I was talking with a friend today. She felt a bit overwhelmed: so much going on, so much to do, and so hard to see the significance in it all. It was a variation on that age-old anxiety: what is the meaning of life? A big question, to be sure. One that contemporary thinkers shy away from. But one that sparked some thoughts for me today, thoughts shaped by my generally Taoist sensibilities.
Basically, I think it is the wrong question. When we ask what is the meaning of life, we run the risk of looking for something we will never really find. The question points to a certain totality of life, one's whole life, the big, big picture. How does it all add up, how does it all sum up to some sort of grand meaning? Perhaps there will be some marvelous "ah ha!" realization at the moment of death, but I am not banking on it.
The question assumes a singularity to an individual's life, and this is not my experience. Life changes from one time to the next, maybe even one moment to the next. What might have counted as important and significant when I was 18, is not what I would find compelling now that I am 51. For me, life before Aidan and after Aidan are distinctly different experiences. He fundamentally altered my understanding of meaning. And I imagine the same is true, in different ways, for everyone.
A better question might be: what is the meaning in life? This framing of the issue might turn us toward the immediate and specific circumstances we find ourselves in at the moment. It might also turn us away from the search for a transcendent source of meaning somewhere outside of our lives, and focus our attention on the ways we can create meaning in our lives right here and now. What is the best I can do with this particular person with me now? What is the beauty that might surround me here? What extraordinary and uncontrollable things are swirling around me as I write these words? That is where we can make meaning, not in totalities but in moments, not of but in....