The universe is meaningless. This is good news. Many existentialists have followed this train of thought to a depressed, nihilistic conclusion without realizing the liberation it actually entails. A universe without inherent meaning is one in which meaning is only ever assigned. Something is either good or bad because we say it is. Therefore the bedrock of moral absolutes on which we stand suddenly turns to the sand of relativism, or so they claim. However, I believe that morality is not founded on inherent meaning, but rather shared humanity. Because we are capable of assigning meaning, we are capable of understanding one another and sharing meaning, including a common moral code. It may not always been in perfect concordance, but a close study of many traditions from around the world will reveal much striking and profound agreement.
Meaning, of course, is never objective. It is not quantifiable. It cannot be measured or recorded. Rather, the most common way meaning is communicated is through words, which are imperfect representations of sometimes ungraspable concepts, feelings, perceptions, and ideas. Because meaning is by its nature subjective, ephemeral, and changeable, some people say that it doesn’t exist.
However, this claim falls afoul of common sense. We can't even agree or disagree with it without refuting it. To even label it true or false is to apply meaning, because true and false are words laden with connotations. Truth is good, or so we are told, and falseness is bad. Synonyms for falseness include dishonesty, deceit, disloyalty, and treachery. Meaning is everywhere, even when we do not intend it to be.
“You latest writings have a deep sadness to them. Almost a cloud on your soul,” a friend commented. It is very poetic and made me smile. I may have to use that again. It is just that good. Yet I wondered, "Is it a cloud, or the shade of a willow tree on a hot day?"
It may be true that my writing has not been overly cheerful of late, but it is also true that I am not unhappy. This may be because when writing, we tend to write what comes easy, and sadness for the poet flowed ever so much stronger than contentment. I have mentioned before how bad moods make for better writers. But remember, meaning is changeable. It is changeable because we are changeable.
My life has changed rather dramatically in the last few months. I may have dwelled on the disappointments. I have done some deep thinking about my path. Sometimes reflection is upsetting, and sometimes profound, but more often than not it is merely puzzling. And we live in a culture in which everyone must always smile. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” One who doesn’t smile must have failed at the later, given that the first two are more or less provided free of charge. The third we must construct from our own effort.
Oddly enough, I think the Buddha would agree.
Every week on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, the guests are asked what is making them happy this week. We Buddhists know nothing can ever ‘make’ us happy, or sad, or angry. We choose based on the meaning we assign to the things that happen in our lives.
The Third Noble Truth says that suffering can end. Pain does not, nor old age, sickness, and death, but the suffering part we can choose. If we view these things as so sorrowful and frightening we must fight against them, then we will suffer. Of course, it is not easy to chose the other way. Sometimes we feel trapped by our karma, by our habitual patterns that choose for us, but we recognize them for what they are. We are on the path.
It is hard to choose not to suffer. Often we will be sad or lonely or confused, but we can chose to give a meaning beyond suffering to those emotions. Sadness upon the death of family can be good. It means we loved. Loneliness can help us seek out others, understand their loneliness, and start to heal together. Confusion can send us in search of wisdom. All these clouds on our souls can be a path to the end of suffering, to happiness. That path starts with little things.
My family sent me a care package. In it was a heavy brown Jedi robe, white tunic, and light brown belt. There were also two feel-good novels, the local design awards insert from the Omaha World Herald, a paper mache pumpkin, and a bag of Legos. I am happy because my family cares and knows me well enough to understand what would make me happy. I’m thirty years old and my mother still makes my Halloween costumes. How delightful is that? She does a damned good job, too. My mom is so cool.
Once we know what the little things are, it’s easier to find the big things. The IMPORTANT things that help us find satisfaction in life.
Star Wars was probably my earliest introduction to ideas of morality, philosophy, and wisdom. It might have just been a story, but stories are important mediums for conveying meaning. One of the greatest things I learned from Star Wars was about redemption. In the end, Darth Vader, the bad guy, saved everyone. What meaning I assign to that is a belief that good can be found in even the darkest heart, that believing people are good is a worthwhile endeavor. That’s not quantifiable datum. It’s not objective or measurable. But it is important, because if I had assigned some other meaning, I might not be where I am today. It would be that much easier to give up on people, to not even try to help them, because they’re just evil and don’t deserve help, or worse, can’t be helped.
I used to worry that my family’s relative lack of dysfunction meant I was fundamentally incapable of understanding traumatized people and, as a result, I wouldn’t be able to help them. However, what I’ve also realized is that my family has provided me with a good model of what a healthy family relationship looks like. They know how much I love Star Wars and what it means to me, so they don’t belittle or demean my geekdom. When the design awards insert comes, they save it for weeks in order to send it to me because they hold me in their thoughts. I get more than what I ask for, so I try to give the same back, keeping my eyes open for little things my Mom would like or would make my Dad laugh or my sister-in-law ooh and ahh. Of course, we’re not perfect, but we’re fundamentally workable so that even the familiar fights come with a possibility for growth.
These things are more important than Jedi robes or Legos, but one is indicative of the other. They have meaning. Learning to find one’s happiness is essentially a search for meaning. But meaning isn’t something that starts outside and we are on a grand quest to find. Meaning is something we give the world. And to this, I give the word “good.”
A meaningless universe is one in which we all have the power to create our own happiness with something as simple as a word.