Silence and the search for meaning


There has been a month-long pause on this blog, and I’m trying to understand why. Partly it’s because over the past three months the focus has been on work and my efforts to develop new projects. But it’s not just being busy or my ongoing struggle to prioritise other things that matter to me when I’m in work mode that prevented me. The reluctance also reflects how unfamiliar the terrain I’m in has become. I don’t feel very sure about where I am, who I am, even, and for some reason that holds me back from writing and communicating generally.

I’ve been working, which has been quite satisfying, and I’ve been able to shift my approach from wishing things could happen to thinking about how to make them happen. I’ve been trying to respond to problems that come up with a greater sense of responsibility, by which I mean feeling less like a victim of the bad things and trying to respond in a proactive way. Those are the good things. They strike me as fundamental, foundational. When I think about the decisions I make I imagine machines in an engine room that are beginning to move.

Everything else, though, feels completely out of joint. I look out at the world and don’t know my place in it. Without the other that I was significant to, I don’t feel anchored, or particularly needed. My days are long stretches broken by a series of events, which are a distraction at least and at best actually enjoyable, but it doesn’t feel like living.

I spent some of the Easter weekend reading Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning and following a Frankl trail on the wonderful Brainpickings blog, which lead me to this piece and this quote.

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

I was struck by the power of the reversal he argues for, of thinking about what life expects from us, of thinking of ourselves “as those who were being questioned by life”. But at the moment life’s only question seems to be how am I going to respond to loneliness, to irrelevance and insignificance, to what seems like the meaninglessness of it all. I work, which gives shape and form to my life, but when I look up and around me, all I experience is emptiness and a vast silence. I’m determined that I won’t withdraw or give it and everyone the finger, although the idea’s very tempting. And in my encounters with people, I can feel overwhelmed by the demands they make. Mark was the first person I loved enough, and was loved enough by, that I felt there was a flow between us that I was able to love and take care of him, but also felt entirely comfortable making demands of him and voicing my expectations.

At the moment, I feel a lot less loving, less sociable, less friendly, less willing or able to put aside my needs in order to ‘be there’ for others than I did before he died. But I think maybe it’s because I’m letting go of some old tendencies. Mark would appreciate, I think, how little effort I’m prepared to put in to make things right with people, and also with my determination not to be overly grateful if I get the slightest bit of attention. I want to give to life, but I also have a new set of expectations, or at least, they are resurfacing and making themselves known. Maybe I gave up on them, and, in the ongoing tension between my needs and the needs of others, shelved them. So as I look out on the world, I find myself wondering ‘how is this going to work out?’

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