We may be leading a meaningful life and yet, really rather often, be in a bad mood just as we may be having frequent surface fun while living, for the most part, meaninglessly. Projects, relationships, interests and commitments will build up cumulatively. Meaningful activities leave something behind, even when the emotions that once propelled us into them have passed.
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They are those we most highly value and will, from the perspective of our deaths, regret most deeply. Others cannot be relied upon to determine what will be meaningful to us. Whereas pleasure manifests itself immediately, our taste in meaning may be more elusive. We can be relatively far into our lives before we securely identify what lends them their meaning. This book considers a range of options for where meaning might lie for us. It is anchored around a discussion of eight centrally meaningful activities: love, family, work, friendship, culture, politics, nature and philosophy.
The options should provide orientation, enabling us to find our own preferences or — when we dissent — to design alternatives.
Along the way, we hope to underscore that our lives are more meaningful — and certainly more capable of meaning — than we might initially have supposed. Our lives almost certainly already have some hugely meaningful sides to them, but we may well not be correctly valuing, understanding or appreciating these. It is time to turn the pursuit of a meaningful life from a comedically-complex impossibility to something we can all comprehend, aim for and succeed at. One way to get a sense of why love should so often be considered close to the meaning of life is to look at the challenges of loneliness.
Frequently, we leave the topic of loneliness unmentioned: those without anyone to hold feel shame; those with someone a background degree of guilt. But the pains of loneliness are an unembarrassing and universal possibility. Unwittingly, loneliness gives us the most eloquent insights into why love matters so much. There are few greater experts on the importance of love than those who are bereft of anyone to love.
When we are alone, people may well strive to show us kindness; there may be invitations and touching gestures, but it will be hard to escape from a lingering sense of the conditionality of the interest and care on offer. We are liable to detect the limits of the availability of even the best disposed companions and sense the restrictions of the demands we can make upon them.
It is often too late — or too early — to call. In bleak moments, we may suspect we could disappear off the earth and no one would much notice or care. In ordinary company, we cannot simply share whatever is passing through our minds: too much of our inner monologue is overly petty or intense, random or anxiety-laden to be of interest. Our acquaintances have an understandable expectation, which it would be unwise to disabuse them of, that their friends should be normal. We must operate with a degree of politeness too.
No one finds rage or obsession, peculiarity or bitterness especially charming. A radical editing of our true selves is the price we must pay for conviviality. Some of our deepest concerns will be met with blank incomprehension, boredom or fear. Our deeper thoughts will be of scant interest. We will have to subsist as pleasant but radically abbreviated paragraphs in the minds of almost everyone. All these quietly soul-destroying aspects of single life, love promises to correct.
In the company of a lover, there need be almost no limits to the depths of concern, care, attention and license we are granted. It will be possible to reveal our extreme vulnerabilities and compulsions and survive. It will be OK to have tantrums, to sing badly and to cry. We will be tolerated if we are less than charming or simply vile for a time. We will be able to wake them up at odd hours to share sorrows or excitements. Our smallest scratches will be of interest. In the presence of the lover, evaluation will no longer be so swift and cynical. They will lavish time.
As we tentatively allude to something, they will get eager and excited. They will search out relevant details; they will piece together an accurate picture that does justice to our inner lives. The fragile parts of ourselves will be in safe hands. We will feel immense gratitude to this person who does something that we had maybe come to suspect would be impossible: know us really well and still like us. We will have escaped from that otherwise dominant, and devastating sense that the only way to get people to like us is to keep most of who we are under wraps.
We will start to feel like we exist. Surrounded on all sides by lesser or greater varieties of coldness, we will at last know that, in the arms of one extraordinary, patient and kindly being worthy of infinite gratitude, we truly matter. At the beginning of time, he ventures in playful conjecture, all human beings were hermaphrodites with double backs and flanks, four hands and four legs and two faces turned in opposite directions on the same head. These hermaphrodites were so powerful and their pride so overweening that Zeus was forced to cut them in two, into a male and female half — and from that day, each one of us has nostalgically yearned to rejoin the part from which he or she was once severed.
At the centre of our ecstatic feelings in the early days of love, there is a gratitude at having found someone who seems to complement our qualities and dispositions. Unlike us, they have perhaps a remarkable patience with administrative detail or an invigorating habit of rebelling against officialdom.
They may have an ability to keep things in proportion and to avoid hysteria.
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Or it might be that they have a particularly melancholy and sensitive nature and are in touch with deeper currents of thought and feeling. We do not all fall in love with the same people because we are not all missing the same things. The aspects we find desirable in our partners speak of what we admire but do not have secure possession of in ourselves. We may be powerfully drawn to the competent person because we know how our own lives are held up by tendencies to panic around bureaucratic complications.
Or we may be drawn to an atmosphere of thoughtful concentration in a partner as a relief from our own skittish minds. We love at least in part in the hope of being helped and redeemed by our lovers. There is an underlying desire for education and growth. We hope to change a little in their presence, becoming — through their help — better versions of ourselves. Love contains just below the surface a hope for reparation and education.
We usually think of education as something harsh imposed upon us against our will. Love promises to educate us in a gentler, more seductive way. The excitement of love stands in contrast with our normal disappointments and scepticism about others; spotting what is wrong with a person is a familiar, quickly completed and painfully unrewarding game. Love gives us the energy to construct and hold on to the very best story about someone.
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We are returned to a primal gratitude. This is what parents, artists or a God might do. Sex delivers a major psychological thrill. A lot of our delight has its origin in an idea: that of being allowed to do a very private thing to and with another person. It would be deeply offensive to go up to a stranger and finger their cheeks or touch them between their legs.
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The mutual permission involved in sex is dramatic and at the core of our desire. One of the things that makes families so important and so meaningful is that they are centres of unashamed nepotism. We are taught that a good society is one in which people rise and fall according to their own merits or flaws — and do not gain any sort of unfair favour from their families.
We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, emotional nepotists. Historically, the idea of nepotism in Europe was particularly associated with the Catholic Church during the Renaissance. The word nepotism was born when a series of Popes took to appointing their nephews nipote in Italian , along with other family members, to top jobs irrespective of their talents, simply on the basis of their connections. One of the first things he did was to elevate his young grandson also called Alessandro to the influential and lucrative position of Cardinal. He made another grandson the Duke of one of the small Italian states that was — at that time — directly under the control of the Pope.
It was all appallingly unfair.
In this regard, nepotism presents a deep affront to modern enlightened ideals of open competition, especially around work and careers. But we have to admit that the idea of bias towards relatives possesses — in the emotional as opposed to the professional sense — a deeply reassuring and attractive side as well. What is more, we have all already and ineluctably been the beneficiaries of the starkest, grossest nepotism. Because of the existence of family, we all have an experience of belonging not based on our beliefs or accomplishments or efforts all of which may change or fail but on something far purer and more irrevocable: the fact of our birth.
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Given how fragile our standing in the eyes of others generally is, this is a source of huge ongoing emotional relief. The daughter who becomes a high court judge is probably not going to be loved any more than the son who has a stall in the market selling origami dragons; the steely negotiator and demanding boss in charge of the livelihoods of thousands may be endlessly teased by their relatives for their poor taste in jumpers or tendency to belch at inopportune moments.
Our family members are probably the only people in the world who ever deeply understand key bits of us.