ALCHEMY OF WORDS
ALCHEMY OF WORDS
You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.
- Albert Camus
I know what you’re doing. You’re out there turning over stones in search of some deeper meaning to your existence. And when you do, you’re going to find some things: moss, algae, bugs, discarded exoskeletons. Your toes are going to sink into the mud. And you’re going to get wet. You’re going to feel the stream’s current on your calves. And you’ll probably discover some other hidden treasures you never expected.
What you will not find are any engraved explanations, no statements of empirical meaning, no one-size-fits-all answers. That’s because life is not some big game of hide and seek, where the gods have written down the correct answers under certain stones, and the only game is for you to look in the right places. Though, come to think of it, that would make a good story.
Let me be clear, I do believe in living a life filled with turning over stones. And if you enjoy playing in rivers and creeks, hunting fairies, and searching for mayflies, then you should continue to do just that. There are treasures to be found everywhere. But just as the beauty beheld depends upon the eyes that seek it out, your life’s meaning lies in the joys of your own experience.
Do we find meaning or does it find us?
Let me say that another way. The meaning of life is not hiding out there somewhere, waiting to be found. Life has whatever meaning we attach to it. Whatever meaning we imagine for ourselves.
More simply, we do not find meaning; we create it. And when we stop creating meaning, we quickly get lost. And then, though we are in search of meaning, somehow we end up looking for ourselves. And we don’t realize that now we are two steps away from the answer.
And when we begin to feel better, it isn’t because we have found ourselves, or our way home, or even discovered the elusive meaning we sought. It is because we have assigned some meaning to our present experience. Randomly or not. Of our own design or someone else’s.
What does it mean to mean?
What does it mean for something to have meaning? How do we know when anything is meaningful? Too often, we believe it is when another person, religion, institution, television show, or cereal box tells us it does. But this adopted meaning often doesn’t ring true.
Meanings are a lot like fingerprints. Consider a rose. To a photographer, the meaning of the rose is its vibrant color. To a sculptor, its texture. To the blind, its smell. To a lover, its symbol of affection. To a gardener, its reflection of success. To a bee, the sustenance it provides. These are each true and meaningful aspects of a rose. And yet, no one could ever say that any of these was the one true meaning of a rose. It is also why it cannot be said that anything is inherently meaningless.
You can do this with almost anything. Take a songbird. I may see waking up to bird songs at dawn as the Universe giving me the best gift it can imagine to start my day. You may grab a pillow and wonder why in the world you’ve been cursed by the gods. When the gelato café moves in next door to your workplace, you may celebrate it as proof that you are, in fact, the chosen one of the goddess. Where your best friend may view it as yet another obstacle to a happy bikini season.
What do you mean by create?
Isn’t that like making it up? Are you saying we are just making up things about life so we’ll feel better? Well, yes, in a way. But more than that, I’m saying that the meaning of life is not set. It is not some fixed, static thing. Otherwise you could just look it up in the dictionary and move on.
We live in an interactive universe. The meaning of anything in life is not separate from you. We all create our lives, and their meanings. Everyday. All day long. Life is not a board game and we are not game pieces.
When a painter paints a picture, everyone agrees that the painter has created something. But the act of creation is not limited to art. It is spread across all aspects of our lives. Your life’s meaning is no different. You are constantly deciding what is meaningful.
We are unconscious of most of the assignments of meaning in our lives. Often because we’ve mindlessly adopted someone else’s decisions. But we can change that. We can be mindful of the unique fingerprints of our own world of meaning. And we can do it in a way that keeps us awake. And we can do that moment by moment.
I think what Camus meant was to get out of your head. Because the meaning of life is not there. It’s in your life. Live your life fully and find your own meanings in the living.
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This is one of 66 essays in the Gold Nautilus Award winning collection, Happiness Is an Imaginary Line in the Sand.
The book is available here: https://bit.ly/40s3Gh0
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