A Significant Life

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By Todd May

There comes a time in the lives of most of us when the outlines of the far shore become more distinct than those of the shore from which we set out.  The mortality of life becomes clear then.  There will be an ending.  And for each of us, that ending is the end of my life.

Then, if not before then, we wonder:  what is the point?  Is there some reason for my being here except to live out my allotted time, to burn my days alongside others who are, in turn, burning theirs?  We would like our lives to have some meaning, and in the face of death, we do not have forever to find it.

But what does it mean to ask about a meaningful life?  Is it that we seek a single meaning that is the meaning of life?  This would require that there be a meaning, independent of us, lying there awaiting discovery.  It would require a meaningful universe, one in which each of us—or at least humanity as a whole—had a role to play that could redeem the time we spend on the planet.  But for most of us in the modern world, this idea seems quaint at best.  As we have learned over recent centuries, the cosmos doesn’t confer meaning on our lives.

We seem, then, to be bereft.  If there is no meaning for human lives that can be gleaned from the universe itself, are we just here, without point or purpose, soldiering on in our meaningless lives?  If the universe is silent, is human life without meaning?  I believe the answer to the question is, No.  There is another way to think about what makes a human life meaningful.  This way of thinking does not provide any cosmic guarantees.  But it does offer a framework for considering our lives, each one in itself, that, one hopes, removes it from the realm of the mere burning of days.

First, notice this.  Our lives unfold over time.  They are not just heaps of moments or experiences, piled one upon the other without connection.  Instead, our lives have trajectories.  To say that they are journeys might be too much, although some lives surely are.  But to say that they arc through time in one or several directions would begin to capture the way a human life unfolds.  Many other animals do not have a sense of their future or their past.  They may be shaped by their past, and be afraid of death, but they don’t take up the past as their past, and the future as their future.  Humans, unless we are severely damaged mentally, do precisely that.  We live our lives, not just our moments.

If our lives are to be meaningful, then, whatever crteria or standards there are must reflect this temporal character.  One natural suggestion is to think of our lives as narratives, as stories.  Narratives recount what takes place over time, not as a series of distinct moments, but as a connected whole.  Narratives tell us who we are by telling us a story of how we arrived at the particular point at which we currently stand. 

This suggestion leads us in the right direction, but it is not yet enough.  Not all narratives yield a sense of meaningfulness.  The narrative of a person who descends into habitual drug use, or who struggles from a depression he can never overcome, or who starts off with promise that is never realized, does not offer a sense of meaningfulness.  Some narratives are meaningful:  they offer a sense of a life trajectory as worthwhile.  Others are not.  The concept of lives as narratives, then, cannot by itself offer criteria of meaningfulness.

However, if we look more closely into narratives, then we have our clue.  It is not narratives themselves that yield meaningfulness, but what might be called narrative values.   These are the values associated with certain narratives.  Some narratives are characterized by intensity, others by subtlety, steadfastness, adventurousness, or spontaneity.  We can call these values narrative ones because they characterize the trajectory of a life.  They are themes that describe how a life, or aspects of a life, is shaped over time.

Examples of narrative values are not far to seek.  In fiction, the character of Dilsey in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is exemplary of the theme of steadfastness.   In the face of the crumbling of the Compson family, she does not descend into madness (like Quentin) or become venal (like Jason), but holds the threads of the family together, taking care of the damaged son Benjamin and ensuring the household can at least continue on.  Faulkner recognizes her steadfastness by giving her the last words of the novel:  “They endured.”

Outside of fiction, one manifestation of intensity can be seen in the short life of Jimi Hendrix.  He pushed everything he did—music, drugs, love—to its limits, to see how far it could take him and those who joined him.  People who knew Hendrix would say of him that whatever they did, he would do twice as much.  In some ways, he seemed to pack an entire life trajectory into the twenty-seven years he was alive.

One might be worried here that these narrative values cannot offer us any kind of objective criteria for thinking about our lives.  What, for instance, could an intense life be other than one that feels intense to the person living it?

Intensity is a good example here, because it allows us to see how narrative values cannot be reduced to a person’s own subjective experience.  To say that a person lives an intense life is not simply to claim that it feels intense to the person whose life it is.  It is to characterize how he or, say, she goes about living that life.  It is to claim that she throws herself into what she does with abandon; that she displays evidence of intense involvement through corporeal expression, time spent engaged in her projects, discussion or thought about her projects even when not directly participating in them. 

Others might worry that if we have such objective criteria, then we can only get meaningfulness at the expense of the uniqueness of people.  After all, if what makes several different lives meaningful is that they are, for example, spontaneous, then don’t we lose the individual character of each life?  And isn’t it that individual character that makes that life meaningful?

What is unique about people’s relationship to their narrative values, however, is not the expression of a narrative value itself but instead the way in which they express that value (or those values).  What lends their lives meaning is that those lives express certain narrative values, but what lend them uniqueness are the diverse expressions themselves.  To be sure, objective criteria, whether of meaningfulness or anything else, do place different things into the same category.  But that is only for the purposes of the criteria themselves, in this case to ask about meaningfulness.  In asking about criteria, we do not reduce lives to those criteria.  What we are interested in is a particular, although central, question:  what makes a human life meaningful?

A silent universe, then, does not entail that our lives are destitute of meaning.  There is at least one realm of value—narrative value—that can confer meaningfulness on the trajectory of our living.  It does not redeem us in the eyes of the universe.  Instead, it confers value on the unfolding of our existence.  To be sure, that meaning comes from us; but it isn’t just anything we like.

The cost of embracing narrative values, indeed the costs of embracing any values, is that our lives might not live up to them.  If narrative values are the standard, or at least one standard, of judging the meaningfulness of a life, it is possible that a life will turn out to be meaningless, or at least less meaningful.  This does not mean it is without any worth at all.   A life—human or otherwise—can have worth without having meaning, or with having less meaning than another life.  To lack meaning, though, is for many to be bereft in a particularly painful way.

The other side of that coin is that to have criteria of meaningfulness is to possess a tool that allows us to reflect upon our lives in a fruitful way.  That tool invites us to ask whether a feeling of emptiness is characteristic only of the moment or of something larger.  And if it is the latter, to have a sense of what might be done to address it.  Narrative values don’t tell us how to live our lives.  They do not comprise a how-to manual.  Instead they offer a framework for asking what the trajectory of our lives has amounted to, what meaning it has or has not expressed.  This is not everything.  The realm of narrative values does not make the silent universe speak.  But it is not nothing either.  It is instead a way of bringing the art of living a little closer to home.