Seeing Meaning in Everything

Some people take things as they are. Their life motto is “what you see is what you get.”

Opposite to them are the ones we call wacky people, the spiritual nuts, witches and weirdos who try to see behind every little thing that happens. Everything that happens, they believe, is happening for a reason, and everything is connected. Basically, to their minds, it’s like the universe is always talking to them.

Don’t you just hate’m?

Mmm, no, I don’t. It’s true, they’re different. Out of the box, and maybe a bit loopy and irrational at times. There’s even a medical term for their loopiness: they may have “apophenia,” or the tendency to see meaning where there is none.

I’ve heard apophenia explained by a doctor as a trick of the mind, as wishful or psychotic fantasizing. He called it an  “irrational trap.” Or, rather, explained it away as a trap.

Because what the good doctor has just done is drop a bombshell in the realm of science and philosophy. What is truth? What is meaning? And who determines it? Is it objectively knowable? These are unanswered, and often enough unasked questions. Most of us assume that we know the truth, and call anybody who believes otherwise crazy. That’s statistically normal behavior, at least in my experience. This is the ‘what you see is what you get’ type.

Calling the tendency to see meaning apophenia, and labeling it a disease (which, granted, in some cases it may be), assumes that we can know for sure when there really is no meaning to something. We have a little red stamp in our pocket ready to print the label MEANINGLESS on anything we feel requires it. Funny thing is, people all across the social spectrum seem to have this stamp. Christians have stamped it onto heathens; battle-hardened soldiers have stamped it onto the pleading cries of innocent victims; atheists stamp it onto Christianity; governments have stamped it onto massive protests; etc.

In other words, people who see meaninglessness (especially when it applies to others) seem to be at least as crazy as those who see a deeply embedded meaning.

Let’s try and find the middle ground between these two groups of people. Let’s assume for a minute that both types of people are right; that everything is in fact both meaningful and meaningless at the same time. Basically, let’s argue that what you get is what you see.

In other words, the truth, meaning, or reality that you get in your life depends on how you look at things. How you see helps determine what you get. Mill over that for a second. I know it’s presumptuous to just flip a wise saying around to sound even wiser, but there are lessons to be learned by doing it.

Everyone sees in a certain way, or ways. Whether you’re a ‘realist,’ who sees no meaning, or an apopheniac who sees messages from the Creator everywhere, we’ve all got a system of meaning through which we filter our reality.

In Thai English, we’re “same same, but different.” Even saying that things are meaningless is an act of giving it meaning; you’re giving it the meaning of being meaningless. It’s a slightly different veneer than the meaning you could be experiencing, but hey.

We could also play with the idea that everything does have meaning. I mean, how hard is it to accept logically that everything that happens does so for a reason? If you look back at the events in your life, the most random shit has often had the greatest impact on its course. Things that were meant to happen to make you who you are. Hah – see how tempting it is?

But seriously; if you’re one with the universe, or Tat-tvam-asi as the Hindus say, then perhaps there’s one basic message that every single particle in every object and life form is telling you: one meaning to everything that happens, namely, “Hello, wake up – I am you.” Anything beyond that, like angels telling you to bomb Baghdad (cough*Bush*coughcough), is just crazy talk.

Even if we assume that everything really is meaningless – or at least, all of the things that the nuts say are meaningful – then, well, who cares if you choose to see meaning anyway? What do you have to lose?

So, what’s better? Who’s got a one-up on the other, and has the last laugh? I think it’s clear what my heart goes out to. But the naïve realists aren’t total loss; as Werner Erhard, the crazy cultist wrote, after you realize that things are meaningless, you’re ready to be illuminated by the next insight.

And the next insight is awesome indeed; it is the insight that it’s meaningless to say that things are meaningless, and it’s up to you to decide what things mean. Booya!

We make or choose meaning because we want something to be meaningful. The meaning may not be inherently there, at least not objectively so. In fact, it probably just comes from what’s called the imagination. This is where most people pull the plug on fantasy; rationally speaking, if something is imagined, it must be bullshit. Right?

Wrong.

I’m not saying it ain’t bullshit. I’m saying you can’t pull the plug on it just because it’s bullshit. Because, my brothers and sisters, where does bullshit come from? From the imagination. And where does the imagination come from? To be honest, I don’t know, but let’s say it comes from the mind. And where does the mind come from? From the body. And where does the body come from? The earth, your parents and their genes. Where did they come from? The universe. Where did the universe come from? God only knows.

So you see we can’t pull the plug so easily. Meaning is embedded in the mystery of our very existence, which loops back on itself through an endless circle of questioning: the question of where meaning comes from. And the only way to complete that circle, and be both truthful and admittedly full of shit, is to recognize that the meaning you see is the meaning you have chosen, right here, right now. Chosen from the infinite possibilities of interpretation, here is my truth, my bullshit, and you can take it or leave it.

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