The Unsexiness of Meaning

“Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

-The First Book of Kings

What are you doing here? By here, I mean wherever it is you are in your life–your occupation, preoccupations, anxieties, goals, desires, fears, the people surrounding you, perhaps your geographic location as well, but most importantly your values. This is what God was asking Elijah in the cave–not so much “why are you in this cave?” but “what is it that you value, fear, and believe that led you to this place?” and “why exactly did you expect to find me in the earthquake and the fire?”

We ought to ask ourselves these questions more frequently than we do, but we must do a bit more work and peel back the layers of our assumptions and make these questions ever more probing–even more painful. If our self-questioning does not result in at least a little bit of pain, we are not asking the right questions in the right way. As a student of economics, I have learned that one of the most important concepts to understand is opportunity cost. In everything that we do, every decision we make, what it is that we choose is at the expense of something else, frequently a plethora of alternatives. No decision comes without the cost of foregoing alternatives. This is so basic to our existence that we rarely even bother to think about it in detail.

If I wake at 7am, I am foregoing the hour of added productivity of waking at 6am and the hour of added sleep of waking at 8am. If I decide to spend Saturday gardening, then I won’t spend Saturday reading or practicing chess. Being in a committed relationship is mutually exclusive to dating and to being in a committed relationship with any other person. Living in South America means I am not living in Beijing or Prague or Alaska. The reason I discuss these seemingly obvious realities is that they make a significant difference in who we are and who we are becoming.

Each decision we make, each alternative we forego, pushes us in a new direction. Rarely do our decisions push us in a fundamentally different direction–the changes are often more subtle. Few people muster the courage to forego familiar alternatives in favor of a new path altogether. This is why it is of paramount importance to continually ask ourselves “why am I here?” Especially if “here” is not where we want to be (hint: “here” should never be where we want to be if we are intentional in our spiritual growth, but be careful not to conflate “here” with place alone).

Most of us want meaning in our lives. We want to do meaningful work. We want to have meaningful experiences. Much of what we do is in search of such fulfillment. Having interacted with people from around the world, from different cultures and languages and backgrounds, I have concluded that the vast majority of people live in want of this fulfillment. In no segment is this more true than in Generation Y, who have become nomads in search of meaning, wandering the globe (usually figuratively, but quite often literally) looking for that series of experiences and people that will deliver novelty and fulfillment. What I see under the surface of this way of living, however, is a deep yearning for something-they-know-not-what. The only thing my generation seems to know for sure is that the place they are is not the place they are going to find whatever it is. Expecting to find it in the earthquake, they cannot hear the still small voice above the din of the iOS device buzzing to alert them of an update on Facebook or Twitter that needs their immediate attention.

Indeed, so many people travel to far off places only to see them through the filter of the screen on their iPhone, taking pictures and uploading them to Instagram to show everybody else just how meaningful and exciting their life is. A generation or two ago, the conventional wisdom was that meaning was found in settling down (usually near one’s hometown), getting married relatively young, having a family, and hopefully living well enough into old age to enjoy grandchildren and retirement. For many people that may indeed define a meaningful existence, but if demographic trends in Gen Y are any indication, it is no longer the majority.

We are a generation of spiritual nomads too afraid of attachments, commitments, and putting down roots to experience any one thing long enough for it to become routine and boring. In doing so, we fail to experience any one thing long enough for it to actually become meaningful. We fear doing anything that will define our lives because we consciously or subconsciously believe that the moment we do so, we lose control of who we are. Like Buridan’s Ass we are starving due to our failure to make a choice. Why put our spirit into something–work, a relationship, building community–when something better might be just around the corner? I submit that this ethos is killing us.

In our era of abundance (the financial crisis and high unemployment notwithstanding, it is still better to be poor in 2012 than to have been rich at any time prior to the advent of modern medicine), the greatest pain we experience in the West is not hunger or fear of physical violence, but boredom, anxiety, and the apparent absurdity of life. We do not have institutions equipped to deal with these pains. The Church has abdicated its role by driving itself into obscure irrelevance, either through its failure to admit its error on the part of the conservative movement or through its abandonment of all foundations on the part of theological liberals.

With the evisceration of civil society in the past 30 years, there are no other institutions left to fill the gap either. Hyperconsumerism has left us living isolated, atomized lives that have pulverized our souls into fragments. These phenomena are compounded when we seek fulfillment in the glamorous, the fashionable, and the popular. What we need most to counteract this trend is to be willing take the risk to make commitments, and then to keep them. Commitments undoubtedly limit our possibilities by number, but they increase them in quality.

By making and keeping commitments we are able to relish the joy and work through the pain involved in the effort required to do so. Then, just then, we might be open to real meaning. We might be still enough to hear it, and lacking the distractions of post-modernity, to grasp it.


  • Amit Sonawane

    Very nice post. I can relate to it a lot.