What Is The Meaning of This?
It takes me 45 minutes to walk my elderly Shih-Tzu around the block. I often divide my time between looking for pygmy rattlers and looking at the sky, but sometimes I write blog posts in my head that never make it anywhere else. Alas. You don't know what you've missed.
Anyway, it's usually something that's on my mind for one reason or another. And it seems that this time, this one might just make it to the blog. We'll see.
I binge watched Mare of Easttown over a couple of nights last week. I'd started to watch the series when it debuted on HBO Max, but didn't make it through the first episode. It was just too depressing.
But it resonated too. Because I knew Easttown, a place like Easttown. And I'm sure many people know many places just like it.
I had a high school friend whose son committed suicide. He later died of a heart attack. Or a broken heart. I had another high school friend who had been a victim of childhood sexual abuse in his family. We never knew that until he disclosed it as an adult. Facing a second bout of cancer, he later shot himself in his mother's kitchen. My ex-wife's oldest daughter died of a heroin overdose, the night after leaving rehab. I have another high school friend whose wife developed early-onset Alzheimer's. He cares for her in their home, with help. She's alive, but no longer present.
There is trauma in my life. Perhaps not as severe, but I spent several years talking to a very kind woman about it.
The series is about trauma. It's a story about trauma.
Trauma shatters meaning.
What is "meaning"?
Meaning is how we orient ourselves in our place and time, in our relationships with others. It helps us, often, to choose action and direction. Most of the time, it's unconscious. We only think about it when events in our lives are incongruent with what we believe to be is the "meaning" of our lives.
That's a good time to see a therapist. But let's go on.
How do we know meaning, how do we learn it? We learn it through narrative, story-telling. Mare of Easttown is such a story. "The American Dream" is another such narrative. There are layers of narrative in our lives, attached to their different dimensions. The American Dream is an over-arching cultural narrative that frames much of what we believe it means to be an American. That we're free to pursue our dreams and aspirations, and by perseverance and hard work, overcoming adversity, we can achieve some reward. There's the narrative of American exceptionalism, that we're the good guys.
There are narratives attached to our jobs, some more weighty or profound than others. If you're flipping burgers, there's probably not a profound story to be found in the work, so the story becomes what you're working for, even if may just be subsistence. If you're a scientist seeking answers to questions, perhaps you locate more meaning in your work, the story you tell yourself is likely very different than the burger-flipper.
There are narratives attached to our families. Our histories, where we came from, what happened to us, how we relate to our ancestors and what we hope for our descendants.
There's the narrative you tell yourself about your own life. That inner voice, the "self-talk" that says things like, "It'll get better when..." Or, "You screwed that up again!" Or, "I hate my life."
Anyway, you get the idea I think.
The point is, all narratives are works of fiction. "Based on actual events," perhaps. But they are integral, and absolutely critical, to our sense of identity and well-being. We defend our narratives, unexamined though they may be, because what threatens them, threatens our sense of ourselves. Even when those narratives don't work in our best interest, and even when those narratives are manifestly untrue, and even when those narratives permit and promote the suffering of others.
Because narrative is how we create meaning. It is what separates us from the abyss.
If you spend much time thinking about it, you will eventually conclude that life is meaningless. That can be a pretty depressing thought. That's looking into the abyss. Nothingness. Mu. Which, perhaps ironically, is the ultimate ground of being, of existence.
Life is meaningless. It is in the act of living that we bring meaning to life! We make meaning, it has no other genesis.
So, when a city decides to change the names of a bunch of schools from those of Confederate generals, it's unsurprising there's a certain amount of resistance. Those schools are a part of many people's personal narratives. Many have very fond memories of those schools. (Many would like to forget school.) But unless as a student, someone had a profound reverence for the Confederacy and these generals in particular, I seriously doubt that the name of the school had much to do with their experience. The exception to that would be for Black students, where the name of the school may have diminished or adversely affected their experience. Because, after all, that was the intent of giving those names to those schools. And confronting that bit of the story is discomfiting, even if you were just a student and had nothing to do with giving those names to those schools. You'd rather leave that part of the story out.
We do that a lot, with things that challenge our personal narratives. I did it a lot. I often told myself that my life would get better when... Fill in some change in circumstances that would somehow change the story of my life.
What you eventually learn is that "it" never gets better until "you" get better. Changing the name of your old school doesn't make your school experience any different. It doesn't diminish whatever value those memories hold. Clinging to those names, in the face of the larger, truer narrative, does diminish you as a person; and as long as you cling to those names, you will feel resentment and a burden of justification that you will carry for the rest of your life. Not that you'll experience it every day, but one you'll experience every time something happens that reminds you of it. And it's a burden that will only grow until you put it down.
We feel the absence of meaning in our lives as a void that needs to be filled. We try to fill it with consumption, or the accumulation of wealth, or, failing that, power. None of those will fill the void, but the pursuit will continue. And that gnawing, aching emptiness will compel people to do horrible things. And we see that a great deal today too.
Does faith make meaning? No, but people can make meaning out of faith. Religion can be like consumption, or the pursuit of wealth or power. You can go to church all you want, participate in church life all you want, display all the external signs of piety and faith you want, it won't fill the void until you make meaning out of your faith.
Does government make meaning? No, individuals do. But government has a role, in helping set the conditions for people to discover and make meaning in their own lives. By setting rules, ensuring, as best it can, fairness and equity. When government fails in this role, citizens can make meaning in their own lives by trying to improve government.
One of the roles of leadership is to help make meaning. When facing a challenge that calls for shared sacrifice to obtain an important result, a good leader will place that sacrifice in the context of an important narrative and thereby give it meaning. Winston Churchill at the outset of WW II was a remarkable leader, who was able to keep England in the war, alone, as London suffered grievously during the Blitz. It would have been easy to capitulate to the Germans. Many wanted to. Churchill gave resistance meaning, made suffering and sacrifice meaningful. The great advantage that Churchill had, besides his gifts, was that his narrative was true!
We don't have such leaders today. We have far too many demagogues.
We make meaning. We are the authors of our own narratives. Our actions shape the meaning of our lives. We are not trapped in other people's narratives. As the stoics would say, you can't always control what happens to you, but you always control what you think about it. The story you tell yourself. (Late edit: There are those among us who suffer from mental illness that doesn't permit them to completely control their thoughts. Their challenges are greater.)
It's not easy. It is easy to lose your way. It's good to have help, which is where therapy or counseling comes in.
Anyway, this is the work of a lifetime. It is literally your life's work. It's all that's ever going to be in that little "-" between the date of your birth and the date of your death on whatever markers are left on this earth.
It's the most important thing you'll ever do.
Make your life meaningful.
I wish you well, and good luck in your efforts.
We're all in this together.