Saturday, August 12, 2006

Meaning in Life

Science is meaningless because it gives us no answer to our question, the only question important for us: "What shall we do and how shall we live? - Tolstoy

I'm not writing about science tonight. The importance of that quote is in the question posed. It is the most important question we can ask (okay, so it's two questions), particularly when we're not sure of the answer.

Max Weber used that quote in Science as a Vocation (1919) my favorite sociological essay. A lot of what Weber and 20th century sociology examined was the process of intellectualization, disenchantment and loss of meaning in modern society. For thousands of years, humanity has asked "what is the meaning of life?", and the answers to that question have been as varied as the individuals asking them, only in modernity, however, as the influence of tradition, community and social class have waned have so many individuals have had to answer Tolstoy's terrifying question all by themselves. It certainly isn't an easy question to answer.

Despite the sociologist's claims of the pervasiveness of anomic modernity, everyone still tries to look to society at some point or another to answer to Tolstoy's question. The prevailing cultural, religious and community norms tell you what to do and how to live. In today's world, the prevailing culture is more of a backdrop and not a determiner of what life means, so at often those socially determined answers don't hold up. Those comfortable in what they're doing and how they're living are either that way because they've never questioned the validity of how society tells them to act or they've thought it out, examined their innermost values and beliefs (which some would argue are entirely socially determined too) and come up with an answer on their own. The latter group has it all figured it out.

I used to think I had it all figured out, then life happened. I used to know for sure what I wanted to do and how I wanted to live. I didn't always do those things, and that was okay because deep down, I had it all figured out. I could stray from the path because I knew where the path was and was confidant I could get back to it when the time came. What I've now discovered is that if you spend years and years not following your answer to Tolstoy's question, eventually, you begin to doubt the answer you had in the first place. Spend enough time on a different path, and that path becomes your chosen path and you lose track of the one you had chosen before. Fine, you say, this new path is good enough. It's at least a path at and I'm not wandering aimlessly though the woods. Sometimes, you're following behind someone else down their path. The answer to "what shall we do?" becomes whatever it is we're already doing and we answer "how shall we live?" with an acceptance of the life that often through sheer circumstance, is the life we're living.

Ten years ago, I moved back to the SF Bay Area to pursue a path that I eventually realized was not my path. I couldn't do the things I needed to do simply because I didn't really believe I was going the right direction. I got off with a vague idea of where I wanted to go next and went through some tough times. Since then, I've followed lots of different paths. Some of them were very rewarding and meaningful, like my love for Jasmine and the early days of the Graphites. Some of them have been detrimental and far from what I still know to be my answers to Tolstoy's question.

Last year, someone told me that 36 is the perfect age. At 36, you've lived enough as an adult to have made some mistakes, learned from them and gained some wisdom. You should be at the peak of your abilities at your profession. Physically, the body really hasn't started to break down yet even if you can't do some of the things you did in your 20's. If at some point, one is "over the hill" then at 36, you should be at the top of the hill. I am 36. I'm at the top of the hill. From up here, I can see everything, and I can't help but wonder where I should go next. If I'm going downhill from here, I at least want it to be on the path I choose, but as I've shown throughout my life, I don't always choose the right path. What do I do and how shall I live?

I think part of this pre-midlife-crisis I'm writing about has been instigated by a new circle of friends I've found through work. On Friday nights, we hang out, play poker, talk about our jobs, politics, religion and what life is supposed to be about. Strangely, a couple of these 20-something co-workers or their friends seem to me to have a stronger certainty over the meaning of life. They've got it figured out. I think they've yet to experience how the traumas, trials and tribulations of life can eventually shake what you knew to be true as a younger person. It doesn't have to be bad things happening either. The mundane routine of going to work, coming home and watching TV and having a few drinks can be comfortable while you're doing it, but do it too long, and it's insidious, dull blade can cut into the dreams of the soul deeper than the sharpest scalpel of the more dramatic.

In India, there is an ancient saying that answers the question of what we are to do and how we are to live. They say that the first twenty years of a man's life are for learning, the second twenty years are for building up a household and family and the third twenty years are for seeking spiritual enlightenment. I did the learning bit. I'm married. I want to build and a household. Although I didn't have this Hindu saying in mind when I set out on my latest path, when I left Sears to go into mortgages, I did so out of sheer pursuit of material wealth. For the first time in my life, I was driven by the desire to make a lot of money. Slowly and not so surely, that goal is starting to come to fruition. Getting out of debt looks like a possibility. It's happening; I finally have a good paying job.

I'm writing all this for two reasons: First, it helps me figure out where my head is at, and second, to ask if what I've been through in the last 15 years sounds familiar anyone reading this, and if so, what's the next stage? From the idealism and purpose of the early 20's to the first steps or missteps of adulthood of the mid to late 20's to the settling down and working hard of the 30's to the questioning that comes from getting to the top of the hill and wondering what comes next.

Nothing stops life, so I guess I will find out.

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