© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

You put your whole self in

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

hokepoke sticker

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.



This was written on Tuesday, 05. June 2007 at 21:56 and was filed under meaning and purpose, Parenting. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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Comments »

  1. What beautiful happenstance (such an enjoyable amalgamation) that I stumbled upon this blog at this particular moment on this particular day.

    I spent 3 hours today just aimlessly walking, thinking, wondering, trying to figure out what the bloody “hell” I am supposed to be doing with my existence. I’m recently unemployed, highly unfulfilled, completely broke and clueless as to where I am heading next.

    I know this is generally the status quo for a 24 year old but, dammit, it doesn’t make it any less disconcerting.

    I had been considering returning to school simply because it is really the only thing I actually know how to do. Besides, if I keep my nose in a book I don’t really have the time to worry about “M&P”, I can delay all that inconvenient nonsense for a few more years until I have another degree in my hand. But to what end?

    Now, here it is, perspective!

    Thank you.

    Comment: ThatOneGirl – 05. June 2007 @ 10:34 pm

  2. Thanks, both to you and ThatOneGirl (my nickname in high school was “that chick”, Dale. I’m on a M&P search right now too…after finding out my Prince Charming was another of the wrong ones and feeling like my career is a one way ticket to insanity, I’m trying to do the Hokey Pokey again. I’ve always been a little uncoordinated…but I’ll get there…

    Your tribute to your family and wife is nothing short of a reason to shake it all about today. Truly lovely.

    Comment: Ei – 06. June 2007 @ 9:03 am

  3. ThatOneGirl, you made my day. Aways nice to find out I said something useful. You’re right in every way, of course — it’s normal, what you’re going through, and realizing that that doesn’t help a bit.

    And thanks, Ei. I’m mostly glad I deleted the first draft of my attempt to describe my marriage, which would surely have been syrup of ipecac to anyone outside my head. But it’s true. I married so well that I could screw up most every decision I have left in life and still come out ahead. (Cue the Manilow strings.)

    Comment: Dale – 06. June 2007 @ 3:55 pm

  4. “God as meaning-spackle” AH HAHA HAHA – Oh Dale, I love your words.

    Beautiful blog entry. You have such obvious love for your family!

    Comment: Amanda – 08. June 2007 @ 3:49 pm

  5. […] and Purpose is Discovered, Not Taught and Learned 12 06 2007 From our blogrolled “Parenting Beyond Belief” : . . .“Meaning and purpose” is not an all-or-nothing commodity. It goes up, it falls down. It […]

    Pingback: Meaning and Purpose is Discovered, Not Taught and Learned « Cocking A Snook! – 12. June 2007 @ 11:40 pm

  6. […] meaning thing is a legitimate problem. I’ve written before about the ways in which we discover meaning, but that’s down here on the local level of our experience. He was asking the larger […]

    Pingback: The Meming of Life » Meaning and nonforeverness Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders – 30. September 2008 @ 11:17 am

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