Meaning in the Mess
Life is messy. I’m messy. You’re messy. Our families are messy. Our workplaces are messy.
We all have our stuff. We all interact with others’ stuff. And each system has its stuff.
And all this stuff is messy. It makes our actions messy.
We experience this stuff as pressures, expectations, value-judgements, successes, belonging, failures, disappointments, disapproval. Some of it is still around, colouring the environment. Some of it isn’t, but we carry it around with us, and probably always will to some degree.
And so we avoid, we lash out, we shun, we freeze, we hide, we rage, we chase, we feel we need this or that, we’re nice, we’re secretly envious and resentful, we hurt one another and we are hurt.
And then there’s the promise of meaning. If you do this or that, are like this or that, have this or that, you won’t feel so empty. Your life might have meaning here. So we chase and eat a thousand types of doughnut to stuff the empty void within. The job. The success. The body. The partner. The house. The family. The idea of a happy life.
We spend our lives chasing meaning in a thousand messy ways, all of which promise a life of meaning beyond the mess we live in. Yet, meaning is already within us. Right here in the mess. In our very presence. In the people around us. In our own power.
There is a lie about what we should chase that makes meaning unreachable: the fallacy of happiness. It says there are good and bad emotions. And that we should self-amputate those emotions that are bad. But we naturally experience a whole range of emotions. And all of these emotions, when felt, are part of experiencing meaning. In fact, it’s often the depth or intensity of emotion that we experience, rather than the type, that makes it meaningful.
To get in touch with the range and depth of our emotion is to get in touch with the presence we already have. It’s to get in touch with the sense of, ‘This is me, I’m here, like this, in this messiness, and that’s OK’. When we run from emotions, we are running from ourselves and our presence in the world: ‘This isn’t me, I’m not like that, or at least I don’t want to be like that, I’m not OK.’ And so it’s like we disappear. We become ghosts in the world, running from our reality. And likewise, our life becomes empty.
The second lie about what we should chase that makes meaning unreachable (at least for most of us) is the fallacy of doughnuts. This is the teaching of capitalism and consumerism. Here, what is meaningful, what is of value, is what is successful in a capitalist system: going up the economic ladder and then having our own preferences met (for the house, the car, the technology, the neighbourhood, the extension, the client). But chasing the next doughnut, whilst giving sugary hits, never fills the void within.
What does give us meaning is connecting at a deeper level. It’s in relationships where we know, ‘This is us, we’re here, like this, in our messiness, and we’re OK.’ For some of us, our fundamental struggle is loneliness: not work-life balance, not stress, not tiredness. Loneliness. Getting in touch with this can be painful. But note the first point: it is in getting in touch with the depth of this grief, not running from it, that we start to fill that void of emptiness. And once we acknowledge this part of us, we can start to look at ways to reconnect with those around us, who are also craving connection more than another doughnut.
The final lie that makes meaning unreachable is the fallacy of meeting others’ needs. This too is a teaching of capitalist consumerism that rewards and recognises only how well we meet the preferences of customers. But making others happy, giving them what they want, is an empty goal; making a difference is what we crave.
The problem with making customers happy is that they are on the same doughnut-chasing treadmill that we are. In fact, the economic system has helped define (by advertising, etc.) that these doughnuts are worth chasing - the ones we can sell at a profit. A second problem with making customers happy is that the power is given to them. We are at the whims of others’ fleeting preferences. A final problem with making customer happy is that it distracts us from ourselves and our own power: what can I do, in this moment, to feel my presence, connect with others and so make a difference here.
We have been turned into powerless chasers of, at best, sugary hits, instead of powerful presences in the deeply connected world we inhabit, where we can touch others and make a difference in the messes we all live in. Here, the messiness of our lives - our emotions, our relationships, our powers - are the burning furnace of meaning, rather than the things I must get rid of, if I am to have my polished, consumerist, successful lifestyle. Here, meaning is always here, available, ready to be participated in when we are, rather than only to be found in the next field.