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What does it mean to mean something?

Some 10.000 years of human existence on this planet and the Western world is still searching for the right way to live. For the absolute truth. Curious, is it not? You would think that, after such a long time, people would have reached some kind of consensus about absolute truth.

But that is no argument to the religious nuts, of course. Each one of them has the absolute truth. And each one of them absolutely knows that all others are absolutely wrong about it. And hypothetically, it is thinkable that one of them is right. What a conundrum.

Can the reality and life be understood? Absurdists say no. Religious nuts, of course, say yes. The former think the latter are naive and stupid, while the latter actually seem to have some sort of respect for the former.

But then, what does it actually mean to understand reality and life?

Understand is a word. What do we mean by that word? Yes, and what does the word meaning imply?

When we say we understand, we usually mean that we are aware of the details, implications, consequences or causes of a matter.

But is that satisfying?

We can want to understand a car. What do we mean by that? Do we wish to know how to assemble parts like the motor and gear into the whole? Or do we seek to experience its spirit while driving it through some off-road terrain? Or do we wish to know about its aerodynamics or safety or materials?

And if we wish to know about its materials, what do we wish to know about them? The chemical elements or the alloy? The hardness?

And if we wish to implore about its hardness, how do we do that? Ah, some smart people invented hardness scales. But woe, there is a Vickers hardness and a Martens hardness scale. Which one of them is more right? And to the technical student’s shock and dismay, a Vickers measurement can not be translated into a Martens measurement.

So, there you go. You have two different answers to the same question how hard the material is. Both answers create reproducible statements and are valid and usable in science. And yet a material’s reading on one scale is no reliable predictor of its reading on another scale.

But you can go deeper, of course. You can think about atoms. Alrighty, but what are atoms made of? And who made them? And why do we assume someone made them? And if we find out what they are made of, will that be the absolute answer or will that simply be one way to answer the question, one scale of truth?

So, when I ask what it means to understand, I can conclude that this implies to take something apart, understand the patterns that operate in it and then make predictions. But then again, maybe this definition of understanding is again just one way to define the word, one valid in the context of looking at a car in a specific context.

Somebody may want to instead study the influence of the car on society and culture. And how would he do that? Again, he would devise standardized tests and statistics, all of which are again just one conceivable way to measure and explain those relationships.

That person may then, in an attempt to posit an everlasting answer, create a catalogue of norms, like ISO and DIN. Those norms would then trick one into thinking that there is only a few valid ways to think about matters. But that is not true. It is simply a handful of ways that somebody decided to henceforth impose on all others.

So when we think about it … but wait, what does it mean to think? Do we understand thinking? Ah, surely there is some norm. Ah, somebody proposed ways to think. Objectivists, for example. Christians, Muslims, whoever. Philosophers.

Some said: Well, you could take an argument and a counter-argument and then form a synthesis. But how to do that synthesis? Well, you will have to evaluate the quality of an argument. In which way? Well, by standards, morals, values. Something is better than something else. But by what standards is one value higher than another? By the standards of a particular person who decided to standardize this particular value system, maybe simply based on his personal preference.

Or you can create Pro and Contra lists. If the amount of arguments Pro outweighs Contra, Pro wins. But what if that one Contra argument is more important than all the Pro arguments together? And who decides how important each argument is? Do we have to agree upon it? Difficult questions, right?

In a way, I can conclude that I do not understand what understanding means in any universal sense. I just know the ways I am used to try to understand specific things in specific contexts, but that again is only a matter of habit. Maybe the attempt to understand, in its simplest form, is simply the act of relaxedly focusing on a matter and letting your intuition guide you therefrom.

But when I am not sure what understanding means, how can I even say for sure that I do not understand what understanding means?

And what does it mean to mean something?

I suppose that when something means something, it equates to something else. When a girl smiles at me, it means she likes me. Or not. But roughly said, when something means something else, we are looking at some kind of equation. A girl’s smile equates her affection, in an imperfect manner.

So, when we ask for the meaning of life, are we not simply trying to equate life with something else than life? Or are we trying to understand it?

If the meaning of life equates understanding life, then all we need to do is look keenly at that which life actually is. All we need to do is observe and the meaning will come to us.

If, on the other hand, the search for meaning, for some superb equation, is the attempt to escape life, then must we not conclude that our search for meaning simply means that we are not satisfied with life? The quest for meaning equates the dissatisfaction with life?

The quest for an equation where on one side, we see our miserable life, and on the other side, what? A noble ideal? Heaven? Paradise? A reward? A goal?

But what does that mean? Our attempt to equalize an imagined event of the future with the misery of the present equates an imagined satisfaction to keep us living a life we resent.

Does it matter whether the imagined satisfaction will take place? Does it matter whether reward will come? Is not the only relevant consideration the moment?

But of course, that is just one way to answer the question about the question for the meaning of life.

What do you mean when you seek for a meaning of life?

Not so sure?

But if you are not even sure what meaning means, why do you keep searching it?

Perhaps, because in the past, there were forces that kept you from living the life you wanted, offering meaning to compensate you for it? Daddy forced you to live his pathetic dreams and ideals and explained that there is meaning to it?

Is that not the most intuitive explanation? After all, we learn words through association, in a context. Who was the first person in your life to use the word meaning? In what context did he or she use that word? Did that person make you feel bad about doing something that had no meaning, forthmore making you obsess over finding some kind of rational justification for all the things you want to be doing instinctively?

Did you not feel loved when your actions had no meaning? But again, what does meaning mean?

To serve others, perhaps?

And if you follow that hypothetical chain back to the genesis of the word meaning, how would that look?

A proposition: A ruthless psychopathic tyrant beats others into serving him. He tells them: If you serve me, that is meaning. So, whenever you are going to do something in the future, first wonder whether it has meaning. That is, whether it serves me.

Then those servants concluded that they will be beaten and shamed and disrespected if their actions have no meaning, that is, if they do not serve their oppressor. And if they managed to act with meaning, they could live somewhat comfortable lives.

Since they wanted their kids to be happy too, they likewise beat them into their deeds having meaning. It is not even evil of them, it is simply logical and the way of least resistance.

Well, and over time, the meaning of meaning became vague. But one thing that your subconscious mind probably posits is: If what I am doing has no meaning by some standards, I am unable to accept and love myself; because when I was unable to convince my father or mother that the actions of my self had meaning, they did not love or accept me.

So there I just went, and tried to answer the question about the meaning of meaning. How did I go about it?

Well, I asked myself during my meditations what meaning means to me. How it makes me feel. What memories came up.

But in any case, instead of asking for the meaning, is the more interesting question not: Why are we so dependent on meaning? If we had never heard the word meaning, would we care?

Is the quest for meaning a quest for freedom? Or is that quest in itself the very prison?

This is a typical conundrum in our psychology, I think. Sometimes the very thing we hope to free us is the thing that keeps us imprisoned. The hope for a woman’s affection.  Food. Sex. Alcohol. Drugs.

But often, the thing we seek to gain in the future – be it meaning or drugs – is merely a symbol for something we failed to gain in the past. Love.

Maybe we really thought: If I will consistently be doing things that have meaning – whatever that means – I will feel loved and respected.

And it makes sense, thus, that one’s life would actually become less about doing something one really wants to do – what you could, by some standard, call meaningful – and more about convincing others and yourself that by some arbitrary standard, the action we did had meaning. Was right.

So is the quest for meaning not really a quest for others to nod their heads and say dude, that was real meaningful shit? Not another attempt to get others’ approval?

And when I say others, I of course mean the parents that brought us up, seen and projected into all the people we interact with on a daily basis.

So when I now propose to let go of anything you do needing to have meaning, will you protest? Will you say so you want me to live a meaningless life?

But you do not even know what meaning means, so why is that bad – and what does bad mean?

Is this instinctive response of your subconscious not merely the shadow of an emotional memory of somebody looking at you with disdain and saying: You are meaningless?

You were a kid and somebody said you were meaningless. And you had no idea what meaning is. And you still have no idea. But you know it feels fucking bad to not have meaning.

But anyway, what is the meaning of this article? I do not know. Tell me. Is it that it will help you? Is it that I simply loved to write it? No idea. Who cares? I wrote it because my soul told me to do it. I trust that it will find the right people out there. Or not. I just know I felt the need to write it. And when I am finished, I will not give another damn.

A search for meaning is a way to justify your existence. Stop justifying your existence. Your soul does not need meaning. Why? Because your soul has no idea what the fuck meaning is supposed to mean.

But did not some moments in your life indeed feel meaningful? But what if those moments were simply those where you reenacted patterns of social interaction that made you feel loved and okay with your parents? For example helping somebody or being nice?

Besides, if you say that you feel meaningful, does that not really imply that the association is much more emotional than intellectual? Does meaning then not equate to something akin to self-respect or self-love? This would imply that you are only able to feel self-respect or self-love in particular situations and not universally. Basically, that you are only able to feel those emotions in situations where you learned that you are loved and respected.

And if it were indeed purely intellectual, why would you care so much?

But alright, you could still argue that this is okay. Many Christians argue that god’s love is not unconditional. I reckon that their father’s love was conditional and thus they gravitated towards a religion where god treated them the same way.

But this would imply that meaning is something universal and absolute.

The consequence of that would be that every person feels meaningful in exactly the same situations. And that is where the argument falls apart.

It is not the lack of meaning that wreaks havoc on your mind. It is the fact that you deny every part of your self and reality that does not fly under the vague banner of meaning, as you have learned it. Or right. Or good.

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  • Aye, this got my mind all twisted up. But I agree with you wholeheartedly. We are doomed with just enough understanding so get a glimpse of something more, but not enough to grab anything satisfying.

    I limit understanding to an application. Just like the hardness scales. They are a means to an end, and that is as far you can really get.