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  • Writer's pictureAlberto Rodriguez-Garcia

Meanderings on Meaning

Updated: Mar 20





Introduction - on Meaning


“What is it for? What does it lead to? Why? What then? What for? But what does it matter to me? What of it? Why go on making any effort? How to go on living? What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life? Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything? Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy? What am I, with my desires? Why do I live? What must I do? What is the meaning of my life? Why do I exist?” 

-Leo Tolstoy, Confession


Before I begin, let’s address the elephant-sized elephant in the room: choosing “meaning” as a topic to write about is borderline sadomasochistic, not only because “meaning” is vague enough to encompass almost all of life’s existential questions but also because it seems to have been discussed for as long as people could discuss things. Some of the greatest human thinkers have spilled oceans of ink attempting (for the most part unsuccessfully, I’d say, given the state of it all) to feel and understand and explain the structure, application, and creation of “meaning”, to clarify what makes a life meaningful. I have neither the desire nor the capacity to solve the Great Problem of Meaning™. We still seem far away from a consensus on what constitutes a meaningful life, but this is my attempt to clarify ideas and feelings related to how meaning seems to develop in my own life and the lives of others. 


The Great Problem of Meaning™ - the nagging, pernicious, awkward feeling most of us seem to acquire over the course of our personal existence, the lonely placelessness of being an exceedingly finite flash of life upon the grossly rich tapestry of time, the desperate search for answers to unsolvable mysteries that post- and pre-date us - though it seems at the moment to be unsolvable, is a puzzle that is frustratingly interesting. Though frustration is likely when dealing with the most basic existential questions of life, the goal of contemplation is not to solve the puzzle, but is rather an attempt at reconciling the contradictions and confusions of the mind, hopefully aligning the life one is contemplating to the actual acts involved in living. 


The weight of cosmic significance that can be borne by a single set of shoulders has its limit. I know that, from an experiential point of view, I am the literal center of my own universe, and that I create my own reality.  But that also implies that, as the center, I must be of some importance. There is a pressure that attaches itself to this presumption of importance: an expectation that, if I do matter, I must make my life really count. To not make the most of a cosmically significant life is to impudently and selfishly waste a precious gift. Thankfully, cosmic significance is an illusion. In many ways it is a useful one, as it mercifully helps me maintain a healthy desire to live. It can quickly become clear after some reflection that life is objectively (insofar as any  “subjective character of experience” can truly be objective) meaningless. To believe that my life has any bearing on the head-numbing grandiosity of the un/known universe is grossly arrogant, naive, and, frankly, stupid. Questions of origin, purpose, direction, and truth start to crumble under the blanket of meaninglessness and the remnants are hardly enough to rebuild into something stable. 


If objective meaning is an illusion, however, subjective meaning is vivid and real. Though I am not bestowed with cosmic significance, I have been given the opportunity to create meaning out of the meaninglessness; meaning is not something that I inherit as part of being alive, but something that must be created with intent, conscious effort, and persistence. This is the insidious nature of the Problem: it must first be recognized as an opportunity for self-determinism instead of a riddle to be solved. The riddle of meaning is a self imposed one, and one that is likely unanswerable beyond the level of the individual. 


To begin to clarify things, it feels important to define what I mean by “meaning”. In the most simple terms, something feels meaningful, or has meaning, if it facilitates the act of connecting to something outside of myself. Now “facilitates,” “act,” “connecting,” “something,” “outside,” and “myself” can all mean quite a few different things, and the combination of all of these words can be even more frustratingly vague than the individual components. The specifics of “something” will likely vary greatly from person to person, but ultimately the most meaningful things seem to be those that make me feel whole, part of something greater than I, united in some intangible way to anything besides my own selfish desires, whims, and illusions. To clarify: I am not suggesting that this cosmic opportunity present in life should be approached by engaging in blind escapism and that running away from the internal world of my own mind is a salve against meaninglessness. The opportunity instead allows me to acknowledge, understand, and feel that I am the experience as it unfolds, not a thing doing the experiencing. In this way, meaningfulness extends one outward towards the not-self, but at the same time can help one develop a useful version of self-consciousness. 


But then again, is a definition for something so basically human and deep-rooted even worthwhile? Does this just cause more confusion? Does having a definition for something make it more real or more abstract (and less real)?  Perhaps it is not so important to define a thing than it is to feel it; what may be more important than a definition is the approach or mindset that one has (i.e. two people doing the same thing will experience different levels of meaning - why?) Is it that “connection” is enabled more by your outlook than by a given activity? Even if that were so, there are certain experiences that most will agree feel more or less meaningful than other experiences. How do we make sense of this? As you can tell, I am still deeply confused. 


With all of this in mind, the following words will explore some of the ways that we have come to create meaning and how meaning interacts with various types of human experience. It is, unfortunately for me and you, not a guide to “finding the meaning of life” (as if that were even possible), but will hopefully help you think about the ways in which you can create a more meaningful life for yourself. 



The Meaninglessness of the Modern World


“The human heart as modern civilisation has made it is more prone to hatred than to friendship. And it is prone to hatred because it is dissatisfied, because it feels deeply, perhaps even unconsciously, that it has somehow missed the meaning of life, that perhaps others, but not we ourselves, have secured the good things which nature offers man’s enjoyment. “

- Bertrand Russell 


One reason why meaning is particularly interesting today is that we, collectively and individually, seem to be lacking in it. Though the basic question of “what makes a life meaningful?” is not unique to modern times, the bulldozer of history has created an environment where meaning is low on the priority list. Instead, as a culture we have tacitly agreed that the priority list now includes (not in order and not a complete list): comfort, distraction, consumption, and freedom. These forces are not ones that individual people necessarily crave, need, or ask for, but rather are overarching tendencies that we have come to depend on. In many ways these forces are a natural progression in cultural evolution: from cave dwellers to couch surfers, from a life-preserving engagement and attention of the present to an idle passing of moments, from scavenging/hunting to abundance, from destiny to choice. Let’s take a look at these states of being and unravel their capacity (or lack thereof) for creating meaning. 


Comfort is something that most of us crave. We are, as they say, creatures of comfort, and it’s easy to see why. When basic necessities - namely shelter, food, and water - are met with comparatively low effort, the focus of our time can shift to maximizing other areas of our lives. Naturally, a good place to start might be physical or emotional comfort, as how comfortable you are at any given moment can dictate a not insignificant amount of the quality of your experiences. To a degree, this is understandably a good use of energy. A cozy chair to read on, a set of nice speakers to play relaxing music from, a fridge with fresh ice and filtered water. All of these things are pleasant (to me) and would, if I had any of them, make me more comfortable in my own home. 


The relationship between comfort and meaning is complicated. On one hand, the feeling of comfort can include an outward feeling of gratitude for the comforts being enjoyed and can make one embrace tangential experiences (reading, listening to music, drinking cold water) with more openness. On the other hand, comfort taken to a gratuitous extreme becomes an automatic presumption and creates a numbness to the comfort. Like pleasure and other similarly positive emotional-physical sensations, attempting to experience comfort at all times is liable to make it utterly meaningless, boring, and mundane. The human mind’s flexibility is one of its greatest strengths, but it also means that we are proficiently adaptable and will establish new baselines to deal with our emotional reality. The height of the baseline on an axis is still a baseline: an expectation, a need, ground level, foundational. Pursuing comfort is a good way to become unsatisfied with how comfortable you are, as the baseline continually shifts upward. 


In his book, The Sweet Spot, Plaul Bloom makes the case that the exact opposite of comfort (chosen suffering) is a reliable way to experience meaning. This makes sense when you  consider strenuous physical hobbies or creating art (not that all art requires suffering, though writing this essay certainly had its fair share). “The most foundational and basic advice for story construction is to present a formidable obstacle,” he says, indicating that a life of ease, of comfort, of no obstacles is not only uninteresting but also deadening. When you consider your own life and the narrative you construct to define it, you likely will find that the difficulties that you had to overcome are among the most meaningful parts of it. The filler in the story may tend to be the moments of comfort, the moments of passivity.  To be clear, there is a balance that should be struck between comfort and chosen suffering, and it is not my intention to disavow comfort outright, only to warn against its almost religious devotion in the modern world. 


Another one of the modern Gods, distraction, is our naive attempt at some kind of emotional comfort. As most of us know, there are a seemingly endless amount of ways for a human being to experience the almost universally avoided emotions: sadness, boredom, anxiety, apathy, depression, pain, strife, worry, fear, etc. Our desire for emotional comfort, for the absence of psychological distress, is once again only natural. The means by which humans have preoccupied and assuaged themselves during times of boredom and suffering, and the tools used for these means, have developed into astoundingly powerful forces. Though our technology may prevent low level suffering in many people and provide the emotional comfort we crave by drowning us in distraction, it has well-hidden human costs. The main collateral damage is the degradation of our collective attention. 


The problem of distraction is tied to the tools we use to achieve this state of comfort and to the proliferation of their presence in the modern environment. This has created a noise louder than almost any other. In an environment where almost all of the content and knowledge generated by humans of every documented civilization is available with a few flourishes of the fingers (including the daily addition of content: 720,000 hours of video content uploaded to Youtube, 1,300,000,000  images posted to instagram, 500,000,000 tweets that are tweeted, to name just a few), it’s only natural that we should be so devastatingly distracted. If that were not enough, we have inextricably tied the economic health of our society to the incessant consumption of content, promoting and incentivizing distraction to the point where an individual is almost overwhelmed into a state of passivity. Deciding what to pay attention to is now a task of herculean proportions. An unfortunate side effect of this reality, as well as the human tendency towards laziness, is that we are easily overpowered and manipulated to use our attention in ways that are, mostly, not useful. How is one to know where to direct attention when it is being assaulted by forces more powerful than any single individual?


Attention and meaning are intertwined in important ways. In order to be open enough during an experience to “connect to something outside of yourself”, you must be 1) conscious of the experience you are having, 2) able to focus on the unfolding of the experience, and 3) relate the experience to more than just the singular moment one is experiencing. This is not easy to do, especially when your attention is polluted by environmental and cultural factors that train, expect, and demand you do the opposite. The quality and depth of your attention is not inherent and undeniable; habits of attention are difficult to change as they are ingrained in you by subconscious neurological processes and by the environment that you interact with on a daily basis. In a state of attentional dysfunction even the most beautiful, powerful, and meaningful of experiences can feel empty. What is most frightening - besides the realization that this attentional dysfunction now seems to affect more and more people, including children - is that those deeply afflicted by the human-created disease of distraction are so distracted as to be unaware of their own distraction, sedated into a state of Huxleian consumption (I am not claiming to be free of this illness, by the way). 


It’s in vogue to bash on consumption, and I will gladly pile on. Consumption is not inherently negative, and is in fact necessary to some degree or other in order to live. The danger with consumption is not so much at the individual level (and I am not here to cast judgements on your consumption habits, Dear Reader), but instead is most salient when looked at through the lens of culture. Of course, a culture is a collection of individuals, all of whom participate in, endorse, and create said culture, bolstered by the institutions, politics, and history of its people. To consume, whether that be in the form of physical goods or in the form of media, is now incessant, unavoidable, glorified, and heavily incentivized. The economic incentives are clear: more consumption leads to higher economic activity, more production of goods, and (supposedly) the creating and spreading of wealth. This is what almost all modern economies presume, and so consumption has become an unassailable positive. 


A casual stroll along an average downtown is to be accosted on all sides by the pull of consumption: pleasantly branded coffee shops beckoning you inside, stores of all kinds displaying their goods (the majority of which are mostly unnecessary to the average person) to semi-curious window shoppers, restaurants looking to lure diners away from the many other eating establishments and into their own, convenience stores with blindingly bright, neon “OPEN” signs at all hours. One might retort: “that’s just the economy, how else are we to live?” The fact that to live one must consume is no secret, but when almost all parts of our culture are centered around consumption, it becomes a state of being more than a choice. You are expected to consume, not even out of a need but more as a civic and cultural duty.  


An electronic stroll along an average avenue of the internet is liable to feel similar. As is mostly well understood now, the design of most of the tools embedded in the internet as we know it today have as their number one priority to keep you consuming via their particular tool, and to use your attention as a means of economic exchange. Media consumption is particularly incentivized to hold your attention for as long as possible (i.e. to distract you), as the amount of time you spend in consumption mode is correlated with the amount of money that can be made off of you through advertising and the selling of data. Though this isn’t the case across the entirety of the internet, most publicly shared electronic spaces tend to leverage this operating model. 


To meander back to meaning, consider how it feels to consume versus how it feels to create; to consume is a process of (usually) passive deconstruction and to create is an active process of, well, creation. Spend 4 hours binging a show on your preferred streaming service (how many are there now?) and spend 4 hours creating even the most rudimentary piece of art (as most photographic trips tend to go for me) and you will immediately notice how consumption is usually less meaningful than creation, though of course even a 4 hour binge session can be meaningful under certain states of mind. Creation enables connection more readily than consumption not because it is “better”, but because it tends to be more active, engaging, purposeful, inventive, and (usually) fun. These emotional experiences tend to enlarge us, to help us escape the drudgery of being lost in the self, to feel that we are not just an isolated field of consciousness.       


“The home of the free and the land of the brave,'' one of the USA’s particularly cool sounding maxims, is just one example of the obsession we Americans, and increasingly the rest of the world, have with freedom. Freedom today, however, means something quite a bit different than what it meant to the Founding Fathers in the 1700s. It does not mean the liberation of a collection of white people from the tyranny of other, less understanding white people an ocean away. Nor does it really mean the undoing of slavery, even if that problem is not fully resolved. Today, freedom is something more abstract. To be free is the peak of individuality and autonomy, to be liberated from the constraints of the world: other people, responsibilities, cultural expectations, etc; freedom is in effect to be an island, surrounded by the world but with full control over the unfolding of your life, an isolated field of consciousness. 


I am the first to admit that this sounds quite pleasant. Freedom implies the ability to create your own experience of the world as you see fit, to make choices for yourself above all else, and to use your time in the way you desire. Like comfort, distraction, and consumption, the downsides of the things we take for granted are not always clear. One problem with being an island is that, depending on how far the nearest land is, you are isolated. Humans are social creatures and true isolation is not something that most of us are built to enjoy. The difference between the most-of-the-time-for-me pleasant solitude and the potentially crippling feeling of isolation is in their choice (or lack thereof). During the covid pandemic, the vast majority of people were forced into the most isolated state of being they had ever been in. Though it was an extreme moment during an extreme time, the feeling of isolation has been spreading into our daily lives for many years prior to the covid pandemic. The reasons for this are complex, but are also partially explained by the other priorities of modernity examined above. 


Oliver Burkeman states in his fabulous “Four Thousand Weeks,” that “As with money, it’s good to have plenty of time, all else being equal. But having all of the time in the world isn’t much use if you’re forced to experience it all on your own. To do countless important things with time - to socialize, go on dates, raise children, launch businesses, build political movements, make technological advances - it has to be synchronized with other people’s. In fact, having large amounts of time but no opportunity to use it collaboratively isn’t just useless but actively unpleasant - which is why, for pre modern people, the worst of all punishments was to be physically ostracized, abandoned in some remote location where you couldn’t fall in with the rhythms of the tribe.” What this implies is that the sheer quantity of free time and “freedom” is less important than the quality of that time, which typically is influenced by how and with whom you share that time. 


As we shall see later, other people are an incredibly important part of how we create meaning in our lives. Choosing freedom at times can also mean choosing isolation. If we had a different biological structure, perhaps isolation would feel different. But as human beings we must come to terms with the fact that we need others and that we are not made less by their influence or presence. Sometimes, relinquishing control of your complete and utter autonomy can feel better than attempting to always preserve it. 


Though some of these issues are particularly salient today, humans have been fighting the Great Problem of Meaning™ for our entire history. The question then is how did the generations before us tackle this problem? 



…Religion


“Is there something? Is there anything? Is there any evidence of something? Any signs that there's more to life that the sum of its subatomic particles - some larger purpose, some deeper meaning, maybe even something that would qualify as "divine" in some sense of the word…true religion is not about blind adherence to ancient texts, but an ongoing process of grappling with the eternal questions of humanity.”

― Robert Wright, The Evolution of God



Though at times it feels as if religion today is heading towards a slow, painful, justified death, it is important to remember that it has held our collective hands throughout human history. From the lofty perch of today, it’s easy to dismiss the impact that religion has had (and continues to have) on virtually every person that has ever lived. From the ancient, pre-civilization religions that imbued almost every aspect of the lived experience with mystical phenomenology, to the beginnings of civilized religion which incorporated a stunning array of semi-moralistic deities without hierarchy that governed birth, life, and death, evolving into the complex, monotheistic teachings of morality and societal expectations that the major religions of yesterday/today cling to, and finally to the modern world’s religion of science which simultaneously removes the mysteries of old with newer, more confounding questions still left to answer. 


Although the structures and practices of religion have evolved over time, the type of value that it provides to humans has stayed relatively stable: it gives the physical realm, the human experience, and every individual life an explanation (or a justification) that requires something else to be “out there” (or in other words, God). God is the ultimate “something outside of myself” that humans have historically connected with, whether God is a humanoid with all of the power you can imagine, or the essence that is imbued in all of nature, or a collection of higher powers that dictate all functions of the universe. Without this entity to connect to, a life can start to feel as though it is floating in nothingness, adrift. Blessed/cursed with self consciousness, our compulsion for context seems to be a natural byproduct of how our minds function. Whether that context is “the universe is 13.7 billion years old,” “you are a descendant of the first humans made by god,” “the harvest is plentiful this year because the god of rain was satisfied,” or “the wind speaks to tell us where to go,” we require a connection to something external and eternal. 


Despite its increasingly negative reputation, religion has nonetheless played a vital part in human cultural evolution. In Robert Wright’s dryly fascinating book “The Evolution of God”, he paints a clear picture of the role of religion. Though they appear more separate today, religion and culture had been intimately intertwined for millennia. Like other cultural and social tools, religion has served many purposes. The first religions helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors describe the world and give meaning to it, shifting to more complex, behavior-affecting belief systems that lubricated social cohesion between larger and larger groups, finally culminating in “universal” religions that sought to bring all of humanity together under their doctrines. This progressive change follows the cultural shift towards interconnectedness and interdependence, to what Robert Wright describes as “non-zero games”, or situations where two or more parties mutually benefit. Without religion, we would not be the humans we are today. 


Religion today, however, is plagued by a few issues: science has shown the existence of a God to be highly unlikely if not improveable, the pace of cultural evolution, powered in large part by science and technology, has shifted our moral, philosophical, and practical attitudes towards the teachings and practices of established religions in a resoundingly less positive direction, and because of this shift the modern person is in a unique historical position of getting to choose whether to be religious. It’s no surprise that we are where we are, and that many people choose not to abide by any faith. The inflexibility of the modern religious doctrines makes them unsuited for the world of rapid, incessant, and exponential technological and cultural change. It may be that the rate of cultural evolution is too much for religion to bear. 


Whether this change to a religionless humanity is a net positive is still to be determined. Personally, religion leaves a sour taste in my mouth, yet it still feels like a universal human need to have faith in something greater than yourself - to be sure of something, anything. Science is the closest modern entity we have to a God, and our faith in it is only just beginning to become second nature (I’m looking at you, anti vaxxers). Though some of us have faith in science, it is more a faith in progress. To have faith in science means knowing that everything you believe today could be disproven tomorrow and to have fascinating but unsolvable mysteries remain elusive. The price we pay for progress is a lack of certainty, faith. This feels paradoxical, as science has helped solve many mysteries. Yet, with science and no religion, the greatest mystery, that of why and how we exist and if there is anything beyond us, is left with an unsatisfying answer.


And so unless religion is able to evolve fast enough to suit the needs of modern (and postmodern) humans in the same way it had to evolve to support the evolution of hunter-gatherers to modern society, it will surely die as do all of the human creations that reach the conclusion of their usefulness. Faith is powerful, and if we aren’t careful we may find ourselves praying to insidious, dehydrating entities: entertainment, money, pleasure, comfort, ourselves. Unlike the Gods of old, these entities are not predisposed to shelling out meaning left and right. Pray to entertainment and you will find yourself unconscious, pray to money and you will never be satisfied, pray to pleasure and you will become a husk, pray to comfort and you will never move, pray to yourself and you will find you aren’t enough.  



Work


“If one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment, all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.

– Fyodor Dostoevsky 


I get “online” most weekdays around 7:50 AM (on average about 226 seconds after rolling off of my bed), which means that the first thing I do on 71% of the days of the year is open my computer to an inbox full of questions, requests, news, offers, and updates that are, at best, dull and, at worst, stress-inducing. If I’m unlucky, I may have a meeting to attend at 8 AM, still groggy, dehydrated, and bemused from the daily realization that this is how my day is unfolding once again. In the unfortunately (for me) scheduled meeting, I will most likely speak once or twice in a relatively more commanding and low-pitch voice than normal but with words that are likely to be incomprehensible to most human beings alive or dead. I offer opinions, thoughts, ideas, retorts, and concurrences that have been recycled countless times before because they tend to work in making me appear 1) competent, 2) engaged, and 3) enthusiastic. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, when anyone else speaks my mind begins to go blank and a Nazaré-sized wave of boredom crashes upon me, drowning any chance of prolonged focus and engagement. When one meeting ends, another begins. I smile big, toothy smiles so that my 3x2 inch rectangle on someone else’s screen appears friendly, non-combative, and synergistic. In the 30-45 second breaks between meetings I make an attempt to “organize” my email (who am I kidding - it’s usually spent either checking social media for some reason, picking up my phone and seeing if I have any texts (shocker: none), or idly looking out of my window). I will deal with that later, when the onslaught of smiling, waving, speaking, nodding, “hmm I wonder what’s happening on instagram,” “oh shit someone said my name,” and “bye everyone” with one final, empty smile is over. Mercifully, the meetings finally end, to begin again tomorrow. By the time I get back to my email, an even more menacing pile has gathered consisting of the same who-in-their-right-mind-would-think-this-is-interesting type content. I delete as much of it as possible, which turns out to be about ~90%. I personally start most emails with a classic “thanks for reaching out!” that both the recipient and I know is an empty pleasantry that must be said, and I end 99% of my hand-crafted, artisanal emails with either “thanks,” “cheers,” or “best,” - all of which are entirely genuine. I know that by sending emails I will inevitably receive more in return. It’s a vicious cycle of abuse that neither party can seem to end; we are all in abusive relationships with each other. Inside of some emails, there are these living things called “documents,” “spreadsheets,” and “slides” that I am asked to read, create, or comment on out of obligation to the most valuable corporate cliché: collaboration. Inside I want to scream, or die, or fall away into a nothingness that will help me escape this drudgery. I get “online” most weekdays around… 


I recognize that I’m being dramatic, and that my job is easier than almost all jobs I possibly could be doing, and that I’m lucky beyond measure to be able to complain about a job that I actively choose to remain employed in. However, the feelings of helplessness and meaninglessness associated with work today are (I believe) not unique to me and are not limited to the pervasive, mega-corporate jobs. Using our loosely established framework of meaning - facilitating a connection to something outside of yourself - it will become clear why work is not a reliable source of meaning for most people.  


One feature of the global economy is that jobs tend to be niche, specific, and insignificant, and these sorts of jobs are liable to feel detached from the main drivers of value for people in the economy. The perceived usefulness of any given job is likely to be low when the economy is propped up but by tens or hundreds of millions of individuals turning their personal screws and oiling their personal cogs. As that one individual, you know that your cog is part of “something” greater, whether that “something” is the local, national, or global economy, or the corporation that happens to employ you. In order to connect to that “something” and allow yourself some form of personal transcendence you also have to believe that you are part of some greater good, or that, at the very least, the “something” is bringing value to others. Being part of “something” greater than you has its caveats, as you have to believe that the “something” outside of you is good or purposeful or important for it to feel personally meaningful. 


What this implies is that for work to feel meaningful it should 1) be obvious how an individual’s work is contributing to some larger cultural organism, 2) the output of that cultural organism should affect more than just itself, and 3) the effect that the organism has should be “good” in the eyes of the individual, or should at least be important or consequential. Basically, does the work you are engaged in, or in service of, align with your philosophical or moral values and make a material difference to social causes that you care about (or again, at the very least, not degrade the social values you believe to be important)? For most of us, the answer is a defeated “hell no”, if one even has had the chance to catch their breath and think about that at all while trying to not drown in the mundane emptiness of their work. 


If you really want to crank up the meaningfulness of your work and finding a job that changes the world is not within reach, it’s recommended to find a job that has plenty of opportunity for flow. In Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi’s, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the author theorizes that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow—“a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” It’s hard to imagine (for some of us) feeling this way at work, but it is possible. 


The trick is to be engaged in an activity that balances skill and difficulty like a Cirque du Soleil high wire act. As you probably know from first hand experience, finding that balance at work is difficult, especially when most jobs today seem to either feel like navigating a frenzied maze of swiss cheese or like being part of the world’s most boring assembly line. If we imagine a graph with skill (x) and difficulty (y) axes, you want to be in the top right corner (where skill and difficulty are high). In the bottom left corner skill and difficulty are low, usually resulting in boredom - or worse still, apathy. On average, low skill and high difficulty equal stress; high skill and low difficulty equal relaxation. 


Just imagine your average work day feeling like "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." That is how Csíkszentmihályi described flow in one interview, and it can be how you feel more often if you pursue the kinds of work and activities that allow for the optimal balance of skill and difficulty. Easy right?


Now keep your imaginative hat on and visualize a job that is insignificant, rote, morally questionable, boring, soul-sucking, pedagogically deficient, useless to all but your own wallet, and worst of all: time-consuming. Clearly, the more time one spends doing an activity that contains some or all of the traits above, the less time there is for other, more meaningful activities, and the easier it is to get sucked into the void of meaninglessness. As other parts of one’s life get eaten up by this kind work, the downward spiral gains momentum. 


Finally, we come to the dreaded “work-life balance,” a concept that at first seemed to have wholesome intentions but that has now morphed into something more sinister and vague, a buzzword corporations love to use to simultaneously heap responsibility onto their employees and posture as a new-wave, forward-thinking, morally conscious place of employment. The truth is that sometimes “work-life balance” is an impossibility, a fluffy chocolate croissant dangled at the head of a treadmill going 15% too fast for you to ever reach up and stuff your face in sugary goodness. There’s some data to suggest that people now are working less than 150 years ago, but it sure doesn’t seem that way.


There are only so many jobs that can reasonably check enough of the boxes needed for meaningful work (at the risk of repetition, a job that has a clear, significant impact towards something greater than you, a job that finds the right balance of skill and challenge, and a job that does not eat away at all of your time), which unfortunately seems to mean that the problem of meaning at work will persist for the foreseeable future. If Dear Reader happens to not have this problem, just know that you are one of the lucky ones. This is all starting to feel a bit hopeless. Let’s move on to a more life-affirming topic: art. 



Art


“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”

― Pablo Picasso


The role of art in meaning is multifaceted and complex, as all important things are. Like religion, art is a cultural staple of the human diet and seems to have evolved with us from its primitive, simplistic origins of cave paintings, stone jewelry, and engravings to what is now encapsulated more by an attitude towards life and the self than by any specific activity. Art is everywhere, and we are richer for it. Music, painting, dance, photography, film, literature, sculpture, poetry, design, architecture, and theater may be the usual suspects of activities, but art as an attitude and way of being is what makes an artist, and it is the common trail to all art forms that make them meaningful. 


The act of creation is imbued with a mystical sort of timelessness. In one direction the artist is pulling from the past - the past that they are aware of: their own conscious experience; the past that they are unaware of: the unfurling of all earthly life that they are at the edge of - and in the other direction they are pushing into the future by unleashing something into the world that would otherwise not exist. Any work of art exists for its own purposes, but it still must have a historical place. Without the past to inform it and without the future to exist in, art would have no place from which to stand. Perhaps this is why the making of art can feel so meaningful. Even if not always consciously understood in these terms, creation gives a metaphysical context to the creator, something outside of themselves to connect to. The world does not unfurl past the artist as he watches; the artist is part of the unfurling themselves, the closest they can come to feeling power and control. By actively participating in bringing the past forward into the unknown only in a way their specific mind could, artists can transcend themselves. 


Exactly what it means and how it feels to transcend oneself is still uniquely personal, mysterious, and confusing. How is it possible, you might ask, to go beyond yourself when the whole of yourself is all you have ever known, all that you seemingly can know? Is transcendence just an illusion of the mind, a specific arrangement of neurons that, miraculously, make us feel as though there is more to it all? Or, if we are really able to transcend, does that mean that our perceived limits are in fact cages that we are blind to during all other moments of living? What the fuck is going on here, guys? 


This is an example of where a hyper-analytical, modern way of thinking might be missing the point entirely, because it truly doesn’t matter how it works but that it works. The mystery is part of the appeal of being an artist, for without mystery and wonder there is no art. The greatest mystery of all is yourself, aka the perpetual well of interest. As the artist goes deeper into themselves they at the same time expand outward. A connection forms with the world, and the life of the artist is spent strengthening it, refining it, understanding it, trying not to lose it, and coming to terms with it. And so the artist shares their life, their unique connection to everything that is and isn’t them, hoping - often in vain - that someone will understand them and feel the connection too. 


The riddles of art go in both directions, from artist to viewer and from viewer to artist. Of almost equal importance to making art is the experiencing of art, peering into the inner world of another mind, trying to decipher the messages they’ve made for each of us, messages that are both hyper personal and universal, appealing to what is most basically and genetically human but through the filter of the specific mind that happens to be experiencing it. Placelessness echoes from the art and reverberates through the experiencer to let them participate in the act of creation, as the future into which the art was made for. When experiencing art, we know that someone else is involved with us (this is why AI frightens me, but that’s a separate issue). We and the other are for a brief yet unmistakable moment together. As the experiencer, I am forced to confront the artist and their creation and remember (people forget sometimes) that I am not alone. Not in the “finally someone understands me” sort of alone, but in the “wow other people exist” type. There is a manifestation of another person right now, right there. Pay attention. 


Given the human mind’s proclivity for wanting to make sense of its experience, art poses an interesting challenge. As an experiencer, there is a lot to unpack. Do I feel an emotional, intellectual, or physical reaction to the art? What is the artist actually doing here and why did they choose to do it in this particular way? Is there something they are trying to say? What does it remind me of in my own life or the lives of others I know? We are always searching for an explanation, a “but what does it mean?” that will satisfy us. Hunger for meaning runs deep and is insatiable. Artists must respect this opportunity to influence and connect with others. 


The great artists are ones that pack as much of themselves into their art as they can fit, almost making it explode with meaning. One of my favorite paintings - and one I’ve spent probably several hours looking at in person - is The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (if you’re not familiar, please stop reading this dumb thing and go look at that masterpiece). In the 152 inch x 81 inch triptych, a grotesquely surreal yet vaguely familiar story is told. The left panel: Adam, Eve, and the Big Man (or Woman, sure) Upstairs; the middle panel: sex, and lots of it, among other things; the right panel: hell on earth, full of monsters and death and shame and darkness which, don’t get me wrong, those crazed sex fiends over in the middle panel fully deserve. But the magic of the painting is in the details and what they represent to the viewer: a black owl overlooking the happy couple and their weird father/creator/matchmaker/3rd wheel would have been easily recognized by the people of Bosch’s time as a representation of the devil and his schemes; a stark-white and naked regular old Jane and John Doe copulating beside a giant strawberry is obviously (again, to the people at the time) a “powerful symbol of the ephemeral nature of earthly pleasures and ambitions”; a giant bird-headed humanoid sitting atop a defecating stool (yes, that is a thing) with kitchen jugs for shoes and a black cooking pot for a hat, shoving a whole human being with a small bomb exploding out of their ass into its gaping beak (seriously go check out the painting, it’s insane), is thought to represent "a glutton eaten up by its own sin.” These small details are just the start, as the painting is full of clear and mysterious messages alike. 


The point here is that, at the time, the painting was not only considered beautiful and technically masterful, but it also served as a comprehensible story full of significance. The significance exists because the artist decides to put it there, but it is only significant when it can be recognized by the viewer. A crowd of onlookers in the palace of the Counts of Nassau would engage with the painting together, discussing and interpreting all that there is to see, recognizing ideas and values and memes (yes, dank memes existed in the 1500s too). Even though I cannot view the paintings through the eyes of a 16th century aristocrat, I can still feel the connection that exists between Bosch and myself. In this way, the artist lives on through the meaning they have spilled onto the earth. 


Painting, of course, is not the only medium. But the medium an artist chooses dictates the limits, rules, and edges of what is expressible and how it can be expressed. Their shared trait is that because they have some boundaries and rules to them they also have a history of the creations made within those rules. All mediums of art evolve from their complex past to the tumultuous present to an unknown future, and no art is made without the art that came before it. The artist, as well as the experiencer, are agents in time, bridging moments and lives together through creation.



Photography


“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”

– Dorothea Lange


¡WARNING: GRATUITOUS AMOUNTS OF CHEESE BELOW!


When I first began to practice photography, I could not have imagined how much it would change my life. Looking back to 2020 when it all started to get a bit more serious, photography seemed at best a new activity to try out and unlikely to lead to anything too intense. It’s likely that is how it would have remained, had it not been for certain people and experiences I encountered during the punctuated moments when photography was not a solitary endeavor (shoutout especially to my boys Martin “Big Dawg” Gonzalez, Brent “B-rizz” Clark, Eric “Long Boi” Bennett). I have to admit, I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. Maybe that's how one can find things. 


Photography was also not something I initially saw as decidedly expressive or creative. It all, naively, seemed a bit too simple, maybe even universal (see the fact that the majority of people alive have a pretty decent camera on them at all times). I of course knew that artistic photography existed, but I never considered trying to make any, not really. At first it was all just good fun. Finding things to photograph seemed easy, obvious, and thoughtless. Look, point, shoot. Look, point, shoot. Look, point, shoot. Thousands and thousands of looks, points, and shoots. I was not expecting images that I took to be any good, but I didn’t see that as a problem. Maybe in time, they would come. More likely, though, they wouldn’t, and that was ok.


When out photographing in nature during the first years, I would be rabid, frenzied, and a bit careless when taking images. I hardly gave myself time to think about what it was I was doing, or why. I wasn’t just doing it for the sake of doing something, though, as I did find that photography was enriching the experiences I was having in nature. This practice slowly changed as my relationship to it deepened and became more familiar, as I met and spoke to other photographers, as the images and words of others inspired me, as thoughtlessness gave way to intention, care, and curiosity. In other words, photography was becoming a new way of being, seeing, and thinking in the world, a new way of connecting to the world around me (specifically nature, but we’ll get into that later). By unlocking these new ways of being, photography has brought me closer to myself, but also helped me try and see beyond myself. I often wonder why this happened. 


Perhaps one explanation is that photography can act as a preservation of meaning. It is a physical act in the world that requires other entities besides the self (a tree, the sea, a person, rocks, buildings, some grass) to be possible. One then cannot ignore the world as one maybe tends to do in other moments. The world is there and so are you. We all know that a photograph “captures” a moment, but what it’s really doing is capturing a connection: the connection between the photographer and the world, as they see it. To the photographer, there was something interesting or meaningful out in the world that they connected to enough to make an image of it. What is truly the challenge in photography, as in any other art form, is how to transfer the meaning to another, to communicate what is meaningful to the artist and why.  

Do you see it? 


Another, more macabre explanation is that photography allows one to have (admittedly meager) proof of their own existence. It’s easy for any moment to become no more than a wispy memory of a long-lost past as it dissolves into the stream of one’s cumulative lived experience. Perhaps this is not a universal feeling, and my uniquely dodgy memory could be more to blame than human nature. Photographs do represent lived experiences precisely because one had to physically be somewhere in front of some things to make the photograph. One had to exist for a photograph to exist. I can picture myself as an old man relying on my photographs to desperately but resolutely claim ownership over my own life, saying “It’s real. It happened. I was alive. Look?!” as the light slowly fades from my pupils. To be remembered is a common desire, if not to at least not be forgotten. One hopes that the art one makes can preserve their memory just a little bit longer, before we are swallowed up by the great wave of history. 


What’s more likely is that the way photography has grown to become a meaningful part of my life is endlessly complicated. It has connected me to myself, to others, and to nature; it has made me truly believe that I can be creative and opened my mind to the value of art; it has changed the way I see and experience the world. My prevailing feeling is that photography has given me much to be thankful for. It has somehow unlocked things in me, things I didn’t think could possibly exist or make sense there. Exactly how it has done so is still a mystery to me (and one I hope is never solved), but it feels true. 



Nature 


“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

-John Muir


To try and follow a John Muir quote is downright silly, but here we go.


The canyon’s mouth is further than I expected. From where the road ends, still quite far off in the distance, it looks as though the arid, multi-brown mountains sprout abruptly. The sun is like a desert sun - unflinchingly bright, direct and enveloping - and it seems to dig deeper into the skin than normal due to the peaceful, airless stagnation that settles into being after a storm. We are walking towards it, the sun, and the canyon also. The path gets lost quickly and becomes a steady “over there” past dried beds of rocks and sand that vary in size as much as color, though the still-rising sun mutes the colors into a washed out sea of pastels. On south facing cracks, small hillsides, and sometimes even just out in the harsh open expanse there are plants as alive as any other: silvery-green bushes with soft spikes for leaves, 2-3 foot long stems on which perch golden-yellow imitations of the sun, rock-sized and floor-loving and fuzzy-looking red masses that I still cannot comprehend, a white flower so beautifully designed with purple adornments and delicately sharp tips that it stops the whole party in amazement, even some of the tiniest ferns and grasses I’ve ever seen are giving it a valiant effort. The canyon looks closer, but which canyon is the canyon we are going to? Looking out towards the steadily enlarging brown mass, it seems there are canyons along the entire base of the mountain, which in itself is just a small section of a remarkable series of ranges in Death Valley National Park. The opportunity present in the first sliver of shade is taken thankfully before continuing into the burning expanse. There are pebbles and boulders and rocks embedded into the hillsides which gives it an almost artificial and chaotic feeling. It’s hard to tell which colors are present, with the sun beating down on us. About 2 miles later, the canyon (or a canyon, really) and its forgiving shade begin to close in, first slowly and unhurriedly and then with a little more urgency. The amount of rocks in here is overwhelming. There’s the rock that forms the walls, the smaller rocks that line the canyon floor, the bigger rocks that have toppled into the canyon, and there are the other rocks, the ones trapped in the canyon, partially exposed to the desert air and partially embedded in the wall (which again, is also rock). What starts to feel gratuitously epic is that those rocks embedded in the rock wall also seem to have smaller rocks embedded in them; rock-ception. The light in here seems to resemble what it might be like to have a backlit angel welcome you to Heaven, if that makes sense. What I mean is that the walls are glowing, and all of the variously-sized rocks within the canyon glow with them. It is all saying “look at how beautiful this is, how lucky you are,” or maybe that’s just me talking to myself again. The light reflects off of the canyon and bathes the interior with a golden aura. There are more plants in here, and they are greener, more vibrant, than those suffering in silence outside the sanctuary of the canyon. I notice further up a multi-human-sized opening, which looks dark but exciting. One must always go into a slot canyon, when one is available. The effects of the main canyon are amplified, turned up 10x, dramatized to the point of absurdity. The texture is overwhelmingly complex and interesting. I pass my hand across the uneven and rough interior. The shadows are a darkly vibrant, cobalt blue with hints of purple, and the upper reaches of the slot canyon reflect the sun’s powerfully warm hues. It just doesn’t seem like this should be possible. Side quest complete, I make it to the end of the “main” canyon where a 10 foot high dry waterfall entices me to stop and finally have some water. I take my pack off and climb up to the ledge where the waterfall would begin if we weren’t in the driest place in North America, and sit atop the edge of the canyon, the sky becoming a more prominent part of my visual field. Against the yellow/orange tip of the canyon, the sky looks more like an artificial backdrop of the purest blue conceivable. The silence is deep and true - this is how it is here. Besides the occasional buzzing from a presumably lost fly (what are they doing out right now, and why do they live here?), the only sound that my ears make me aware of is my breath, which is coming along naturally and deeply for the first time in weeks. Peace, that is the word for what I feel - yes, this feels good. I lay on the smallest of the rocks, with my pack supporting me and my arms behind my head, with my friend Nick too enjoying the stillness in his own way. We briefly remind each other how crazy this all is between bouts of serene silence. But, the sun is getting lower and it’s time to go back, I guess. Things look different on the way down, as the sun has made a move and my eyes are seeing with a more familiar tone. It is astonishing how the human mind is unable to stop looking for patterns, to assign some significance to everything it experiences -  even the random assortment of shapes, lines, colors, and forms that glow within the walls are scrutinized. What is it that I’m looking for in this particular section of matter? Is there something specific that can be found here, that can’t be found anywhere else? Self awareness is compounded in places like these because they force me to confront myself as I relate to the world, the life within it, and my own existence. I am not an isolated island - even if in the canyon it sounds as though I am the only thing to have ever existed - because, for starters, this canyon is here, alive in the way ancient things are. “Just look at it,” I tell myself. 


—————————


Within the great dome of pastel-blue that outlines the edges of my terrestrial view - one half of the dome intensely luminous and reflective, the other like a basking and absorbent sponge - there lies, for lack of a better term, an ocean. From my vantage point it is surrounded by 260 degrees of assorted outcroppings composed of dirt, rocks, plants, trees, sand, people, and a handful of man made contraptions. At the base of the bluffs, a white outline is painted by the crashing waves and their resultant foam. The sea and the sky sandwich the green mountains in the distance yet also reveal how significant they are. How far down these bluffs may go into the depths of the ocean is up to the imagination. The great expanse below is never still; it has the ceaseless motion of something alive. From up here the surface appears smooth and glassy and extends towards the edge of the dome, as far as can be seen. At a smaller scale, however, patches of reflection and absorption create an all-encompassing moving texture of light, a pattern that the brain is aware of but can’t make sense of. On windless days the water looks unbroken and flat, but today is not windless. The wind is a force of action on the water, pushing the surface around with its unrelenting force. Waves don’t seem to stop crashing, though they do vary in size and sound. A dark horizontal rectangle ocean-wide moves menacingly towards the shore, contrasted against the pattern of movement still being shined upon. Suddenly, the darkness lurches forward and upward as the bottom of the mass of water below (presumably) rides above a sandbar, curling the exposed mass gracefully into a quarter, then half, then three quarter tunnel before exploding upon impact with itself and sending glowing sparks of water and foam in every direction. The sound is basically indescribable, but to summarize it sounds sort of like this: BOOM KRSSRSSKKSS SHHHHHH and then a few moments later BOOM KRSSRSSKKSS SHHHHHH. To the west, the waves are crashing onto Baker Beach and to the east they crash onto Marshall Beach - the names of the beaches matter a lot for some reason. At the top of the bluff overlooking this, I sit among ice plants, coastal bushes, invasive sea fig, banana slugs, crows, the occasional hawk, human strangers going for a walk or run, and crumbly rock. Behind me is the city of San Francisco, which would feel even further away than it does if not for the Golden Gate Bridge being at the far right end of my field of vision, connecting the great concavity that is the Golden Gate Strait. I make my way east towards Marshall Beach, descending the bluff and passing by a surprising variety of flowers. The first thing I do when I get to the beach is take my sandals off and feel the coldness of the wet sand collapse slightly under my feet. The amount of sand varies during the year, and right now there’s less of it due to the more aggressive winter tides, which wash away whole sections of beach and dump driftwood onto the shore. It’s low tide, my favorite. There are many reasons to love low tide: as the water recedes, patterns are etched into the sand and reflect light and color in mysterious and beautiful ways; rocks that are normally under water become exploreable and are home to barnacles, mussels, periwinkle snails, limpets, seaweed, sea anemones and more; more of the beach is revealed, and I can actually walk all the way to the base of Golden Gate Bridge, to the edge of the strait. As a result of each crashing wave is a wall of white, glowing foam. Once it has reached as far as it can go up the beach, it falls away, back towards the mass behind it, breaking up into smaller and smaller chunks. But on the way back, wind blasting from the horizon resists the foam’s advance and the foam goes racing diagonally towards me. As usual, the light progressively gets more and more orange as it filters through the subtle but ever present haze of ocean spray and distant moisture, coloring rocks and sand and mussels with a vibrant paintbrush. I look up and see schools of birds in lopsided V formations soaring naturally and smoothly with the wind, some going south past Lands End and others going North over the famous golden-red bridge. How can an experience like this even be communicated about, given how naturally inexpressible the nature of the world is? Sure, language helps convey some of the things, but it misses out on so much detail and nuance, unable to really pin down the reality of it all. I wonder, is this what it feels like to be at home, back to where I belong? Nature, and the ocean in particular, instills a sense of belonging in me. I know that I am somewhere that is part of the world, somewhere that others like me have also been, somewhere that I would like to return to, somewhere that is alive and pulsing with energy. It feels familiar not only because I live near it and see it every day, but also because it, like all of nature, is designed in my own image. I see nature (the world) not as it is, but as it is to me, to my human senses and my human mind. I didn’t have much of a say in that, but it is important to remind myself that the reason I see beauty and love and familiarity in nature is that it is meant to be so. There is no other way to see it, so long as I am the way I am, so long as humans are the way they are. It is our home, from where we came and where we shall return to, after it all ends. 


—————————


With a backpack full of food, clothes, tools, and camera gear, I head into Yosemite’s high country, the land above land. The air is less dense here, even if subtly so, which means the mid summer sun is particularly impressive and reflects impatiently from the granite path onto my overworked retinas. The trail crosses expanses of granite littered with small boulders carried here by ancient glaciers that look as if someone plopped them down indiscriminately, past small creeks with baby trout scurrying away in fear as we approach, through crinkly meadows of dying grass and left over flowers, into pinecone-floored forests of glorious sugar, white, and jeffrey pine at every point of the life and death cycle. As the trail ascends, my bag starts to somehow feel lighter. I look behind me and take in the valley below, trying to simultaneously perceive all of the snow-capped mountain peaks, sparkling green trees, massive granite constructions and more. Into the basin we go, meandering up and down the landscape towards the series of lakes we will set up camp by. A lunch consisting of salami, cheese and a tortilla is gratefully and hungrily destroyed by yours truly at the shore of the lower lake, while mosquitos gratefully and hungrily swarm and poke yours truly with their perfectly designed needles from hell. The water is clear and looks like it would be tasty (I later confirmed that it was so). Standing proudly above the lake is what we have decided to call Ragged Peak, a sharply pointed mountain of granite formed who-knows-how-long-along-ago by forces beyond my feeble-minded comprehension. What I can comprehend - quite clearly - is that it is beautiful, and that I am glad to see it. Shortly past the lower lake, comes the aptly named middle lake where we find a clearing along the lakeshore to set up camp. Middle lake is surrounded on the south end by a lush meadow below a massive granite wall with snow still clinging to its upper reaches, on the north end by an (I think) unnamed mountain; on the east side is a 100 foot tall ledge where the to-be-discovered-by-us upper lake patiently exists, and on the west side is a series of meadows, waterways, and stunted white pines. My friend Colin, who I’ve known since I was about 10, is excitedly getting ready to try and catch us dinner with his trusty fishing rod; my brother Alex, who I have the privilege to take on his very first backpacking trip, is exercising some well earned R&R by the shoreline. I am attempting to understand what is in front of me, but it doesn’t seem possible. Colin yells “Boys, I got one!” and we, like when we were once young, run over to him in anticipation and wonder. He is holding a lake trout. To say it is beautiful is an understatement. Under the vibrant sun, its yellowish, olive-green scales are intricately reflective and are adorned with a truly head-scratchingly intricate maze of dark green markings, punctuated by a smattering of eye catching concentric circles: a hot pink, barbiesque center inside of a light, blue outer ring. It is obviously struggling, being out of the water and with a small hook in its cheek. A flood of emotions ensues, naturally. The fishing must be really good here, because even I am able to catch a trout on my 4th cast. We already have enough for dinner, so I gently release this particular trout back to its home, with words of apology and thanks. One can’t help but feel full out here. With stomachs still full from a wilderness feast the night before, we head to the upper lake in the dawn light, climbing up and above the ledge to the east of our camp. It is rare to see a lake as still as the upper lake was that morning, so still that it looked as if there were two skies, two mountains, and two lakeshores. Small chunks of rocks along the shoreline break the illusion. There is a stillness that only we alone on this wild lakeshore can feel, and from that - and the rising sun kissing the tips of the cool, granite peaks beyond in a wash of yellow - I succumb to the flood of positive chemical soup developing in my brain. The stillness gives way to the day, and we spend the next 10 hours wandering along the lakes, discovering impossibly small frogs in the marshes (where will they go during winter? will they die when the water freezes and they are covered in 20+ feet of snow?), laying naked and wet on granite boulders after a midday dip, catching food for dinner, marveling at the colors and shapes of the plants and trees that live and die here, watching the light change in color, intensity, and direction, thinking about all kinds of things that I can’t recall. But I do recall contemplating my own flaws, the ones that exist in all of us, but mostly the ones that specifically exist in me. Despite its appearances, the mind is incredibly fragile, error-prone, and confused. How assuredly I seem to believe in my own convictions. The actions I take are barely my own, unless my subconscious mind counts as my own mind despite not having any access or control over it. Language, culture, and all of their adjacent consequences have led to progress, but also to a type of corruption. But here in the wilderness of Yosemite I see no corruption, and it gives me comfort to be surrounded by the relative purity of nature, (mostly) untarnished by the touch of man, unlike man and me and you and us. Nature in this state is the great other, the main “something outside of myself,” the connection I need.  


Others


“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.”

― Helen Keller


Others - oh how they excite, delight, bore, and torment us. But without them, without their presence and touch, we would be empty. Our best and worst moments are usually bestowed or inflicted upon us by others. It is striking how important others are, how pervasive their influence upon us is, how they reflect back unto us our worst and best traits, how lost we would be without them. It’s easy to forget this when one is consumed by the overwhelming complexity of one’s internal landscape and the turmoil that may exist there, but the reality that we face is riddled with the scars of others. The good news is that others can bring us immense happiness and meaning; the bad news is that others can bring us immense sadness and confusion. Why is life without others so utterly and devastatingly meaningless? 


Humans are, of course, social animals that have been “designed” by biological processes to be attracted, physically and emotionally, to one another. In the environment we evolved in and for, social interaction was integral to the successful survival of whole tribes. Everyone needed everyone else, so to speak. During these pre-civilization times, people were almost never alone, not only because of the dangers that a lone human could fear in a jungle filled with human-hungry animals, but also because we have developed, over millions of years, a psychological and emotional comfort in being with the tribe. The most torturous punishment was and still is to be completely isolated, deserted on a solipsistic island, unable to comfort ourselves with the presence of others. As much as we may wish this wasn’t so -  that we were instead stolid and resolute statues of self-reliance rather than needy, vulnerable flecks of dust -  there is no escaping the nature we are born from. 


We learn this all quite quickly as children born into a world designed and run by others. At this stage, there is nothing one can do but hope for the love and attention of others even when it is unrequitable. They take your small, innocent hand in their larger but still naive hand and show you the way, whether they are conscious of their influence on you or not. A child is reliant on others for the basics of survival and though our reliance may change in nature over time, we remain reliant throughout life. Others are the gatekeepers of our experience and they guide us towards a (somewhat) common understanding of what it means to be a social creature: how to treat others, how to behave within the bounds of acceptability, and how to relate yourself to the other selves out there. At the risk of sounding like a politician: children are the receptacles and shapers of culture and we rely on them for a form of cultural continuity. 


This deep seeded if not obvious truth is part of the reason why the act of having and raising a child can be (probably, I say this as someone who doesn't have and may never have kids) the most meaningful act of someone’s life, not to mention that the genetic drive to procreate is a basic truth shared by most alive things. In humans at least, a child is half of each parent, a living legacy of having lived. Some part of the parent’s essence is carried forward beyond their grave like a miniature, human-constructed version of quasi-immortality. Similar to the artist, the parent transcends the self via their children and is able to place themselves, even if only vaguely, on some cosmic timeline. Parents suffer for their children knowing, or hoping, that their suffering is justified by their children. (I presume most of the above is true for pet owners, minus the whole “living legacy” thing.)


Outside of the parent-child relationship, there thankfully is still plenty of meaning to be had in participating in a culture. Being a part of a culture, or society, has its own sort of meaning. Like art, a culture is a distinct combination of time and place that is connected to all other times and places through simple existence. As a living being in a culture, you have a place in the timeline of humanity. Extensive knowledge of history is not necessary to appreciate how finite and transitory the culture we dwell in is, and how the actions we take today are the path to the cultures of tomorrow. Maybe this is a burden, but it is also a responsibility and a means of finding meaning within the endless chaos of modern life. 


Not only do we have a duty to the people of tomorrow, but each person alive is connected to greater or lesser degrees to every other person in the culture they exist in. Though these connections tend to be indirect, each person acts as a node in the complex structural network that is a culture, whether that is a neighborhood, a city, an entire country, or the whole of humanity. Over time, the number of indirect connections has grown exponentially as cultures have evolved and expanded towards each other’s boundaries, as humans across our vast planet have become more interdependent, and as technology has distorted and enhanced how we communicate with one another. If indirect connections have grown, it is also fair to say that, for the average person, direct, meaningful connections have shrunk. Back in the glory days (hint: some but not total sarcasm) of our hunter gatherer past, entire communities made up of tens or hundreds of people were closer to each other than anyone can imagine today. There were practically only direct, essential connections during our ancient past that allowed for successful tribes to live and survive. Today, direct connections (what I will from now on call “friends”) are less existentially vital for a society, but their value to the individual human cannot be understated. 


Why does it feel so good to have friends, and so bad to not have them? Friends are likely the first and most enduring way that we “connect to something outside of ourselves,” beginning in youth and growing - in usually complicated and messy ways - into adulthood and beyond. Friends teach us about themselves, about ourselves, and about the world we inhabit - and we do the same for them. By sharing experiences and growing together, a deep bond, or connection, can be formed, a bond that frees both parties from the cages of the self. When we are with friends, we can get lost in them. 


My personal favorite type of friend -  if I’m being picky, which I don’t really have the right to be - is “the Inspirer.” “The Inspirer'' type, as the name suggests, is someone who, after getting lost in them and learning about them (and in turn, learning about yourself and the world), galvanizes you into a new version of yourself, one that incorporates the wisdom and character of the source of inspiration. You have no choice but to become better in their presence, to expand the limitations that existed in you before they happened to appear in your life. I have been lucky enough to have friends of this type, and, truthfully, I can’t think of a single friend, past or present, who hasn’t acted as “the Inspirer” during some portion of our friendship. 


A few things I’ve learned (or attempted to) from my “Inspirers”: that I must work to listen, not for the sake of being a “good” friend or to pat myself on the back, but to actually hear and try to understand as best I can what is being said to me and why; that it helps to truly like and care about other people if you are at all interested in them liking you back; that working hard is a virtue; that mindfulness and how one pays attention is crucial to the quality of one’s life; that there is pain, suffering, and distress even in the most joyful of people; that a quiet life of passionate pursuits is in no way inferior to the alternative; that generosity of time, attention, and care is a rare trait, but one worth striving for; that creating a community for yourself takes effort and does not come to you freely; that dreams are false idols when compared to action; that faith can be purifying and simplify one's life; that caring for another is an activity, not an idea; that it’s ok to share of yourself with others; that growth is not linear, for the most part. Thanks, friends. 



Love


“You love a tree. You love a river. You love a leaf. You love a flower. You love a cat. You love a human. But go deeper and deeper into that love, until you love that which is the source of the light behind all of it” 

-Ram Dass



If such a thing as a singular, objective purpose in life could exist in any sense, it would likely be “to love”. It seems, after all, to be the essential action of life, beyond the basic necessities of “to eat,” “to drink,” “to shit,” and “to sleep” that run almost on automatic. What I mean by purpose is also the word “responsibility.” To love is an opportunity, not a requirement, and one that only is within reach if respected properly. To not love as much as possible is the most wasteful use of a life, respectfully. Like any responsibility, it requires effort.


Effort and practice, of course. That’s what Erich Fromm, author of “the Art of Loving”, explores in his book, saying that “Love isn't something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn't a feeling, it is a practice.” Yet, as Fromm continues to explain, we are not taught that love is like this. We practice all sorts of things - volleyball, patience, guitar, speeches, [insert your hobby here] - but we often don’t even consider practicing love because we don’t have a clear definition to clarify what a practice in something abstract and emotional like love could possibly be. For Fromm, love boils down to being “an active power in a man" whose main action involves “giving”. 


To “give” is broad instruction, but what I have gathered so far is that one can give a lot away. One has a whole life to give away, and there are many things that want a piece of you. It is possible, and sometimes easy, to give yourself away for very little, to have such a low view of yourself that you’ll let just about anything have some. Many of the modern day issues referenced scathingly above - convenience, pleasure, distraction, etc - will greedily take and take and take. So one must give, but give well, give accordingly. To give accordingly, to love, one must take action, make choices, and practice giving. Practice carving a little bit out of yourself to be filled in by that which you love. This is all starting to sound a bit difficult.


When practicing a new activity, it helps to begin with the most basic, simplistic version. For me, that turned out to be nature. If I can find it within myself to love a flower, a tree, a wave, a rock, a bug, a certain type of light, a rainy day spent in the tent, then maybe I can find the self-belief to love a human, whether that is myself or another. “How can you love a rock?” a reasonable person  may ask. I admit this is all a bit vague and abstract, which does not lend well to an explanation, but it is worth a shot. To love, to give of yourself - even if just to a rock - requires the lover in question to release the grip of selfhood through active participation, engagement, and non-judgemental observation of the loved, opening oneself to the possibilities present in the moment, transforming the subject and the object as one united entity. It doesn’t matter if the rock can’t love you back, because through your own love you and the rock are fused together, connected in a moment. 


It all gets a bit messier and harder when love can flow bidirectionally, as each of us can attest. Love is not always pleasant or easy. This is part of the reason why it can be so meaningful. To love deeply and richly inevitably leads to pain, pleasure, anger, and hope (to name just a few), but the reward is the gift of experiencing the full range of what it means to be alive and to walk across the tightrope expanse of human experience. In this way, love can be the purest form of connecting to something outside of yourself.   


But as Ram Dass said, the goal is to build the capacity to love “that which is the source of the light behind all of it” - in other, more cliche words, you must learn to love yourself. But maybe “yourself” is not clear here either; the ultimate source of light behind it all is one’s own consciousness, and the fact that consciousness exists at all - not some flimsy, corruptible, changing thread of personality and experience that you call “yourself”. If you really love consciousness, you not only love yourself (for being it), every other human being (for also being it, supposedly), all of the animals and plants and living things, and, finally, life itself. I’m not sure if this kind of love is even possible, but I will work my whole life to see how far I’m able to go. 



Conclusion


“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” 

- Joseph Campbell


The words above are like a raindrop on a desert. 


The Great Problem of Meaning™ still remains a mystery to me. But without some semblance of meaning there is no hope, no reason to go on, no point. What I know to be true is that meaning can be found in many ways, and that although some activities tend to be more meaningful than others by facilitating connections to the not-you, what is also necessary is to have an attitude and predisposition for creating meaning. Like love, creating meaning is something that can be practiced and can be expanded over time. It isn’t enough to just want a meaningful life, but that is a good first step. 


For myself, adopting an attitude towards meaning has helped me inch a little bit further away from the abyss. I want to feel connected - to myself (past, present, and future), to others, to nature, to everything there is and isn’t -  because without these connections all that is left is an objective emptiness, a solipsistic loneliness that is unimaginably painful. Connections are not usually made by chance and require attention, responsibility, and diligence to maintain. There is also a scenario where one cares a little too much about squeezing the last drop of life out of life, which ironically brings one back to the root of the problem that comes with believing you have a cosmically significant life. Meaning is important, but obsessing over it is an easy way to never have it. 


But even so I must choose how to build these connections in my own life, in which ways to pursue meaning. This is one of the hardest steps in creating a meaningful life: when there are so many things to connect to, so many ways to connect to them, so many options for how to live, making a deliberate choice can be painful. To forgo a seemingly endless number of alternative paths with their own joys, sorrows, and details is, if I am being dramatic (which I am), a little bit like killing different versions of yourself. It’s no surprise that convenience is so pleasurable; there is no pain if you don’t choose. Existential choices, with their pain and psychological turmoil, are also the peak of our power. We must sacrifice alternatives to live as we intend to, imbuing our choices with what is as close to cosmic significance as possible. We choose our meaning and we choose our pain, but it is ours. 


My advice to myself: want a meaningful life, choose how you want to create it, and don’t look back. 




Further readings


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