My fourth and final post of notes from the School of Life conference. Previous posts: Life is Hard, Conversations are Hard, Love is Hard, and Work is Hard.
For most of human history, meaning was not made by individuals but imposed by authorities.
Today, we are so embedded in the logic of Capitalism that it’s almost impossible to imagine how we’d derive meaning from the human experience without it. Capitalism makes everything easier; we can construe purpose from a collection of seemingly achievable goals and markers of status. What is our salary? What is our job title and profession? When were we last promoted? How much money is in our 401k? Where can we travel to on holiday? How smart and photogenic are our children? Can we afford a vacation home? How many likes on our last Instagram photo? These markers of success and status offer a helpful replacement for meaning and purpose. They provide us with the necessary fiction that we are working toward something with dignity and significance.
But really, what is the meaning of life? Who knows. A more practical question is: How can we have more meaningful moments in life? Imagine if we could have just three meaningful moments every week. We’d be so satisfied that we would no longer question the meaning of life. Perhaps the meaning of life is beyond our capacity to understand, but meaningful moments are special because they provide us with glimpses into something larger and more powerful than ourselves.
The sources of meaningful moments are different for everyone. For some, it’s the soothing touch of a friend’s hand while drinking tea on a quiet afternoon. For others, it’s a near-death experience climbing a mountain. For some it is sex, for others a day alone in the museum. Often they are moments that remind us of our own vulnerability. Ironically, it is our vulnerability that is at the root of both meaning and anxiety.
We desire calm and serenity, but we succumb to stress and fretting. Most of our anxieties and annoyances are not random. They are encoded signals about what is amiss in our lives. We can’t ignore or transcend our anxieties, but we can become more skilled in decoding their deeper meaning and psychic history. We can choose to comprehend and address what lies submerged beneath the bubbling signals of shame, resentment, nervousness, envy, and sulking. “Every failure of calm can be analyzed in order to reveal something worth knowing about ourselves.”
Meaningful moments await us constantly when we lower our expectations and pay more attention to what’s around us. Appreciation is simply a newfound consciousness of beauty and complexity. What is art? Art depicts extremely modest things looked at with special attention. Appreciation. We become numb to art when we stop observing with special attention, when we rush through a museum or stroll mindlessly through a stream of photographs. Too often we are neglectful of phenomena and beauty that lack social prestige.
So, how do we lower our expectations without suffocating our aspirations? Few of us suffer from too few dreams. Many of us are enslaved by too many, unrealistic dreams. We must learn to let go, or we will forever be disappointed and distracted from the beauty and complexity we routinely fail to appreciate.
Resilient thinking is the opposite of optimistic thinking; it obliges us to consider what we’d do if we lost everything rather than what life would be like if we could have anything. It’s not how much money that defines you, but how you’d react to losing it all.
We can find meaning through the deliberate indulgence of drugs, anything that alters our mental state: coffee, chocolate, art, pomegranate juice, Mozart’s Arias, a nap, psychedelics, meditation, a walk through the woods. When used occasionally and intentionally, they offer us glimpses into that something larger than ourselves.
The anchors of happiness are love and work. But those are also the things that bring us the most strife and suffering. We must distinguish between meaningless and meaningful suffering, and only avoid the former. Suffering is meaningful when it a byproduct of our search for the sources of meaning. A meaningful life is different from a happy life.
In short, even if we never discover the meaning of life, even if we fail to transcend the constraints of Capitalism, we can experience many more meaningful moments by:
- Lowering our expecations
- Practicing appreciation with focused attention
- Embracing our vulnerability
- Embracing suffering in search of meaning
- Embracing drugs with moderation and variety
- Expecting the very worst and striving for the best