When we search for meaning in an uncaring universe, what is it we search for? Meaning isn’t an object that can be found, isn’t an inherent trait of anything, isn’t even a truth that can be discovered – meaning is a trait of categorization. Things begin to mean something when you arrange them in your thoughts, place them in relation to each other, and begin to understand some sort of structure that holds them together.
Meaning is story. Story is meaning.
Thus, when we set out to find meaning, this is an act of construction and creativity as much as it is an act of discovery. It is building a narrative that we can place the facts of existence into – but building that context is still an adventure, an exploration, a search. This is why authoritarians have little regard for the arts – to be creative is to discover and to devise meaning, and to make meaning is to refuse to accept the meaning that has been prescribed for you.
People say the universe has no meaning – as though it ought to. The medium is not, in this case, the message. The paper is not the story. The canvas is not the painting – even the paint is not the painting until it is perceived by the eye and understood by the mind. Meaning is the lemonade we make out of lemons. That is not to say that we need to shape the world in our image – though people are often very enthusiastic to interpret it that way – but just that, when we view wonders, what makes them wondrous is our wonderment. Diamonds are just rocks.
I suspect I have approached the search for meaning from the opposite side that most approach from. Most people, I think, spend much of their life looking only towards an immediate goal, experiencing each moment in relative isolation, and need to seek within later to find some way to bind those moments into a narrative they can be comfortable with. Myself, I always just assumed that the path to meaning and the life I wanted to live lay in art, in its creation and appreciation and understanding, and looked within – but, as I’ve gotten older, and started to gather bits and pieces of a wider understanding, I start to see how tethered our art is to the context in which it was made. There’s beauty in these ties, but they also makes the fields of our view terrifyingly small. So, while others have had experience with no context, and have needed to search inwards, I have had context with no experience, and had to seek outwards – it’s not as simple as all that, of course, but since we tend to most keenly feel our own shortcomings it does often seem to be just that stark, that black and white.
The search for meaning is not one that has a conclusion. What would lie at the ends of such a search? Understanding? The degree to which we know ourselves to have understanding is the degree to which we understand the world to be knowable, and this belief, like belief in Santa Claus, tends to erode over time. Understanding is not attainable except asymptotically, and the closer we get to it the farther away we perceive ourselves to be. Contentment? Contentment is something you can feel in a moment, but content is not something you can be for a lifetime. You’ll still have bad days. You’ll still have regrets. Change will still wash over you, tragedies will still happen, and the weight of tragedies yet to come will demand your attention. How could understanding and contentment possibly cohabitate?
In the end all you have is a story. The story of your life. And you can tell it to someone else, and they can listen, and it will become part of the story of their life. As long as we’re all talking, as long as we’re all listening, our words converge. Together they are our story, and there are no main characters.
Our story is not over.