The Art of Being Alive Series: The Problem with Meaning (NOT!)

The subject of meaningfulness is one that keeps getting me excited to explore. I think the issue of meaning is that it is the backbone for life and it cannot not be discussed. Who has ever gone through a situtaion and asked themselves WHY? Practically everyone, I would guess; mostly the WHY's we ask of ourselves in a dire situation is usually correlated to the WHY of why are we even on this earth. Somehow we are here and we have life with experiences, experiences that shapes us right from our childhood. From when we can differentiate between our right hand and our left hand, I am sure is when we started getting the acumen to distinguish right from wrong or good from bad, building up our moral standards. When talking about meaningfulness, it all attests to our WHY of why we are here, and sometimes the WHY could evolve from something we discover we are passionate about, or it could evolve out of neccessity such as being frustrated and infuriated with what we see troubling us in the society like related to Justice issues (#blacklivesmatter) for instance; or or WHY's could evolve from something as simple but vital as seeing meaning of lives being rooted in our significant relationships with spouse or our children or parents; or seeing meaning in our lives being rooted in work we love, or just in appreciation for nature... but I ask, Is that a problem with meaning or should meaningfulness be based on something other than our fleeting emotions?

Recently, While waiting on my at the Dallas airport to San Francisco to attend the Under30changemakers Summit where I was invited to speak; at the airport I got into an interesting conversation with a New York city stock broker, somehow we ended up discussing about the subject of meaning which led him to direct me to check out David Brooks whom I was not familiar with until then.

David Brooks is a columnist with the NewYork Times who had written a quite controversial piece earlier this year titled "The problem with Meaning"; In this piece he referred to meaningfulness as built solely based on emotion and therefore he says it is contentless and irreducible suggesting we all get meaning in our own respective ways and who is to judge another's emotion, he says. Also in his piece, he says its based on only sentiments and it is useless because there is no criteria for what kind of meaningfulness is higher... practically, he watered down the significance of meaning with his point that it held no intellectual value especially when compared to the moral structures of great people of history like Nelson Mandela, or Abraham Lincoln as he quoted that "it wasn't because they wanted to bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness but they had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice and where indignant when those standards where violated.."

He also goes on to say that "Meaningfulness tries to replace moral systems with the emotional corona that surrounds acts of charity."

I think his piece does deserve to be read; I personally find his piece rather enlightening but in somewhat a subtle saddened way as well because he provides a problem with meaning just as his title proposed and indeed that is part of the problem with meaning. This piece I write is not to bash David Brook's opinion but to re-open the space in our minds for a conversation around the subject of meaningfulness. While Moral systems and intellectual, factual standards are required to be more substantial than fleeting emotions and basing our entire lives on questions like the one I have been asking, "What makes you feel alive?"; I think that both ideals cannot be easily dismissed as David Brooks attempted to undermine the essence of meaningfulness.

Perhaps, it might be due to generational differences since you are of course hearing from the voice of a millennial, I believe that morals are needed tools especially for any form of social change but my point is suggesting that meaningfulness tries to replace moral structures, standards and discipline with self regarding emotion because it cannot be quantified, or there is nothing to judge against is rather very paltry.

The major point I want to live in your mind while we evaluate this problem with meaning is that of course living a meaningful life should definitely carry a moral responsibility upon our shoulders as we should all try to do right not just when we feel good about it but at every-time it is called for; and while we should uplift this moral responsibility we owe it to ourselves to not compare our level of meaningfulness with another man's life as we are all living our own unique lives and we all can find in our lives what gives our lives meaning... Yes the great men of History like Nelson Mandela, all didn't seek out to" bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness" as David puts it, but I believe we all have a mandate and purpose on our lives and feeling less than because you're not out there saving the world doesn't make and should not render your life as meaningless. Sometimes the only question that needs to keep us going may not be able to stand against the big structures or standards and disciplines that exist on the grande platform, and could be just seeking an answer to the question of "What makes me feel alive?", or "What lights me up?" or "What inspires me?"; these questions can sound emotionally based but it doesn't erase the need for intellectual rigor where balance needs to be established between one pushing for a meaningful life based on emotion versus pushing for a meaningful life based on rationality and practicality. And I have found that answers people give related to these emotion based question is what they say gives their lives a sense of meaning, such as their children or their significant relations, such as doing work they find fulfillment in or doing things they love doing but the most popular answer I have heard that gives people meaning is when they SHARE themselves for the GREATERGOOD. When they do something beyond themselves for others, when they give and commit themselves to something that they deem matters. Meaning in life stems from the little things to the big things and it is our responsibility to discover what that is for each of us.

I am happy that someone as prolific as David Brooks took time to write about such a reflective subject because truth is more conversations that highlights moral issues and allows for deep critical thinking about our big WHYs can help effect a change especially for this new wave of generation coming in and because staying silent feels like death, I speak to prove I'm alive.

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