If meaning dies, what is left?

I’ve never understood how people can spend their lives not trying to figure out the meaning of life, and more than that, the meaning of their own lives. How can my fellow non-believers find satisfaction and happiness without knowing the why of their lives? How can they not keep coming back to it, feeling at it, testing it, exploring it, like a puzzle whose solution lies just beyond their consciousness? I’ve certainly never been able to let the question go. Several times I’ve thought I’ve found my answer, and those answers have propelled me, guided my choices and kept me interested in living. But what happens when fulfilling that purpose becomes impossible, as mine did last year? How can I cope with the death of who I believe myself to be?

It is not the first time I’ve had to bury what I thought meaning of my life might be. I wasn’t always a non-believer. Like most children, I believed in my parents’ religion and accepted that I was part of a celestial plan. Unlike most children of European origin in Canada, my religion involved going to satsang, meditating, being vegetarian and learning about karma and reincarnation. And since my parents’ guru taught that all religions contained the same basic truths, I also learned about other religions, reading Ramayana comic books and children’s Bible stories. I knew that life was about being and doing good and learning from the situations you were in, with the goal of coming back next time even more enlightened.

I remember the death of belief clearly. It was the summer I turned 12 and I was sweltering with my family in our Volvo station wagon, on our way to catch the ferry back home after selling our pottery figures at a craft fair. I was gazing out the window and contemplating the various religions I knew about and how they answered the question of why we humans existed.

While Vancouver Island blurred by, I figured out that no religion could answer the existence question without pre-supposing a belief in itself. That is, no religion could provide a reason for our existence that would be valid if you don’t believe in its god(s). With that insight, the switch flipped instantly to non-belief.

This death of belief did not cause a great deal of stress. I held onto the ideas of how to live my life, but I lost the idea of a universe ordered by god, and thus the why of our existence. If there was no god, then why did we exist? In answer, I saw in my mind all of humanity’s lives as a river of grey lights, streaming from the past to the future. Sprinkled among them were a few golden lights, the great thinkers who had tried to figure this out in the past, the ones who had tried to make sense of the why of our existence. They had all been very smart and learned and yet they’d still failed, so who was I to think I could do any better?

Then I had the first flash of how my life in particular could have meaning. All these great thinkers had been limited by their location on the planet. Maybe if I could go to space I could see something that they hadn’t been able to. I could be one of the golden lights. I decided I wanted to become an astronaut in order to figure out the meaning of life.

In the early 80s, pre-Challenger, fighter pilots, medical doctors and scientists could become astronauts. While pilot seemed cool, as a woman, becoming a fighter pilot was difficult, so I decided to become a doctor, reasoning that it was still a career that could help people if the astronaut thing didn’t work out. My backup plan was joining the air force. I did know becoming an astronaut was a long shot, but with the confidence of youth, thought it was just within the realm of possibility.

Unfortunately, I also had the over-confidence of those for whom academic work comes easily. It got me as far as an Ivy League college, where I stranded among those who were brighter than me and had also learned how to study. The denouement came at the end of first semester sophomore year when I walked out of my Organic Chemistry final knowing that this was the end of being pre-med. I remember the despair I felt stumbling early out of the exam, finding an abandoned stairwell in the science building and crying my heart out for hours, mourning the loss of my dream.

It was the end of both the only idea I had of a future and my sense that I could contribute to finding the purpose of our world. I no longer knew where to aim myself but I was young and resilient, so I picked courses that seemed interesting and taught myself how to study along the way. At the beginning of my last semester, my advisor looked at my transcript and called my degree random studies. She was right. The only threads binding it together were studying how people and societies change and working on non-fiction writing.

I drifted for a few years after graduation. I went back to Vancouver, fell in love, moved in with him and tried to find my next path. I still thought that I could maybe do something great, that I could still be that golden light, somehow. But what would that meaningful something be? Most careers seemed to lack any meaning at all, let alone something that would let me do something good for the world. The one thing I did know was that I wanted to travel, to at least be able to see things from a different geographical perspective if I couldn’t make the stars. I made that happen, in part by planting trees in the mountains of British Columbia to make money. We managed a four-month trip in Central America.

On the plane back from that trip, I had my second epiphany. Prompted by the catalogue of expensive and useless items in the seat pocket, I realized that it was our consumerism that was driving the damage to the environment that I’d seen while tree planting and travelling, and that our environment was in serious danger. Trying to change this was something I could do to make the world a better place, and now that I had seen it, something I was almost obliged to do. I felt so relieved to have a vision and a goal again, somewhere to focus my efforts. Maybe I wouldn’t figure out the meaning of it all, but at least I’d leave the world a better place and maybe even help save ourselves from ourselves.

It took me a while to figure out how best to do that, with a detour to South Korea to explore the world more and get out of student-loan debt by teaching English. While there, I decided to become a city planner. In that way, I could help make changes that would make a lasting difference to how we lived, and thus how much we consumed. Back in Canada in grad school, I got interested in human side of the problem, and once I graduated, I got a good job working on local government policy. Things were looking good. I had the feeling that as my career developed I would be able to move into somewhere where I could do some good.

And then I threw it all away, without realizing I was doing it. I moved to Europe, jumping in without a job, with a new Dutch husband and a baby on the way, and lots of optimism. I was finally on my path of trying to help change along. No longer wanting to be a hugely shining light, but still hoping to shine and help make the world better.

The death of this dream was slow, a million paper cuts in place of a single stab. As soon as my maternity leave ended, I tried to find a job where I could continue the progress I had started in Canada. But it was not to be. There was a world-wide recession and the fluent Dutch I had learned on leave was never enough, and then I had another child. My husband got wrapped up in his own career and political life and left me alone with the young children, not seeing how hopeless and stuck I was feeling since he was rarely home. I kept applying and applying, hoping each time and having it again come to nothing, trying to somehow get started again. I networked and volunteered and worked as an intern but got nowhere. I was quite understandably depressed and losing confidence in my own abilities.

I knew that my insistence on doing something meaningful limited my options, but I also knew giving that up would kill me inside. If I hadn’t been able to work in a career without meaning when I was 20, I wouldn’t be able to do it when I was 40. Adding fuel to the fire was the growing inevitability of climate change and the feeling that doing anything except trying to prevent it was wasting my time. But without a job I could feel proud of, I came to dread talking to anyone new who might ask what I did. I would paste on a smile and mutter something about translating, while feeling horrible about not being where I thought I should be, jealous of all those I knew who were moving forward. Nine years passed like this. I knew something had to change.

Once again, travel provided an answer. Since my first pregnancy, I had wanted to show my family the world, and this seemed like a good time to reset. We travelled around the world for a year. I told my husband I was not willing to go back to what we’d left. We decided to work together so that I’d finally be able to do something. We started a public affairs consultancy and I looked forward to finally doing some good. I felt hopeful again.

The business quickly took off, but it quickly became more his than mine. As the Dutch native speaker and the ex-politician, he took point, but without actively trying to, excluded me from most of the process. I did my part of the work but it didn’t feel like mine. His workaholic nature didn’t change. I started looking at moving back to Canada. I got further in the application process there than here, but never past the interview. Last year, just after I turned 50, I told myself that this was the last year to try to move without disrupting the kids’ schooling too much. I applied for one more job. I thought the interview went well.

The rejection email came as a body blow that finally killed the dream so weakened by all the cuts since I’d come to Europe. It was delivered as I walked with my family on a stormy Dutch beach, the wind, strong enough to lean into, driving scouring sand before it, the kite surfers being blown high in the air. I felt as though the letter had driven this harsh North Sea wind through my inner core, sanding out all of who I thought I was and what I thought I might accomplish. I sent my family on ahead and stood high on a sand dune, screaming and crying into a wind that took it all away, feeling as if all I was had just died, leaving nothing but an outer shell.

For who was I if I accomplished nothing? How would I go forward, how would I find the motivation to live at all if there was no purpose to it at all? Did I just hope for a third epiphany about my goals and future? Or was it all hubris, a delusion to think that I could actually do or be something bigger than myself? Should I just accept that I’m just another of the grey lights, floating along the path of time? Is this need for a goal nothing more than quixotic tilting at windmills? Why did I need this when other people don’t? Should I just let it all go? But then, I circle back, who am I, if my meaning is dead?

I stumbled along the next few days, mourning, raw, trying to keep a sane shell over the deadness inside, but bursting into tears if I thought at all. The positive Covid test a week and a half later almost felt like a relief. With only mild symptoms, I had no other choice but to just stay in my bed, isolated on just one floor of our small Dutch house with my son, also positive, to protect my husband and daughter. With fatigue and brain fog, it was ok to just lie in bed and watch Netflix between naps. I could just be numb and no one could expect anything of me. Even when finally released a month later, just a week before the Netherlands went into lockdown again, the pain was still there, hiding behind the holiday celebrations, just the four of us this year.

But as the new year dawned, I finally felt a lightening of my grief as I worked through what it meant to be without a goal. Maybe, I thought, I just need to pursue what I’m good at and see what unfolds. Maybe that will mean doing something that will bring about change, maybe it won’t. Maybe I need to find out who that person is hiding inside me and what she wants. It feels strange to think of letting her out, naked without the armour of her shining purpose, but maybe she needs to let herself be seen. Maybe I need to let myself be seen. Maybe I just need to be me. Maybe I need to accept that that’s enough.