The Highways of Meaning

At its zenith, the sun beat down on their darkened necks. Beads of sweat ran over cracked angry skin, in a sort of futile attempt to parch that which was already desiccated. The heat was overbearing, the air still with tiny particles of dust floating slowly, upward and sideways. Never settling, but never moving either. Each step they took, pushed more and more upwards.

What did their lands mean, what does it mean to till, to grow, to harvest and feed? What does it mean to march forward even when there is no hope in sight? Does the present occupy the mind so much so that it blinds men to any hope? Are the vagaries of life, only applicable if they are experienced physically and emotionally?

I cut back to the present, tearing myself away from the vision of a bleak, drought-ridden alternate reality in my mind. The imagery is still vivid, clearly formed out of the unanswered questions floating around in my head. It is impressive, the kinds of worlds your imagination can conjure subconsciously. But unanswered questions can be dangerous, and it is important for us explore them before they manifest into the physical world. I have been struggling with questions surrounding meaning, direction, responsibility and existence. “Aren’t we all?” I can hear you thinking. Bear with me.

In this new world, where the physical comforts are not only met, but also surpassed, what does it mean to have ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’? The adage: ‘the wolf at the bottom of the hill is hungrier than the wolf at the top of the hill’, is telling. But no one ever speaks about what happens to the wolf when it reaches the top of the hill, what happens to its children, born at the top of a hill that provides abundantly? Are these pups, unaware of the struggle of their parents, left to figure out their own meaning? Left to the whims of nature, where, save for the exceptional few, they perish to the hungrier wolf born at the bottom of the hill? At the risk of extending an already stretched metaphor, how do these ‘second-generation’ wolves find their own meaning? Let me be clear, the question is pertinent not just for certain class of society, but also across cultures and borders. Globalization has and will continue to bring material wealth and stability to more and more people, relieving them of worries and desires that are directed towards what we deem necessities.

I found solace in the late Dr. Frankl’s memoir — Man’s search for Meaning. The core tenet being that it is responsibility that sows the seeds of meaning in one’s life. That searching for meaning alone, without responsibility, is futile, akin to looking for the best route to travel to an as yet undecided destination.

And here’s where most self-help articles/books paint the picture inaccurately. It is far more difficult to voluntarily select and stick with a responsibility outside of those that have been foisted upon you involuntarily by society and family. For the great majority, it is these forced responsibilities that fuel their sense of meaning in the world. The responsibility of caring for a child gives the parent, meaning in going to work. The responsibility of paying the bills, buying the clothes you want, or planning for that vacation to Iceland provides you with the meaning needed to be an effective IT consultant. One could say that meaning is merely a by-product of responsibility.

Anyone reading this might call me out here — saying it’s not that easy. It’s not as simple as constantly reminding ourselves that we have obligations. We always have questions, we’re frequently unhappy because of these questions. It is estimated almost 4% of the global population can be diagnosed with clinical depression* — that’s almost 300 million people. The data is a little conditional here and doesn’t really reflect the true rate of depression. What’s important to note is that depressive episodes are normal for almost everyone, a sudden sense of realizing that all human constructs cease to exist after your death. Or if you’re religious — realizing that you will always live in fear, in repentance of sin (Religion helps with these periods of existential dread because religions provide us with general guidelines on how to live — removing the need and the accompanying dread to question life). Or perhaps it’s one of those Monday mornings and you realize that everything you’ve worked for, in the larger scheme of things is futile. Whoever you are, whatever you do, you are prone to these manic micro-episodes. It is a very human thing to do.

I’ve arrived a little late to the party, but over the past few weeks, I have come to realise that it is of great importance, for us to shut our mind. For us to quieten that voice that is instinctive. The voice that reacts, that is on alert, that is ever searching, that is questioning in the present, that occupies our thoughts in the now, that pulls us ever closer to misery with every unanswered question. Indeed, the desire for knowledge, for answers, is this voice and maybe, the reason all children are born inquisitive, with a penchant for imagination. Most people find ways to cope with these situations distracting and convincing themselves over and over again, that their work IS important, taking a quick smoke break, grabbing a drink, anything to re-direct their focus.

But what does it mean — to shut that part of the mind? The mind that remains, does what exactly? Does it act without question? Does it create? Is it pulled by some unidentified desire hidden behind the veils of the subconscious? Is it even possible to fully shut that part of the mind?

I believe that the answer to these questions lies in the selection of a responsibility. The selection of a responsibility or responsibilities allows us to focus all our attentions towards only those responsibilities, shutting out the unanswerable questions that sprout in the wayward alleyways of our mind’s convoluted streets. The direction of that focus is what we call meaning, and I suppose that on the highway of meaning you are always bound to come across exits. Some exits lead to a forest of unanswerable questions while others lead to other, brightly lit highways of meaning.

I have yet to explore the process behind the selection of a preferred responsibility. Why are some responsibilities more appealing, some a basic need, and others, the price to pay for culture? I will try and explore these ideas and themes in my next article.

I hope you liked what I’ve written here and would love to get your feedback!