In the 1982 sword & sorcery epic, Conan, the eponymous hero is asked about “What’s best in life?” - whereupon he quickly answers: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!”. The subtext is that even the mighty Conan is struggling to discover the meaning of life, and his answer here is a paraphrase of a disputed quote that’s been attributed to Genghis Khan and, in itself, may a total fabrication created long after his passing by those who wanted to mythologize his single-minded drive.
Our fascination with meaning begs the question “why”? Why do we spend so much time, energy and effort trying to understand why we are here, what the purpose of our life should be and what is our mission while we journey through our allotted timespan?
One thought about this is that we are hardwired that way in order to survive. Our philosophizing, theorizing and agonizing is a cruel side-effect of a bioevolutionary design meant to just get us to our next meal. Psychology tells us that when we seek “meaning” what we are really looking for is a sense of being alive. Yet, having a sense of mission and purpose is undoubtedly empowering and affects us at a deep neurological and biological level.
John Wheeler speculated that we are no more than a ‘symptom’ of sorts. An observable effect dancing to the hidden tune of information which underpins everything. Yet even information has to have some kind of meaning in itself (or at least we hope it does) otherwise “just being” seems a pretty poor reason to … well, be.
We live in an age of complexity that has resulted in increased levels of existential anxiety. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Our brains (and bodies) respond to the perception of a greater environmental threat to which there is not going to be an easy answer.
It’s not just that our technology is becoming more complex. Sure it is. But technology is a tool which we use to question, observe, analyze and categorize the world we live in. When that tool, like neuroscience, for instance, reveals more than we expected it challenges our assumptions and forces us to rethink our understanding, about everything. This then makes everything else change too.
Solving complex problems presented to us by the environment or our technology requires us to use our human skills differently; better. It needs our decision-making to be more skillful and our grasp of fundamentals to be more granular.
We tend to think that there is a “meaning” or a “purpose” in life that we need to discover. We look for meaning in work. Yet meaning and, arguably, purpose are emergent phenomena that spring from the interconnection of ‘data points’ – people, places, events, concepts and entities.
Life then may not be a journey of discovery. It might, instead, be a course in meaning-making. Inert individuals may be devoid of meaning and empty of purpose. Their life barely noticed because it barely impacts on anyone, anywhere. To find meaning then we may have to do just what our technology is helping us do: reach out more, connect more, be willing to get things wrong, and be prepared to accept that everything is going to be messy, uncertain, inconsistent at times and yet still amazing; because we experience it all in the fullest sense of the word.
To live in a new world we need to do what we have always done: Adapt. Overcome.
I know you’ve made the right decisions and dealt with the complexity of choice presented by a supermarket shopping trip with aplomb. So now you have coffee aplenty. Croissants within reach. Donuts to help you power through all this and maybe, even, some cookies and chocolate cake. Have an awesome Sunday, wherever you are.