Meaning

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.

— John Gardner, “The Road to Self-Renewal“, March 1994

“One of the enemies of sound, lifelong motivation is a rather childish conception we have of the kind of concrete, describable goal toward which all of our efforts drive us. We want to believe that there is a point at which we can feel that we have arrived. We want a scoring system that tells us when we’ve piled up enough points to count ourselves successful.
So you scramble and sweat and climb to reach what you thought was the goal. And when you get there, you stand up and look around and chances are you feel a little empty. Maybe more than a little empty.
You wonder whether you climbed the wrong mountain.
But the metaphor is all wrong. Life isn’t a mountain that has a summit. Nor is it—as some suppose—a riddle that has an answer. Nor a game that has a final score.
Life is an endless unfolding and—if we wish it to be—an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.”

— John Gardner, Stanford Commencement Address, June 1991

As a counterpoint to Gardner’s advice, it’s worth reading David Brooks’ New York Times column, “The Problem With Meaning.” David also quotes Gardner, yet disagrees with the use of the term “meaning” by cutting through much of its vacuousness:

“Because it’s based solely on emotion, it’s fleeting. When the sensations of meaningful go away then the cause that once aroused them gets dropped, too. Ennui floods in. Personal crisis follows. There’s no reliable ground.

The philosophy of meaningfulness emerges in a culture in which there is no common moral vocabulary or framework. It emerges amid radical pluralism, when people don’t want to judge each other. Meaningfulness emerges when the fundamental question is, do we feel good?

Real moral systems are based on a balance of intellectual rigor and aroused moral sentiments. Meaningfulness is pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life.”

I’m not sure I feel wholly the same as David about meaning. It might be a vacuous term, but that vacuousness stems from the fact that the term encompasses different things for each of us. We do not all find meaning in the same place, and I take that as fact. What I think Gardner manages to capture so well is the sense that though meaning might be different for all of us, it’s crucial that we first break out of the limits on our own minds in how we think about it. If we come to think outside the places we normally look for meaning—a 9-5 job, a weekend hobby, occasional service work—then we are far more likely to make meaning mean something for us.