Micro Muse #1: Man's Search For Meaning

The Self unwound in San Diego

One week ago I was sitting in a chair. I wasn't comfortable: NFL football screamed at me from the wall-mounted television, my slightly hung-over brain sat in my skull like a rotting cabbage, and the sunlight sizzled through the ceiling-height window panes lining the entire southern wall of my friend's apartment. The skyline of the city sprawled before me, just on the other side of the glass. Said friend lay peacefully napping on his couch, blissful, unconscious.

The panoramic view from his apartment, looking towards the ocean. Downtown San Diego, CA.

The panoramic view from his apartment, looking towards the ocean. Downtown San Diego, CA.

I was visiting him (my best friend and room mate from college) for the weekend. I love the man to death, but the vastness between our personalities could swallow the moon. Where he's the life of the party, I'm nervous in a crowd. Where he's completely comfortable with himself, I can barely find a way to explain what I do for work (something that came up quite a bit). But shit, that's what alcohol is for, right?

But after three nights of drinking and meeting people my age who make more money in one year than I'll make in five, I started burning out. I missed reading. I missed writing. I missed rock climbing so much. And I missed the feeling of solitude I've grown accustomed to. None of this is to say I regret my time in San Diego; on the contrary, it's good to do something you suck at every once in a while – in my case, partying and being social. Embrace the discomfort. If anything, it'll help you realize what you don't want, and force you to focus on what you do.

Meaning, and what it means

This past week I reentered my comfort zone. Back in Denver; back to the climbing gym; back in my basement hole, trying to absorb knowledge and find a way to synthesize and regurgitate it in a meaningful way. But the concept of MEANING is a funny thing.

Last night I listened to a recording of a lecture given by Terence McKenna –– "ethnobotanist, mystic, psychonaut, lecturer, author, and an advocate for the responsible use of naturally occurring psychedelic plants," from his Wikipedia page. In his talk he says something so simple and profound that I snorted aloud for never having thought of it –– not that I ever would have, given my inexperience. Here's what he says:

We are conscious people accustomed to injecting choice and meaning into our lives. You cannot have meaning if you do not have choice.

In terms of context, McKenna makes this point while contemplating why Western societies cannot seem to tolerate people with drug addictions –– people who have sacrificed their free choice and will to the power of a drug –– but I think the quote can be safely extracted and applied to the concept of meaning on a grand scale.

So what is meaning, then, without the power of the decisive human hand behind it? Well, according to McKenna, it doesn't even exist. 

Then yesterday I started reading Man's Search For Meaning, the infamous book (one part memoir of life in Nazi concentration camps, one part psychological analysis of "Logotherapy") by Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl. The author contends, in my own words, that the purpose of life is to search for one's own meaning. Man accomplishes this by choosing to do work he loves, giving himself completely to another human being (i.e. love), and responding well to the adverse conditions of existence.

About to enter Viktor Frankl's harsh, brutal memoir.

About to enter Viktor Frankl's harsh, brutal memoir.

At 32 pages into the book, I haven't even put a dent in it. But at this point, with my limited knowledge of Frankl's thesis, it seems to me that beneath his ideas flows the undercurrent of choice. A man can find meaning in his life, but he must choose to look.

What I'm beginning to take away from the work of McKenna and Frankl is this: I must willfully produce the meaning of my own life by making strong subjective choices. Making the "correct" choices for myself will hopefully produce a positive feedback loop, thereby rendering the process of change as meaningful as the resulting meaning itself.

Tie-ins & possible applications

How the hell does any of this relate to my trip to San Diego? Good question.

San Diego represented a disruption in my normal flow of work and life. Not a bad interruption, but an interruption nonetheless. While I was there, experiencing it firsthand, my will to remain positive and fulfilled by the trip slowly leaked away. I felt out of my element, surrounded by people (albeit very friendly, good people) I couldn't fully relate to, in an urban environment I know I could never reside in. Despite my pre-trip resolve to enjoy every minute of it, I think I was there a day too long.

Taken from the roof top of the apartment building of my friend's friend –– an outgoing, life-loving, successful and hilarious person. Hell of a night.

Taken from the roof top of the apartment building of my friend's friend –– an outgoing, life-loving, successful and hilarious person. Hell of a night.

If I were a different person, San Diego might be the perfect living environment. The setting and weather is absolutely beautiful, all the people I met are happy and successful –– and the social scene thrives because of it. But I know in my heart that my own search for meaning would not be a success if I lived there.

That being said, I still made the choice to visit. I wanted to visit one of my lifelong friends, so I decided I would. And meaning, whatever that is, follows choice. The temporary aspect of the vacation flowed steadily underneath the experience, and eventually I had a tiny revelation: I just wanted to return to my own life, my own search for meaning. The novelty wore away, and I could tell it was time to go. I guarantee I'll visit my buddy in San Diego again, probably sooner rather than later, and hopefully with a more firm grasp on my search for meaning –– and therefore on myself.

Absorb as much knowledge as possible in your areas of interest. Study and learn. Go to new places you've never been, hang out with people unlike yourself. Spend time with people you love. Do as much amateur work (like this blog!) in as many fields as you can, so you might realize what you don't like. When that's done, do work you love.

Even when the thought of doing these things outweighs the actual experience of trying, you still learn from your choices. You still find the meaning behind them.