I realized at some point in my 40s that my assignment, the one handed to me at birth, is to find meaning in life.
My life. Our life. Life.
I do it by rote, the way some people brush their teeth or dust the furniture. Over the years, in the face of 9/11, a layoff, love gone wrong, the Catholic Church priest scandal, deaths of loved ones, and Superstorm Sandy, I’ve stayed on course with my assignment. Even when I couldn’t make sense of what was happening in the moment, I eventually saw the character building or the collective awakening or had some kind of insight.
Now, in this moment, I’m floundering. I have never found it as challenging to find meaning in life as I do right now. I’m not building some doomsday scenario here. It’s more a confessional, a sharing of my discomfort for our times.
When I smile at the elderly man with the walker in my neighborhood and we exchange pleasantries, I feel clear about human connection and its significance.
When a disgruntled, deranged man with a gun has his way and kills in an instant, I grasp at straws to square this with my “free” country. The violence is escalating. What does this epidemic mean?
I see a Facebook post about a woman caretaking her beloved husband with dementia or a man expressing a sweet memory of his recently deceased wife and I pause. It’s a perspective adjuster in my day.
I see a gratuitous potshot or willfully ignorant post directed at another human being and I delete it. It’s happening so frequently these days. Perhaps I don’t want to face what it means.
The young billionaire CEO who is changing the world with his vision.
The young, power-hungry outcast who is trying to find his way to Syria to learn at the feet of jihadists.
Good. Evil. Back. Forth.
I’m getting whiplash.
I like being a student of life. I enjoy the process of understanding why things happen. And it really jazzes me when I meet people who also live this way.
But it takes more of a concerted effort now to focus on growth, empathy, and what it all means. Our acute anger is met with someone else’s acute anger. We lock eyes in despair when adversity hits and hope one of us is up to rising to the occasion. Fear is exhausting and legitimate. Old songs from simpler times send me into a happy orbit.
I read an essay in The New York Times Travel section about a woman sitting in front of a Delacroix painting in the Louvre trying to make sense of the Paris terrorist attacks.
“In the stillness it seemed possible to know a painting deeply, to almost inhabit the same scene and to draw on its force,” Doreen Carvajal writes of the experience.
It made me want to run, not walk, to an art museum in New York and sit in front of a painting. To stare at it until everything else floats away. I want to feel the art, let it show me something about the artist’s mind, get intimate with it. What does it show me about me? About the world?
I did that a while ago with Monet’s Water Lilies at the Museum of Modern Art. It was meditative, mesmerizing really. Part of its allure is how the light seems to bounce and move on the canvas. It’s easy to get lost in the abstract swirls of nature.
It sounds like I want escape, yes? Unquestionably I do.
If my role as a columnist is to bring you along on my ride, we’re at the point where all I can handle is straight road with loud rock and roll on the radio. Catatonic, coming out of the stupor only to note a bright moon or cottony cloud or to hit Starbucks.
What does it all mean?
Perhaps I stop at a diner and ask one of the regulars at the counter. It’s an old-timer who is so pleased to converse over eggs and toast. He tells me a story about his late wife and how he misses her so.
Maybe he helps me see my assignment is intact, that even my floundering is a sign I’m engaging meaningfully.
So meaningfully it hurts.