“I’ve never met someone so concerned about doing something meaningful,” someone told me the other day. He was surprised by me, but I found myself surprised by the comment–how on earth do so many people go through their day without constantly facing this question? Isn’t this the most obvious thing to be asking–what should I do right now, and why?
It’s true that obsessing about the meaning of your actions can catch you in a trap. You may spiral into doing nothing at all because nothing clears the hurdle of ‘meaningful’ for you. But there’s something strange about not even thinking of the meaning of our actions.
Life is not meant to be accepted as it comes to us, unquestioned. We must shoulder the responsibility of living for God’s glory, and this includes examining our mundane activities. We may be doing things because that’s just what people do, and not noticing what really should be done. So while it’s challenging for me to wrestle with this question, I think it’s worth wrestling with.
I’m not sure how other people go about their day, but here’s an example of how this question comes up daily for me. For example, I come home from work (or more accurately right now–school). What should I do? I’m faced with hours of time, time which is not empty time since there’s always a certain number of things that need to be done at some point in the near future, but there really is no indication of what to do when. I need to eat, but that could happen immediately or several hours from now. I could educate myself by reading a stimulating book, but I could always do that later. I could clean my house or do other chores, but I could always do that later. In fact, every activity could be done later, and is in fact nonessential in the moment. How, then, do I decide what is a priority? Certainly not on the basis of necessity.
This is the modern difference. In the past, our ancestors never faced this decision. Everything was necessary. Every action mattered for survival, so they wrestled less with the existential angst of the meaning of their actions. They didn’t have time to wrestle with it anyway, even if the thought occurred to them. And if the thought occurred the immediate answer was: my actions matter because otherwise I’d die.
Now, many of you may be Christians and therefore are now saying to me–yes, but don’t you know the ultimate meaning of life? Isn’t it to glorify God and to enjoy him forever? To which I wholeheartedly agree. Does this then mean my priority in every decision should be what is most spiritual? Not if you have a good understanding of a Christian life. A Christian life is not fundamentally a life of reading the Bible and doing nothing else. It is living in God’s creation. This involves deepening our knowledge of God, but also using his gifts and interacting with our environment. So it’s very hard to say anything in particular is not glorifying, unless it is of course obviously against God’s will.
In other words, while this clarifies my ultimate aim and puts urgency into my ability to choose well, it still leaves the decision about what practical actions I take moment-to-moment in my hands. And what I’m actually looking for is a relatively reliable method of making moment-to-moment decisions about what to do without having an existential crisis every time I need to decide.
In psychology they talk about heuristic techniques, which are simple shortcuts our mind takes so it doesn’t have to make a decision every single time. You don’t have to decide what you’re seeing with your eyes, because your mind has already decided it’s an apple. And so on. What I need is a decision-making heuristic, one that will give me a relatively good answer most of the time. And in fact, this is probably what most people have. This is probably why so many people around me don’t seem to worry about this very often. They’ve decided: fulfilling my role in my family makes my life meaningful, therefore I will do what’s expected of me in that role (clean the house, shovel snow, have fun as a family). Or, if I achieve this one thing in life, I will have achieved something recognizable and memorable that contributes to the world (becoming a doctor or starting a business). However, the difficulty comes in when you have the limitless ability to choose roles, but no requirement to choose any.
Another concept in psychology is the tyranny of choice. As mentioned above, in the past people may not have worried so much about what to do moment-to-moment. However, once we were presented with endless freedom, we did not in fact become happier. We became more anxious, because we constantly had to choose.
This is where I’m at–constantly facing a choice. Does this help to explain how a person could become obsessed with understanding meaning?
No one is given a free pass to do nothing (think of the Parable of the Talents–the one who buried his talent in the ground was chastised). We’re can’t excuse ourselves from action because we’re bewildered about what, precisely, we ought to do. That by itself is not reason enough. At the same time, we are charged to use our wisdom and not to choose our actions at random merely for the sake of doing something. Making a random choice is not really better than making no choice. Yet making a wise choice does not imply we’re responsible for making choices that avoid all possible pitfalls. We do have the ability to live free from the judgment of God after a choice does not go so well. However, this does not give much direction beforehand.
All the same, I don’t think it is useless that I am in this position. There is an idea that whatever problem annoys you the most may be a problem that you ought to work on. So I’m pondering this question–really, I have been working on it for years now. It seems to be one worth answering: when one is faced with an endless array of choices in one moment with no requirement to choose any of them, how does one make a wise choice? I do feel as if in general we tend to vanish into the “no choice” option, where we never attempt to progress (for example, remaining in our parents’ basements). But I believe life can be much richer than that.
Appendix: Priorities I’ve Tried to Use as Heuristics, Which the Book of Ecclesiastes Also Addresses
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” – Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
In practice, I tend to prioritize activities that involve other people. This obviously meets my social needs, but I also think it is upbuilding in that it helps me take the focus off myself and attempt to contribute to others’ lives. However, I’m not sure this should actually be the primary standard for prioritizing. I could always try to do activities that impact the greatest number of people for the better, but then I would never cook for myself or clean my own house. No, there is some value in doing menial chores even if no one knows you do them.
“There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” – Ecclesiastes 2:24-25
Another approach is to just enjoy the goodness God has given to you in your life. Enjoy good wine, nice food and amazing sights. Pursue your interests with all your enthusiasm and see where they take you. This is a valid consideration in making a decision, but it can’t have the highest priority in absolutely every case. I’ve certainly been blessed through it though.
“So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.” – Ecclesiastes 3:22
This one gives me the greatest sense of meaning and purpose. When I have a goal, such as teaching someone some aspect of English, or finishing a course in Theology, or leading a summer’s worth of camps, and then I achieve that goal, I feel fulfilled. I’m not entirely sure that just because I feel fulfilled it means I ought to continue use this as a priority, but it is worthwhile in life to have a goal. I’ve attempted to apply this in bigger areas of my life, such as my career, and achieved success, but the feeling of fulfillment does not last forever. In addition, failure is a common result as well, and meaning can come out of failure though we often try to avoid it. Lastly, deciding what goals to pursue is perhaps the most existential-crisis-inducing thing of all, because it is hard to justify one goal versus another.
Ecclesiastes is certainly about what to do with your limited days on earth, and whether human beings truly can choose one better way of living over another (especially in the face of the futility of life!)
It must be a combination of all these things. First, what you do must strengthen your life with God. Second, it will involve work–either a necessary work for survival, or the most obvious chore in front of you, or a task of such worth it outweighs the obvious chores (as many of us get caught up wiping spots off our kitchen cupboards rather than taking on bigger projects). Lastly, the joy of giving of ourselves to other people and interacting with other people will come into it, as well as the pure pleasure of living and enjoying the blessings of God. Perhaps this heuristic can be simplified, but it’s a start.