42, 22 or a sense of meaning

42, 22 or a sense of meaning

A good friend once told me that I am like the type that comes to nothing because they keep wondering what would be the best way and never get started. “Fortunately”, he said, “at some point you always just start somewhere, and that gets the job done”. Well, maybe not the job, but some job.

This text works very much the same way. My mind is a whirlpool with questions about the meaning of life; whether or not God has a plan; whether or not it is helpful for us to have a definite opinion on these things. On the one hand, I don’t like how frantic people can become once they have ‘seen’ the purpose. Would it be wrong to live life somewhat arbitrarily without a sense of plan or duty? If only evil didn’t exist! The existence of evil leads us to the obligation to fight it.  On the other hand, most people seem happier if they have a sense of purpose, or is that an illusion? We might just be unhappy because we don’t know how to be free. What would a truly free life look like? For quite a while I wanted to write about this, but never knew how, so I’ll just start and see where I end up. 

As you see I have a lot of questions related to the meaning, or the goal, of life. Why bother at all? Well, that’s another good question. One reason is that I grew up in a church where God’s plan was said to be known in great detail, and that gave me a sense of stability and direction that I have now lost, and it seems I cannot recover it, nor even want to. But I need to find some clarity on what I miss now, and if some other thought can replace that feeling of loss.

Several books have shaped my thoughts on these questions.

First, The Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy, this marvellously funny book, which features the very large computer named ‘Deep Thought’ that computed the answer to the Ultimate Question to Life, the Universe, and Everything to be 42. People then began to wonder what the question was (a really good thing to do!), but the computer crashed at that. All the silly humour in the book helps me to wonder about the meaning of ‘meaning’. Surely it is not something that can be calculated, or captured in dogma’s. It’s as mysterious as life itself.

Second, there is Catch-22. Another crazy book that has an amazing depth to it.  It’s the story about a bombardier, in Italy during World War II. When I wrote my review on goodreads, I noticed another reviewer who said this book helped him out of his depression, because he finally saw that his inability to see the meaning of life was no flaw in his mind, quite to the contrary: he was correct in seeing that the world really is insane! Catch-22 can give the comfort that at least we’re not alone in our perplexity.  The main character is a bit of a rebellious type who sees that the world makes no sense, and acts accordingly. But I remember most fondly the chaplain, who kept trying to do what was right, even if it was doomed to failure. It’s hard to describe him, he was really a bit of an anti-hero, yet there seemed to be some inherent hope in him, almost despite himself. And although we can’t all be like that, it’s a blessing that such people exist.

Third, there is the book by Victor Frankl, Man’s search for meaning, with some impressive stories about how some people coped with surviving Auschwitz. Victor Frankl says that having a sense of meaning is what got these people through, and that meaning will also help people today. I can see that, but I felt that he did not answer the question how we find that meaning. It’s like telling a thirsty person to drink water without telling where it is. We cannot make meaning, can we? I tried, but I’m quite sure we can’t. This is another paradox of life: the moment we make meaning, it stops being meaningful and becomes a chore. But I suppose we can find meaning by being open to it. Not strenuously willing it to be, just expecting it to be naturally there. This is a leap of faith I am willing to make.

Mystery, hope and expectation: these words sum up how I view meaning, and give direction in my life. They mean that I am willing to believe without understanding, hope despite appearances and expect to be surprised. Meaning seems just as mysterious to me as love or life: we enjoy it if we are open to it.