I am attracted to things that talk about meaning. Maybe that is because I feel like I have spent much of my life thinking about meaning and testing to see if, indeed, I thought I was living a meaningful life. I remember very well a period of life when I did not think I had any meaning or, at best, was not sure what that was. Those were the years right after high school and the early college years.
In my case much of school and high school was fine. Maybe it is revisionist history, but I recall those days with some fondness. I was an above average athlete, so that was a plus. I was bright enough, so that also was a plus. I am the oldest one in my family, so there was no sibling competition---no reputation to live up to or even live down. Life was ok.
Then I was off to college and began to experience a period of not knowing. I began to have a nagging sense that what I was aiming for was not really what I wanted to do. I began to accept that I was doing what others wanted me to do. And when it came right down to it, I had no real idea what I did want to do. I realized I had always answered the question, “what do you want to do in life?” with other people’s answer that I had adopted. I did not know the real “me” and, of course, had no clue what that “me” wanted out of life.
All this was exacerbated by a Vietnam War that I did not want and certainly did not want to support by my military involvement. But I also knew that dropping out of college exposed me to the draft. I could be asked to go to war and not asked how I felt about it! Finally, I mustered more courage than I ever had done and left college anyway. I did not know what I was going to do or whether I would ever find “me,” but I was going to risk trying it.
In that process I did not know that actually what I was doing was engaging in an authentic search for meaning. And that search for meaning inevitably was also a quest for identity. After a number of months I began to realize something that was crucial to that search and quest. I realized I did not know how to think about things. Of course, I always assumed that since I was a good student, I knew how to think. That was not necessarily true. So I made another big decision.
I went back to college. I needed to be in classrooms where I could learn things that were foundational to meaningful living. I needed teachers who taught me how to think and not just learn things for an examination. Although I grew up in a church, it certainly would not be fair to say I was spiritual. I had some religious ideas, but ideas don’t have much weight to them unless there is a deeper belief and trust. These I lacked.
All these memories came flooding back to me when I read a recent piece by the philosopher, Todd May. He wrote a piece on meaningful lives that I enjoyed. In that piece he cites Susan Wolf and a relatively new book of hers, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. He observes, “A meaningful life, she claims, is distinct from a happy life or a morally good one.” That resonated with me. I have never conflated happiness and meaningfulness. They can be related, but they are not the same.
May goes on to quote Wolf when she says, “meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.” This was not altogether clear to me. But then he added a sentence that sparked things. “A meaningful life must, in some sense then, feel worthwhile. The person living the life must be engaged by it…for life to be meaningful, it must also be worthwhile.” I really like tying meaning and worth. They do match and always go together.
As I went back to college and ever since, I have been searching for meaning. In many ways I have found it---or created it. And I think I discovered meaning as I discovered a “me” that was doing something worthwhile. And in that process I gained a new sense of the worth that “me” had. As I reflect back on life, I am satisfied that much of what I have done has been worthwhile.
That is satisfying even though my economic worth is not as great as it could be. I could have done different things to make more money to be worth more. Of course, it could have gone the other way. I could have wasted time and done things stupidly and basically become worthless. I am content with my sense of worth and the worthiness of things done. I am not finished yet, so hopefully I am still creating worth---not in money, but surely in meaning.
I appreciate tying meaning to worth. It is a good way to see life and to live the spiritual life.