There is a common misperception of what makes life meaningful. It is the idea that we have a special purpose in life – and that once we find it, all our confusion ends. We are saved from the happenstance and absurdity of our lives.
There may be some people lucky enough to discover a mission that does this. But for most of us, this approach is wrong.
The stories of our heroes select for meaning - for the kinds of stories that scratch a certain human itch. They project a narrative simplicity backwards onto lives full of false leads, crises and dead ends. They gloss over long periods of despair, the noise of randomness, the elements of chance, and personal and moral failings to tell the story of someone special who carried out a special mission. We have been told these stories all our lives, so not surprisingly we have deeply internalized them. “If only I could find my purpose!”
An alternate approach is a non-linear approach. It is premised on the idea that life is full of randomness punctuated by sudden moments – crises and opportunities – with vast potential for meaning making, when our skills and virtues shine.
Rather than struggle to discover a purpose or vocation, we become people who can recognize and exploit opportunities to create meaning as they arise – resourceful and audacious people who live adventurous lives.
This means not waiting to find your story arc, but rather recognizing that there are stories that pop up which you can opt into if you recognize them and have the right skills and virtues. It is about being prepared for the call to adventure, and cultivating the ability to recognize it, rather than believing we can direct our lives from the perspective of some knowable, ultimate mission.
“The absurd mystery of the strange forces of existence.”
Where does meaning come from?
“Your class, your caste, your country, sect, your name or your tribe, there's people always dying trying to keep them alive.” – Bright Eyes
The kind of meaning I’m talking about is the kind that relieves a certain kind of despair – the despair that comes from knowing that we must suffer and die and wondering if anything can be worthwhile in the face of these facts.
Some sources of meaning seem to be:
participation in something larger that will survive ourselves – a nation, a family, a faith
creativity and flow states – bringing something genuinely novel into the world. When all our talents, including our deeply held and latent ones are used, this is more meaningful than when we are schlepping along
love – when our sense of wellbeing has loci outside of ourselves – friends, family, and lovers
pro-social utility, or good works – creating a surplus of security and resources that others can use to survive and pursue their own sense of meaning
an internal sense of coherence, wholeness and dignity
Some people may find their sense of meaning is satisfied entirely from one of the above sources. Most of us, however, develop a portfolio of meaning – we have multiple sources of it in our lives, and cannot in fact derive it from only one source any more than we can be healthy on a diet of bread and water.
What is the linear approach?
The linear approach imagines that the meaning of our lives can be reduced to a mission, like the kind that fixes saints, heroes and social reformers in the historical imagination. “Created a vaccine.” “Expelled an occupier.” “Founded a religious order.” Of course, these accomplishments may admit multiple achievements or adventures – but are usually reduced to one overarching narrative.
This imagines that if we found a sufficiently noble cause to devote our lives to – one to which our talents were suited and appropriate – we would be free of the kind of suffering that is caused by the knowledge of death (and the possibility that it might strike at any time).
I am not going to tell you that this never works – there are people who have been personally fulfilled from devoting their life to a cause. For many of us, however, it does not work – our noble causes run into moral complexities on the ground, or are mirages based on a distorted vision of the world. They may leave us open to manipulation by careerist sociopaths, who know that we will chase any projected image that offers a shred of meaning, like a cat chasing a laser dot.
What is the non-linear approach?
The non-linear approach is different – rather than trying to discover a particular arc path and follow it to its conclusion, it recognizes that there will be many different moments and opportunities to create meaning that arise in our life. The idea is not that we will participate in one story that can be easily wrapped up by our biographers – but that there are many adventures and quests that we can pursue. Rather than the attitude of the saint who is given a mission by God, it takes the attitude of the swashbuckling adventurer who goes out to seek his fortune.
Instead of imagining yourself as the hero of a Hollywood movie, imagine yourself as a particularly hearty ancestor that you might brag about when drunk: the one who rode bareback, founded a town, fought a grizzly bear, raised 10 kids, saved her son’s life by drinking the governor under the table, and went to the frontier to stay one step ahead of the hangman and her gambling debtors.
This approach to the problem of meaning recognizes that, rather than trying to discern a mission, it is better to become a certain kind of person – a person who is capable of acting on and recognizing opportunities to make meaning when they are seen.
Opportunism and Power Laws
One advantage of the non-linear approach is that it does not demand that we devote every spare moment of our time to the fulfillment of some pre-ordained goal. It is more adaptive to the realities of power laws – of moments of high payoff or high risk - than of the day to day grind of accrual. If our lives are rich in opportunities for meaning, rather than defined by a singular narrative arc, we can act decisively at particularly important moments rather than imagining that every moment is equally meaningful. There are profound asymmetries and power laws at play in the pursuit of meaning – a split second decision might be the most important one you make; years of lounging around in cafes and on beaches might pay off more than years of hard work - if it results in one extremely good idea.
Trying to treat all of our time as equally meaningful and fungible because it can be devoted to The Cause leads to absurdities. Consider this example of someone debating whether or not he should tell someone their car trunk is open:
Time is not fungible – a given moment of opportunity, or a chance to respond appropriately to a crisis, might not occur again. Our creative powers do not flow smoothly and evenly like water from the tap to the drain, but chaotically like a babbling brook going from the mountains to the ocean – with different shoals, rapids, pools and speeds along the way. Believing that our efforts must flow from smooth, even and continuous effort rather than coming in uneven bursts leads to much unnecessary guilt and anxiety about “wasted” time.
The need to regulate our time into a continuous flow is the result of the agricultural and industrial revolutions. It is something we do to serve economies of scale in which we are interchangeable parts. But meaning, creative power and fortune arrive on their own schedules, and imagining that you can or should devote every waking moment to something is absurd.
When there is only one possible source of meaning in our life, we adapt ourselves for efficiency: our goal might be to be a bed-net maximizer, win souls for Jesus, or stop Skynet. We make ourselves machine-like. When the world is full of possibilities for meaning, we adapt ourselves for resiliency, flexibility and maneuverability. Resiliency, because we must survive long enough to take advantage of these latent sources of meaning, and flexibility and maneuverability in order to act quickly and appropriately when they come up. Instead of looking for a cause to devote your life to, you might try to become someone who is useful and level-headed in a crisis, who is well connected and makes friends easily, or who regularly has good ideas.
Interests and Projects
Giving up on a life’s purpose does not mean there are not areas which are more fruitful to pursue than others. When you are interested in something, this suggests a fertile area. If nothing else, interests represent low-hanging fruits of reward-to-effort payoff: when you are pursuing an interest, rather than an obligation, you are able to use the energy you would otherwise need to browbeat yourself into actually doing things. This is why it seems so easy to read about whatever your personal obsession is – astrology, kabbalah, entomology – rather than whatever the marketplace or superego tells you should be pursuing – tax law, Bible study, a programming language (these are examples only – many people have interests or disinterests in these subjects!) Like the God of the Old Testament, we will love whom we will love, and we will be fascinated by that which fascinates us.
If we have an interest there is a challenge to try and make it meaningful – with some things this will be easier than others, because a script has been given to us by our culture that tells us how to do so. More obscure interests represent more of a challenge – but also low hanging fruit. A quick glance at the internet will reveal artists who are using new media to create works of brilliance in unexpected places. There are Twitter threads made by anonymous writers which contain more insight than most published academic papers, and memes which capture the human condition better than most works found in art galleries. Your heroes became what they were by breaking genuinely new ground - doing things that those before them thought were unthinkable or impossible. To be like them you must surf the void at the frontiers of meaning – and discover meaning where no one else thought it would be, transforming harsh barrens into lush gardens.
The linear approach of finding a mission and dedicating one’s life to it – is typically best for those who have an overpowering, obsessive interest in something. If you are like this, chances are this article is not for you, and you are not grasping at meaning but rather hoping to read more about the Thing which so consumes your thoughts. If this is the case, your vocation has already chosen you.
Selfishness, Love, and Integrity
Because a number of loci of meaning – pro-social utility, love, and self transcendence – involve escapes from our localized self interest, we can feel guilt or a dearth of meaning when we act selfishly, when we fail to love as often or as deeply as we should, or when our interests do not lead down paths which generate surpluses and resources for others.
Sometimes it is, in fact, necessary to put others first – you may have to take time out from your career or hobby to care for a child or an ailing parent, or to help your community or nation deal with some crisis. You may realize that you are spending too much time in the workshop and not enough time with your children. But taken too far, this thinking can also produce crippled, resentful individuals who give back only a fraction of what they would have if they were flourishing. Your children need to be fed, clothed and educated, and they need your love and guidance – but they also need to see you happy and engaged with life.
Most of us have probably met some version of the pinched and crabby moralist – one who dedicated his or her life to some cause and did not get the spiritual payoff they thought they would, and are now bitter, resentful and controlling.
Instead of selflessness, you should strive for integrity – when you create, it should be things that you think are good – that honestly portray your inner and outer world as best you are able. When you are honestly pursuing your own values and vision – and not subordinating them – you are more likely to generate meaning than if you are navigating a maze of compromises with some ultimate goal in mind. Especially if these compromises are dictated to you by a nagging superego that torments you with an image of moral heroism which you can never live up to.
This requires a certain amount of faith – a willingness to trust your values and intuitions rather than the well-worn stories dictated to you by culture. Recognize that the heroes whose lives inspired you did what they did mostly by going out into the unknown and doing what others thought was impossible. This is not, incidentally, a guarantee that if you do so you will succeed – for the world we live in to be a meaningful one, there must be uncertainty and risk.
Meta-ethics and Meaning
This approach to meaning – becoming a certain kind of person who can act appropriately in response to opportunities for meaning making – lends itself well to a particular school of meta-ethics, which is virtue ethics. Deontology represents the ethics of duty: the floor beneath which we must not sink, if we are to co-operate with others to pursue the goods of survival and flourishing. Consequentialism is the ethics of power and emergency, when there are clearly defined stakes which must be traded off against one another. In its utilitarian version, it flounders, precisely because a definition of “the good” requires more legibility than is typically available: of both our own values and the results of our actions in a real-world environment.
But the non-linear approach to meaning is about becoming a certain kind of person, the person who will, when given a chance, act effectively to realize their values in this world, even if those values are not articulable except as a felt sense of meaning. It requires us to become developed along multiple axes of development: capable of risking it all in a dangerous, uncertain and beautiful world full of hazard and opportunity.