Searching for meaning?

It seems to me that the more we search for the meaning of our lives, the more it proves both necessary and yet elusive. The pain of this - if we ever let ourselves really feel it - can be unbearable. We hit our existential crisis.


In my last blog, I considered 2 paths to plotting our personal meaning: the path of value and the path of strength. As questions, we can form these as ‘Where’s the energy?’, ‘What is being sacrificed?’, ‘How can I stand in my power?’, ‘Where am I being confronted to stand in more of my power?’.


I’ve found such questions helpful, if nothing else to pry me from a sense of shame and guilt that has left me striving for a way of living that others have modelled and preached and decrying myself for not being better. But, they are searching questions, and the searching obscures the passivity inherent in finding our meaning: there is a gifted, received-ness to finding meaning as much as a searching and making; and there is a present as much as a somewhere-else-ness to how we experience it. So here are three final paths that help to counterbalance the activity of the previous blog.


1. The path of acknowledgement: ‘What do I already have?’


Perhaps meaning is right there next to us. Perhaps it is happening everywhere all around us.


Is this outrageous condescension for a person in the turmoil of meaninglessness? It was the interruption I needed.


I felt that the meaningful life (which I had a reasonably clear vision of) was something hard I had to work towards, something far off, something strenuous to achieve, if I ever would. But there was a lot of family history of not being able, or deeming sensible, to do what we really wanted. One challenge to this has been to notice the meaning I am already involved in and already is around me. These are usually to do with relationships. Or it’s been in recognising how my living has grown over the last ten years. Or acknowledging and validating how I got through difficult years.


‘What do I already have?” is an important thing that gets lost in the turmoil of seeking meaning. We can realise where we have detached from and discounted - either physically or emotionally - the wonderful things we already have: family, intimate relationships, friends, tasks that do make a difference.


2. The path of opportunity: 'What can I participate in?'


This path removes me from having to do some lonely task, uniquely mine to do, that will probably be hard to make happen: no wonder I’ve never done it so far! Instead, it invites me to join in with what is already happening and with others beyond me: the opportunities and possibilities that are already brimming up or flowing around me.


Now, this in itself is pretty hopeless unless you have a certain worldview. I used to think that opportunity was scarce and either self-made - which was difficult for someone riddled with shame and guilt - or given to the right person. So, I waited - quietly resentful - for the opportunity to come, secretly asking if I wasn't worth it, capable of it or being noticed. If such things are scarce, then it's pretty hopeful. This worldview, however, invites me to imagine opportunities flying past me all the time, I just have to catch them. The question is not so much, 'What should I do?' or, ‘How do get to doing this or that?’, but, ‘How do I make my net bigger?!’


Perhaps its fear, shame or guilt that keeps our nets down and closed. Perhaps its the values and injunctions (however subtle) of our family or culture. As we press into these, confront them, spread out our nets a little more, try new things - even just to try them and find out we will survive - we start to see more opportunities and possibilities, we start to make small decisions to be a bit more open to seeing where things might lead. Yes, there may be disappointments when we discover there are things we can’t participate in yet, or didn’t feel we participate well in, and these can hurt. And this is all part of opening ourselves up to the meaning right there next to us.


Of course, the counterpoint to this is that the opportunities flying past us may, in fact, be something completely new. A new way of doing life - at least for us and our family, if not for our culture. A new business adventure or product. A new way to make a difference in our world. As we get used to opening our nets to what we could participate in that is already happening, we may find that we sense something only imagined flowing, or trying to flow, something perhaps only we would be participating in at least to start with.


Does this all mean that it's our fault if we are feeling meaningless? No...and yes. No, our hope for meaning, our sense of being worth it and thus our openness is largely things inherited or learned when we were young. More, there are many ways our society and families take away opportunities from us - that may be available to others. We can't take responsibility for all of this! And yes to the extent that anything else means we are left powerless and without hope (except for some external or magical intervention) in our search for meaning. And I can't agree to that. You're too wonderful for that.


3. The path of time: ‘What time is it?’


Sometimes, the time is Now! We’ve put it off, denied it, avoided it, feared it for too long already. We can find ourselves in such desperation that there is no time to lose. Sometimes the time being now is life or death, like now is a fine tipping point between depression, self-destruction or something new. For your sake, and the sake of those who love you, choose life.


Sometimes, time is very linear. This is the domain of the active, meaning-seeking five-year plan. We start with the end - that imagined life we believe will be meaningful - and take ourselves back: what would I need to get there? What would I need to get that? What do I need to do when? And so, what is for me to do this year?


Sometimes, time is seasonal. This is the domain of passivity and receptivity: what season am I in now? For me, I’ve had to succumb - and it’s felt like succumbing! - to the time being a busy season full of young kids, chaos and exhaustion whilst acknowledging that a quieter season with more regularity and space will come. Or, a season to get a skill, acknowledging that a time will come when digging into more meaningful pursuits could happen. For others, it’s the season for intimacy or solitude; separating or joining; loss or new life; vigour and vitality or waning and death; striving for more or acceptance of what is.


And perhaps this is the key: acknowledging, succumbing to, appreciating and fiercely guarding the meaning of this season of our life. To be in the flow of time. To know, 'What is now calling me to?'

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