This week I still have the meaning of things on my brain. Partly because I am still reading Graham’s book on intertextuality, so naturally I got thinking about the word, ‘meaning’ and wondered what it means.
Seriously, what is meaning? What does it mean to be ‘meaningful’? Or, the question I use to torment my elders with, “What is the meaning of life?”
In my teens and twenties I was seriously concerned that there was some grand purpose to the universe: that I hadn’t been clued into what it was and was missing out on something good. After many years of asking almost everyone I could thinking of the most direct answer I got was from my father when he replied, “Yes, it must mean something.”
Then he’d break into singing, “What’s it all about Alfie.” Father was not a singer and in time I learned not to ask father certain questions.
In my thirties I settled on this nobel statement, when asked the question – “I believe it is about finding out what God’s will is for me and doing that.” I was all about the notion of “discernment.” Turns out I am not very good at it and still haven’t figured out what the man/woman/being/thingy upstairs wants me to do. There are times I feel like I’ll get to the gates of heaven and just flat fail St. Peter’s little quiz – you know the one that lets you in the gate to the promised land.
In my forties I just tried not to have such lofty thoughts and got on about the business of living.
Today I am feeling old – mostly because yesterday, Heather and I spent much of the day building a deck. The deck is turning out great, but today my body feels shattered – walking hurts, typing hurts, thinking hurts, hurting hurts…
Now that I am feeling old, the whole, “what’s all about?” question popped up in my brain so I thought I’d take stab at it again. This time I thought I’d use some different methods to analyze the question.
So the first tool I thought I’d apply to the problem is one that many young people use today for such questions, yes, google. Top of the list of answers is in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meaning_of_life If you can’t believe Wikipedai, what can you believe.
Then I thought I might apply some good old literary criticism to the problem and see if I could derive some meaning by looking at what is the question really asking.
I’ll admit that as a young’n I asked without really understanding the question.
Let’s start by looking at these three words: ‘the’, ‘meaning’ and ‘life’. We need to look not only at the significance of the word but also at it’s opposite. We often need to explore both sides of a thing to understand it. For example, day is meaningless without night and to be wet is ‘not dry.’
Take the word ‘life.’ It could be defined as, “not dead.” Therefore the meaning we are seeking to know about only applies to a specific period of time – that time between being birth and death. The word is a limiter to the question and rules out all other times. Therefore the question doesn’t apply to any ‘after life.’
The word, ‘the’ is an interesting word in that it implies that there is one and only one meaning of life. The opposite of ‘the’ is many so we’re not talking about many possible meanings but rather the one meaning. We could also use the word ‘a’ here and change the question from, a single meaning to one of a number of meanings.
And this one should drive you nuts to think about it too much, “What does the word meaning mean?” If you want a dictionary version try this:
what is meant by a word, text, concept, or action
implied or explicit significance
important or worthwhile quality; purpose
The implication is that to be meaning full, life should have an importance, a worthwhile quaintly or significance.
If we put the whole thing together and rewrite the question in a more specific form, we might come up with: “What is the one worthwhile quality of not being dead?” or possibly “What is the specific explicit significance of the time between birth and death?”
However, given the variations of possible questions that could be generated, is it possible for there to be one meaning? Or is it more likely that our life has meanings at different levels at different times?
Or, is it just possible that the question is unanswerable and the only value in it is the exploration?
A further complication that I’ve proven in my life is that as we have new experiences and learn new things the whole structure of our understanding shifts and the question itself changes, so I end up back with my father’s statement, “Yes, life must mean something.”
I am just hoping that at the Pearly Gates, I get away with the answer, “Sorry, couldn’t figure that one out.”
Till next week,