Even if we don’t feel awash, adrift, lost at this very moment we all know that feeling: the emptiness, the nothingness, the what-is-the-pointiness. The sad days and the hangover days, when the Nihilist creature creeps in and whispers into our ear that we are living a lie, and all of this is meaningless: the plastic, the viruses, the oil spills, the great big orange turd-faced morons stomping over everything; it doesn’t matter because one day we are going to die. So what the hell is the frigging point in doing anything? I mean there are many theories and beliefs about existence. This one is totally valid but, in my vast experience in dealing with it (a lot of hangovers), it hasn’t made me the cheeriest of people to be around. People haven’t been queuing up to chat with me when I’ve been tooting that horn. And when I have been, the distance between others and myself has become a chasm, the connections loosen and the things that we want and need: to be heard and feel connected, fall away into the abyss. An Ouroboros cycle of doom (that got dark fast).
I’ve been searching for the meaning of existence for a while now: in books, conversations, in the highest of highs and the bottommest of bottles. I’ve looked into the eyes of strangers, probably for too long, making them feel super awkward (sorry-not-sorry). I’ve read philosophy, contemplated religion, tried different hobbies and thoughts on for size. Nothing has really stuck and I’m not sure that it ever will. If you are looking for answers here, I can’t really give you any I’m afraid. I’ll keep looking, like an emotional Dora the Explorer. But in the meantime I’m trying on these “Elements of Meaning” to see how they fit. The basis for them came from a TED Talk I watched called “There’s more to life than being happy” by Emily Esfahani Smith. In the talk Emily talks about coming up with four pillars of meaning. I changed them to elements as it sounded a bit cooler (no-offence Emily), and added silliness, because what is life without a few laughs? So here they all are, the elements, just from my perspective. Your ideas on each will probably differ and I invite you to collaborate, change and grow them all from your personal perspective.
For me this is feeling love and deep connection; not just from friends and family but also the micro interactions that you have with the wider community. Learning to really listen to and believe the experiences of others, to enable you to empathise and build those strong bonds. Not just waiting for your turn to tell a MUCH better story that also involves you (my apologies to the stranger in the pub last week). Arranging to see people in real life, not just through plastic, glass and pixels. Looking after your relationships requires a constant kind of gardening, pruning and caring nature. Trying not to piss all over your flowers with carelessness and miscommunication. Being kind. Build those strong connections and trim the ones that are holding you back, and you will shine.
Finding something that you love doing is hard. Finding something that you love doing and that will earn you some dollars is even more tricky. It’s this mega ongoing process of constantly examining yourself over and over and checking in to see that you are on the right track. For some people it’s just a drive: they know what they want to do and they simply can’t do anything else. For most of us it’s not that easy. You can start with your strengths, figure out what brings you joy and then think about ways that you can use that thing to be of service to others. Many studies have shown that humans lead longer and happier lives if the thing that they choose to spend their time on (it doesn’t have to be career, it can be volunteering etc.), serves others in some way. Figure out the best format to put all of your wonderful potential energy out into the world: the medium that you choose can be just as important as the message. No-one will ever see what you have to give unless you at least try. And the more you try, the more the odds will be with you.
This is my favourite: moments of wonder. That feeling you get when you lose yourself and feel like you are a part of something bigger and unexplainable. A bit like when you take lots of shrooms and realise that everything is connected: you ARE the spoon. Or when you go to an art gallery still high on the shrooms, and look at the painting and then you are INSIDE THE PAINTING, OMG. Of course, you don’t actually have to take shrooms to experience transcendence. It can happen when you look into the eyes of a loved one, stare up at some ancient trees, happen to see a shooting star or listen to a beautiful piece of music. Sometimes I feel it when I draw; when I’m really in the flow of creating something. It’s magical and beautiful and those words are too shitty and boring and ordinary to describe it, because there are no words to describe that feeling. I now try to purposely record these moments of wonder in my mind, in the hope that I can play them back to myself anytime that I need a bit of joy.
Fucking hell we tell ourselves some crappy stories about our lives don’t we? “I can’t do that because…” or “Better not try that again or I’ll get hurt” or “I look awful today, maybe I shouldn’t go to the beach. I’ll just stay inside and watch Drag Race instead.” This is not cool. If you are not rating yourself a 10 every damn day then what the hell are you actually doing? No-one else is going to do it for you. Human beings have made up the rating system. The beauty standards (that change ALL THE TIME) are all made up. Only you can edit your own narrative. You aren’t an unlucky person. Fake it til you make it, tell yourself you can do it, and tell yourself you can change. Storytelling is part of our DNA, and we are lucky enough to have the ability to reframe, edit and re-tell the story of our lives. It’s a pretty cool superpower.
I like to tell Dad jokes, but sometimes he doesn’t get them (sorry). Laughing and being silly can get us through the darkest of moments. If you look up and look around, you can’t help but laugh at the current state of being of humanity: the very things that we have made up, like governments and money, are now responsible for saving things that actually exist and keep us alive, like clean water and trees. This thought fills me with fear and also makes me laugh: what else is there to do? Get your silliness out and wiggle it around for everyone to see. Stay humble: look at each other, and laugh into the abyss.
The last bit
Any attempt to categorise and compartmentalise human existence will be flawed. I always attempt to find elegant solutions, and inevitably fail. We are all so unique, each one slightly different from the last, with a different point of view on everything, and wildly different life experiences. Could there be more elements? Yes, you could definitely make up your own, or tweak these ones. There are many inebriated and non-inebriated conversations to be had around these ideas, and lots more to learn. We are constantly evolving and society (if at a much slower pace) is evolving along with us. Everything is fallible, changeable, malleable and floaty, a bit like our actual weird water-sack insides. The Elements are just a nudge, I suppose, to stop and take stock. Take a look around and at your weird insides and think about what you are doing at the moment. Is your life the way you want it? Are adjustments needed? How should you move forward? And perhaps they are also just a daily reminder that everything is connected. A prompt to keep trying to be a better human, in whatever ways we can, even though it’s tough AF sometimes. Just keep trying.
If you want a more permanent visual reminder of the above, you can get the Elements of a Meaningful Life print here.