“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Søren Kierkegaard
I know that it is only now, entering the twilight of my life, that I can appreciate much of my lived experience. I'm genuinely grateful for it, and that much of it feels meaningful, is meaningful, to me.
"Meaning" in the sense of "implied significance."
And I should pause here and point out that life is meaningless. Like General Electric, we "bring meaning to life." It is by living that we make meaning.
Everyone can live a meaningful life. And most people do. Nearly everyone. Some more than others, some tragically little. And "meaning" can have positive and negative poles. Most people seek the positive one, but can end up at the negative one.
One of the things I didn't appreciate when I was in uniform was the opportunity it gave me to make meaning. I did make meaning in uniform. Some of the things I most treasure. The burials at sea, the meditations on faith and honor shared in retirement ceremonies. But I didn't truly appreciate the opportunity the uniform afforded me to make meaning every day.
This is the thing that many people miss, I think. We live our lives caught up in the moment, and we seldom have reason or opportunity to pause and reflect on what it is we're doing and what it's about.
When I thought about what it was we were doing when we were performing all those burials at sea, well, I was at sea. At night, alone in my cabin with just my thoughts and the paperwork that accompanied those cremains. I wasn't at home with the kids, watching TV, doing chores. I had an opportunity to reflect, because there was nothing else competing for my attention in that moment.
You can live a meaningful life unconsciously. It's possible. Most people are good people, doing good things, and that's mostly how meaning is made. It doesn't require heroic sacrifice. Courtesy, compassion, patience, anytime anyone exhibits any of those things, they're making meaning. Unconsciously, which means that those are perhaps the hardest for us to appreciate about ourselves.
Even in a service role, and I'm not exclusively referring to military service, it's possible that we may be going about it unconsciously. Not appreciating the meaning we're making, the value we create in others' lives. There's a whole movie about that, It's a Wonderful Life.
Worse than living life unconsciously though, is living life blindly.
What role does your attention play in your life?
Imagine ambition. Where is your attention then?
If it's focused on yourself, your goals, then chances are you may be blind to the opportunity you have to make meaning in your life, unless that is your goal. To live a meaningful life.
I think people in elected office don't appreciate the opportunity they have to live a meaningful life. I think many of them have their attention focused on their opponents, their allies, their conflicts, their next office. They may view their role exclusively in the context of a zero-sum game, where someone has to lose in order for them to win.
They may frame their choices in that context, not recognizing the opportunity right before their eyes to make meaning in their own lives, and in the lives of the people they supposedly serve.
Or worse, making all the wrong sorts of meaning, the wrong kinds of "implied significance."
And it's obvious too, if anyone cares to look. The good news is, most people are similarly caught up in the struggle to manage the growing chaos of daily life to notice that politicians and elected leaders are focusing on themselves and missing opportunities to make meaning in their lives.
You won't find "consultants" telling elected leaders, or candidates, this.
Therapists, maybe. And everyone could use a good therapist.
But a consultant will blind you. Keep your focus and your attention on the consultant, on the actions that will benefit the consultant, and I guess, by extension, you.
And you'll squander rare, irreplaceable opportunities to live a meaningful life.
Or worse, make the kind of meaning you'll look back on with regret. The "implied significance" of how you've made others' lives more difficult, or seem less valuable, less important, diminished.
Blind ambition. I don't know if it's to be pitied or cursed. Maybe both.
Originally posted at Notes From the Underground 06:07 Sunday, 30 April 2023