“People say that what we’re all seeking is the meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” ~ Joseph Campbell
This brilliant concept was my doorway into the genius of Joseph Campbell, as it probably was for many. It was as if somebody had thrown open a window and let in a great big gust of fragrant air. It was alright to give the incessant questions a rest? It was okay to stop weighing facts against each other, hoping the scale would eventually tip in the direction of a meaningful universe? Was the answer I had been looking living closer to home than I had suspected?
For a long time, it seemed so. The great man’s verdict put my mind at ease and invited me on a quest that was less steered by thinking than by feeling, more prone to joy than to frustration, more about stumbling upon than about seeking. Suddenly it was enough just to listen to the birdsong, to feel the breeze coming in through the window, to guess at the quiet intimations behind it all. Maybe this was indeed all there was — this radiance, this buzz, this oh-so-pleasant hum of the universe — and it was enough!
Where was the glad conviction I had felt just a day ago, a week ago, a moment ago, when all was right with the world?
But inevitably something would happen and the radiance would dim, the buzz would turn into deadly silence and the hum would be not quite a-humming. Then, the questions just as inevitably returned. Where was the glad conviction I had felt just a day ago, a week ago, a moment ago, when all was right with the world? Where was not just the joy but even the okayness of life at such moments? And there it was, like it or not: what did it all mean?
Whenever this happened I felt like a disloyal student. Hadn’t I embraced Campbell’s life-changing wisdom? He had said it: meaning was a mental construct. The secret of life was in experience, not in understanding. I knew that, now if only I could understand it.
Finally I had to come clean: my thirst for meaning was not gone, it was just dragging its feet guiltily in the back alleys of my mind. It was easy to forget when experience was joyful, but it came creeping back like a needy child the moment the lights went out and my old friends fear, doubt and anxiety came calling. It was appeased by sunlight, and afraid of the dark.
It wasn’t just my own experience that gave me pause, it was also the research. In her book The How of Happiness, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky defined happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful (italics mine), and worthwhile.” Other researchers pointed to the same thing: we can take meaning out of the equation and look at all the other factors that make up happiness, but if happiness is merely the pleasure of eating a bowl of ice-cream, how profound is that happiness? How worthy of pursuit? And what happens when ice-cream is unattainable? Does life suddenly lose all purpose?
Another discovery of happiness research stoked my doubts even further. Apparently, when people are asked whether they are happy to be parents, happy to have invested their lives and efforts in caring for their children, they invariably say yes. When those same people are tested on their happiness level while engaged in the particulars of child rearing — say, lugging their kids around from school to play dates to dance lessons to dentist appointments — they measured, how shall I put it, not on the ecstatic end of the scale.
Some deeper level of experience defeats all calculation, even if that experience includes more effortful moments than light or carefree ones, even if the joy is tempered by the shadow of unimaginable pain.
Does this mean people are lying (to researchers, to themselves) when they say they are happy to be parents? Is humanity’s will to reproduce just one big collective self-delusion? Nature’s ploy to ensure our survival? Or was this in fact a paradox, rather than a contradiction? Could it be pointing to something deeper?
Being a parent I am familiar with the strain of caring for one’s children. I am acquainted with gut-twisting anxiety of knowing bad things can happen to these beings who matter to you more than your own fate, whose pains hurt worse than your own, and whom you have ultimately no way of protecting. But if I were asked, as the people in the study were, if I am happy with the choice I made to have children, the words that come to mind are revealing: of course, it is a no brainer. In other words, this is not a question for the brain. Some deeper level of experience defeats all calculation, even if that experience includes more effortful moments than light or carefree ones, even if the joy is tempered by the shadow of unimaginable pain.
Perhaps there was more to Campbell’s quote than I initially fathomed. Perhaps I had been reading it all wrong. The whole time I had focused on that luminous last line: “the rapture of being alive”. How to secure for myself a steady flow of rapturous experiences, so that the question of meaning never had to arise again. Sure enough, in the face of rapture, or in fact in the simplest joy, the intellect takes a back seat and leaves us be. “Nobody asks for the meaning of life when looking at a flower”, said the great J.C. But what about the troubled times, when the “why me’s” and the “why this” take their strangely hold over us again, sucking all lightness from our step? Did the great storyteller ignore that dimension of existence? Had he not experienced it himself?
If we can manage to live with an open heart, our experiences do seem to make meaning of their own.
Then it dawned on me, in one anxious, grim-faced dusk. Here is what Campbell was really saying: “I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality…” He was talking about all our experiences on the physical plane, not just the happy ones. He was talking about finding “resonances with our own innermost reality” even in the midst of total darkness.
And that’s how it is, isn’t it? In times of despair we can feel one of two ways: banished from the world, disconnected from our own hearts, cut off from any kind of tenderness or respite. Or we can find, in that desolate hour, in the belly of the desolation, a strange kind of beauty. There is someone inside us that wants us to learn from this, to uncover a new layer of appreciation, a truer degree of compassion. Is this experience? Understanding? Meaning? At a certain depth, the distinction seems less important.
Perhaps it was always a matter of linguistics. Perhaps all Campbell was saying was that we shouldn’t try to think our way through life, even in our suffering. Perhaps he meant that we make meaning through experience, and that we that don’t get to have it beforehand, we don’t get to question life and come up with an answer. But if we can manage to live with an open heart, our experiences do seem to make meaning of their own.
So maybe it comes down to this: the intellect gives us the pick axe that allows us to bore into most of life’s queries, problems and dilemmas. But when it is out of its depth, when the pain becomes too great, the fright too frightening, the despair too bottomless to comprehend, the heart takes the axe from the intellect’s hand, relieves it from its duty, and glides in the rest of the way, ushering us tenderly along into the unknown. Joseph was right, after all – experience is the great teacher. Thank God we are also good students, graced with the gift to see in the dark.