I don’t like bumperstickers. Half the time it’s just a self-righteous scold issuing from an automotive backside like a continuous ideological fart. I don’t even care if I agree with it; no fart is good when I’m behind it.
The rest of the time it’s witless humor. I see this in front of me in traffic
and begin weeping for at least three reasons. I have changed lanes in vicious traffic just to get an especially stupid sticker out of my sightline.
Once in a very long while there’s the exception that proves the rule, whatever that means — a bumpersticker that manages to be both witty and meaningful. I saw one two years ago in the parking lot of a Unitarian fellowship in Fridley, Minnesota. It said
I nearly wet myself with delight. Three days later I was pasting a copy on my own rear end. It’s still there. It captures the central joke of our existence, the difference between how big and serious we feel and how small and silly we are. [I’ve called this ‘the monk and the monkey,’ thinking I’d coined the phrase — then Googled it and learned otherwise. A classic monk-and-monkey moment.]
Best of all, the sticker calls into question the idea that “it” has to all be “about” some one thing.
It doesn’t, you know.
When someone hears that I think God is pretend, a meaning-and-purpose question is not far behind. But how do you get out of bed in the morning, and so on. It’s important in these moments to hide my instant, overwhelming desire to pull the person’s underwear up over his head and skip away humming I’ve Got a Loverly Bunch of Coconuts. Instead I pretend it’s a question worth answering. It isn’t, but what the hell.
I explain that we all ought to get out of bed in grateful surprise — unconditionally, every single morning — giggling with amazement at our luck to be conscious things, to be inside that tiny window of existence between two infinities of nonexistence. Most mornings I fail to wake up that way, and shame on me for that, silly monkey. For countless millennia I was mindless stuff. In a few years I’ll be that again. But for now… *HAHAHAHAHA!!!* LOOK AT ME, all up and EXISTING!!! WOOHOO!!!!!
You really have got to do that once in awhile, and mean it.
To insist on more is outrageously piggy. Our luck at even having that tiny window (most potential “people” never do, after all) and at being inside that window right now — why, that luck is so incredibly huge, we shouldn’t even be able to get to the end of our solemn declarations of the hunger for “meaning and purpose” without bursting into fits of giggles: “My existence is meaningful because…heh…heh heh….WOOHOO!!!!!!!! *HAHAHAHAHAHA!!* WHOOP-WHOOP-WHOOP!!!”
But it isn’t enough, is it. I don’t imagine other animals have “meaning crises,” but our cortical freakishness makes us feel that we need more than just the lucky fact of being — makes us imagine these enormous, fatal holes and cracks in our meaning and purpose.
Hence the use of God as meaning-spackle.
When I was a kid, my purposometer (purr-puh-SAH-mit-ter), was always in the 90s on a scale of 100. Didn’t even have to try. I knew what I was here for: getting good grades, playing the clarinet, getting Muriel Ruffino to kiss me (Editor’s note: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, booyah!), getting into college, getting various other girls to kiss and etc. me (mission roughly 17% accomplished). And so on.
Much like your need for a pancreas, you never even know you have the need for meaning and purpose until it begins to fail — which mine did, in no uncertain terms, as I sat black-robed and square-hatted in a folding chair on a Berkeley lawn, not hearing the words of some famous anthropologist standing before me and 150 other black-robed, square-hatted, non-hearing 22-year-olds.
For the first time in my life, I had no earthly idea what was next. It was my first genuine core-shaking crisis of meaning and purpose.
In the months that followed, my purposometer dropped to the mid-30s. I had no idea which way to go professionally. All of my romantic relationships had ended in flames and the waiting room was empty. I felt like a photocopy of a photocopy of a hollow log that wonders what the point is.
It was scary. It was unsettling. I didn’t like it one bit.
I scrambled to feed the meter with the only currency it had ever accepted: I went back to school. But I was haunted by the feeling that I was in the wrong field. I had followed what I was good at instead of finding what might fulfill me. My meter registered a cautious but bearable 50 and would have stayed there until the next square hat landed on my head, had not some damn fine M&P come strolling into view:
I had seriously dated enough of the wrong women (3, 4, or 5, depending on your definition of “serious,” “date,” and “woman”) to recognize the right one when she walked into the frame. I’ll refrain from further description of my lucky marriage, since it tends to come out like a Barry Manilow song. But when it comes to waking up everyday in grateful surprise…well, let me tell you, it’s just great to see her experience that every morning. Heh.
We were married, I got a job as a college professor, we had kids, and M&P became a non-issue. In one way or another, everything that mattered centered on them — and once the purposometer is in the high 90s, it’s pancreatic again.
It was about five years ago that I realized I hadn’t given M&P a thought in a long time. It only began to register again because my career had stopped satisfying me. My family was still my primary raison d’être, but work no longer worked. As the needle dropped, I could feel the hunger for a topping-off of my sense of purpose. I was spoiled, really. After so many years of fulfillment, even dropping into the low 80s was painful.
Last year I quit my job and became a full-time writer. There was no real M&P boost at first — the financial silence after the last paycheck was so terrifying that I was editing business books and telecommunications manuals, anything to put food on my family. If anything, the purposometer took a hit. But I slowly found work that was much more meaningful: writing for schools, writing for Nonviolent Peaceforce, and launching the parenting book. Deeply satisfying, purposeful work. Now I’m back in the high 90s. Wind from the NW, gusting to 20 mph.
Here comes the point.
“Meaning and purpose” is not an all-or-nothing commodity. It goes up, it falls down. It swings around wildly, trying to find its bearings. I don’t believe there is, or should be, one universal “meaning of life,” god-based or otherwise, no one thing that keeps all of our needles pinned. Neither do I believe we make our own meaning from pure random scratch. I think we discover what is fulfilling for us. We feel in the pits of our stomachs when we’re on a hollowing path, then register a shock of recognition when we veer onto another that fills us up.
When I was eighteen, I had no idea that family would end up being the most fulfilling element of meaning and purpose for me. I had to go hollow for a long time first. One of the most painful parts of parenting will surely be watching my kids go through trial and error in their own search for meaning — left foot in, left foot out, right elbow in, right elbow out. I may think I want them to be happy and fulfilled every minute of their lives, but no predigested meaning and purpose is going to feed them in the long run. Like everything else, the process of finding it yourself is essential to knowing when you can finally put your whole self in.
Then you shake it all about.