Where the Heck Does Meaning Come From | Pt. 2

*Why is this post epically late, you ask? That is because of one thing: Military testing.*

The second part of this topic stems from a few things: death, consciousness, responsibility, and some quality television programming. I’ve recently been binging the show called The Good Place. It’s about some people who die and go to the good place. That’s all I’ll say about it. It incorporates lots of moral philosophy (one of the characters is a moral philosophy professor) and I honestly think it’s just kind of funny. Now the show just happens to have some funny parallels with my actual life. One being that they reference Jacksonville, FL in literally every episode. My family is from Jacksonville. Another thing is that the philosophy professor teaches at St. John’s University (the college that I attended). The third thing is that I share some similar issues with the philosophy professor (as I’m sure many of us do). I’m not reading into this as anything more than coincidence, if even that. However, it is funny and the show itself has been enlightening. The professor’s struggle to make decisions is what I seriously empathized with. His fate in life was actually determined by his inability to make decisions and how that negatively impacted others. I felt gut-punched while watching the episode that explained all of this. I’ve fucked up many good things in my life by failing to make decisions. This was mostly out of fear of making the wrong decisions. That fear stemmed from having no trust in myself. If anyone I’ve ever hurt due to that ever reads this, then know that I am sorry. No excuse is good enough to justify one’s personal problems harming others. This is a maxim that I can only judge myself by, but it remains true nonetheless.

One of the continuously developing ideas in the show is determining how one should live. They cite Kant, Aristotle, Lao Zi, Plato, and a whole slew of wise, old, dead guys and gals. This is to try and get at what it means to live a good life and how one should go about doing that. One take away that I feel is essential here is simply making a decision on how one should live. I don’t believe that a decision like that must be set in stone until the end of time, but I do believe it must be made.

This is for a few reasons:

  • When we don’t decide on how we want to live, it then becomes difficult to find meaning in our actions. This is because we have no foundation for why we do anything.
  • When we do decide on how we want to live, our interactions with ourselves and others become easier to understand. This is because we know who we want to be and what we want to embody. This gives us a boundary to operate within.
  • Deciding on how we want to live also allows to determine how much meaning an action has. It becomes easier to weigh the value of multiple conflicting interests when we understand what each interest means based on how we want to live life.

I hope all of that was easy to understand. Now let’s dive into what I think serves as a solid background to us deciding how to live.

Islands

I want to use two verses from two manuscripts to highlight what underpins living a meaningful life. The first is a quote by John Donne from his Meditation XVII:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

https://web.cs.dal.ca/~johnston/poetry/island.html

I think that two important ideas are played with here. The first being the consequences of action and the second being how we view our relation to others. Both before and after we realize that an action has meaning we act based on these two ideas. When you decide to cancel a prior obligation, a promise you made to a friend months in advance, due to an emergency, you have weighed both the consequence of that action and your relation to whoever is involved in the scenario. The action that you chose was the action that held the most meaning. I would argue that the action not only had the most meaning to you, but that it was also given meaning by this process. Maybe our actions can’t have meaning unless there is weight behind them. Hell, maybe this is a painfully obvious fact. Regardless, what’s then worth thinking about is how we’d calculate if we lived a life of meaning. I would say it could be as simple as adding up all of the meaningful actions and then tallying them up near the end of our individual runs. However, this leads me to wonder if meaningful actions can hold a negative weight. Perhaps we can use this second quote to explore this. This one stems from verse eleven of the Daodejing:

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

https://www.wussu.com/laotzu/laotzu11.html

I feel this verse is useful for exploring what makes an action meaningful. It also helps us examine our relation to others. Using this verse, meaningful actions seems to stem from a few things:

  • What the action is
  • The window of time you have to take the action
  • How long the action’s aftermath will be around
  • The opposite action
  • The lack of action

I would argue that as soon as we make a decision or take an action, we act on all of these fronts. It’s like deciding whether or not to text your ex-boyfriend/girlfriend. You know why you want to do it. You know why you don’t want to do it. As soon as you decide on what to do. You’ve measured all of these factors against one another. This includes something I hinter at earlier; that being the emotional meaning of the action. Does it feel good to act a certain way? Does it feel fulfilling to do certain things? It definitely does! And I would say that this factor should be considered as important as the others. Outside of feeling obliged to do certain things, it seems like its the feeling that comes after an action that also motivates us to do things. All right, okay, all right, so what does this say about meaning and meaningful lives?

Here’s what I am thinking, it might not truly matter if what do we do objectively has meaning so long as it feels meaningful to us. If we live lives that have more meaningful moments in them than meaningless moments, then we have likely lived a good life (this is according to one’s own standards).

If there is a God or creator who has imbued with our particular type of consciousness, or if it is just a quirky byproduct of evolution, I feel what ultimately matters is what we decide to do with all of the knowledge at our hands. We may never know why we have the capacity to language, but we know when we hear a song or read poetry. We will likely never be able to know whether or not there is a god, but we know that people will dedicate their lives in pursuit of knowing. It almost doesn’t matter what the circumstances of life are. We know that it feels better to be with others rather than being alone. We know what meaningless feels like and, using that verse from the Dao, we can assume that this means that things do indeed have meaning. It seems to be a matter of finding or creating that meaning. Unless there truly is some objective form of meaning. But we can explore this in the next post.

Thanks again for reading!

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