You hear this a lot. At least I hear this a lot from people. ”What’s the point? Life is just a desert. You’re born. You die. So what? What difference does it make? Life just doesn’t seem to have any meaning for me.” Some of us are obsessed with thoughts like this. And many of us have these thoughts simmering below the surface much of the time. Christmas can bring them out even more, when all our Christmas busy-ness can suddenly seem like just going thru the motions.
So let’s look at this idea, the meaning of life. Hang in there with me: in a couple of minutes you’re gonna feel much better!
Well, actually it’s the phrase “the meaning of life” that’s totally meaningless. Looking for a meaning in life is like looking for a bicycle repair shop at the bottom of the ocean. It ain’t gonna be there! There is no basis to the idea that if you crack the fortune cookie of life open you will find a meaning written inside. Or, to switch metaphors, life is like those Russian dolls within dolls within dolls. There is no ultimate inner doll that “explains” all the other dolls.
But if you can never find meaning in life, does that mean we’re all doomed to a life barren of hope and joy? No. Let’s look at what real people in the real world actually do. They find all kinds of things they care about, that matter to them: collecting figurines, rooting for the Red Sox, caring for their family, making money, helping others, having a dog. You name it! The things they care about give them a lot to look forward to, and give the past a luster. And they give people a powerful sense that life is worth living.
Is there a basis for this sense of caring for this or that? No. You can’t find an ultimate rationale for caring about X or Y. The heart has its reasons. And if you play the game of trying to find a reason for caring about what you care about, you’re doomed to find what you care about turn to ashes and blow away.
Because here’s the thing: the things of this world don’t, and can’t, give us a sense of caring and meaning. Life itself doesn’t, and can’t, give that to us. It is we who do it. We invest some inert sliver of the world with meaning and boom! it comes to life and so do we. There’s nothing deader than a dusty unwanted trumpet abandoned in some attic. But if for some crazy reason you decide you want to learn to play the trumpet, or even if you want this for no reason at all because there can never actually be an ultimate reason beyond your leap into caring, then that trumpet comes to life and so do you. Even if you go through a time in your life when your weekly trumpet lesson is all you have to look forward to, that can be quite enough to extend a string of light through the tunnel of your existence. And that’s just the beginning.
So if meaning is something we give to life and to one or two of the things in life, what does it mean if you don’t have that?
It doesn’t, believe me!, mean that life is barren and empty. It means something much more boring but also much easier to deal with. It’s a sign of depression. If someone cares about the things of this life and is suddenly hit by depression, their sense of caring evaporates. In fact, “decreased interest or pleasure in most activities, most of each day” is one of the most common diagnostic markers for depression. So is suicidality, which is strongly related to the sense that life is pointless. Some people have has this sense of depression for as long as they can remember.
But it’s good news that a sense of meaninglessness is really depression. That’s good news because depression is one of the most treatable of psychiatric disorders. Even people who’ve been somewhat depressed for most of their lives are only 2 to 6 weeks away from feeling better.
Life and the world have all the possibility for joy and meaning that you could possibly want. And you, my friend, can be easily fixed. Help is just a phone call away. Make that call.