning to your life by pouring yourself into a cause greater than you. In the middle of the twentieth century, this worked so well for the communists that even some anti-communists adopted the strategy. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a meaningful cause, just a big one.

5. think small If the whole problem is that there’s no meaning in the big picture, then make a virtue of necessity by finding “meaning” in the little things. Life is a tale told by an idiot, sound and fury signifying nothing, but I like my flowerbed. Focus on the fragments of beauty and apparent significance that come your way. Make the mental switch from big landscapes to little still lifes. Don’t ask about totality. Try new things, a constant stream of new little things. This tactic is so absolutely backwards that it works: we’re supposed to live in a meaningful world with little local bits of absurdity, so if you boldly assert that we have meaningful little scraps in a world of absurdity, you might even believe yourself. Again, the key is not to ask the big questions.

You can, of course, switch back and forth among these options as they each prove ultimately useless. Since all of these methods are based on things that would actually be good in a meaningful world, you can rotate among them and put off the confrontation with meaninglessness almost indefinitely.

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