Have you ever noticed that in moments where no pressing task is waiting to be done and nobody is clamoring for your attention that time seemingly slows and you become aware of your surroundings as if for the first time? Perhaps more disturbingly, you come face to face with your own thoughts that suddenly are very present and overwhelmingly so. Maybe it’s just me, but let me begin my story.
When you don’t own a car you find that you spend a lot of time waiting for buses. The other day, that is exactly what I was doing. The bus was late, no surprise here, and I had forgotten my usual ‘keep me company book’. This left me with nothing to do except to be with myself. I stood huddled against the cold and watched the world pass by. The intersection was busy and cars were rushing here, there, nowhere, anywhere and their exhaust was clearly visible in the cooling autumn air. It was an unceasing humdrum of machinery against a grey backdrop of fenced in houses, banks, one strategically located gas station, a machine shop, some sort of obscure shopping district and a Starbucks, of course.
Vancouver is not a big city by any means. It is big enough, however, for one to feel insignificant and alone in. This was especially true when waiting for my bus that day. Left to my own devices, my thoughts drifted towards meaning and purpose and I became uneasy. You see, I think that as long as we are active and doing something, even if it seems mundane, we can still find in our actions a meaning or a purpose. The moment we stop the ‘doing’, however, we become aware of our existence and this scare us, especially if we can’t locate meaning in it. When I say meaning, I don’t think of it in the sense of a temporary distraction, as in fixing a table or cooking a meal, but more along the lines of a fundamental meaning of our lives.
In my moment of ‘not-doing’, I began to search for meaning in my surroundings, but as you can imagine, they were highly uninterested in providing easy answers. There was the bank, a symbol for money; money I did not have; money that I needed to survive; money that stressed me out; money, money, money. Think housing crisis. Think corrupt institutions. Think unemployment. I can’t find meaning here.
Then there was the gas station, source of that highly craved substance: oil. Oil and cars and exhausts and pollution and noise and I was only too aware how global empires run on oil, crave it, need it and are willing to kill for it. Ken Saro-Wiwa, community activist in Nigeria’s oil rich yet alarmingly poor Niger delta died fighting against an oil tyranny, a Shell tyranny; Shell, the hypocrite. No meaning to be found here.
What about the houses. Fenced in, secluded, isolated. I don’t blame them. The world outside was noisy, busy, dirty. Living in fenced in houses were neighbours that lived side by side yet probably never spoke. Perhaps it was the fence that maintained this silence or perhaps the fence wasn’t needed at all – silence perpetuating silence – and perhaps people isolate themselves, are preoccupied with their own lives or fear social interactions that demand an engagement, a showing of interest, an ability to listen. Who has time for this these days. No, I could not find it here, the meaning that I craved.
Starbucks, shopping districts, machine shops. Entities and symbols of a highly capitalized world; a world disconnected from nature and a world where coffee or shoes or cars can be produced in one place, travel thousands of miles and be consumed by the typical Vancouverite having no concept of the story that these commodities could tell. A story too often marked by exploitation, inequality, poor working conditions, violence. A story of capitalism and markets and trade regimes and neoliberal world views that pushed aside or smothered anything that resembled a different world, a different concept of a life well lived. I don’t want whatever meaning these entities have to offer.
I was unable to find meaning that day or perhaps I was looking in the wrong place. Maybe you will agree that our environment has a huge impact on us – our mood, our personality, our energy. If it is not just me and if other people are feeling the same general loss of meaning in their life and observe themselves acting out, day after day, certain expected roles, routines and norms – without really knowing why – then we can acknowledge that Houston, we have a problem!
Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves… What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?” Nietzsche was referring to the decline of religion, the rise of atheism and what he saw to be an absence of meaning. He predicted chaos and wrote the book “Thus spoke Zarathustra” as an attempt to introduce a new guiding morality from which to derive meaning.
In this hectic world of ours, there exists much complexity, abstraction, ambiguity and nothing really appears constant. Everything changes, fast! We have few symbols, stories or myths to hold on to, to use as our guiding star. Religion has become vestigial and is plagued by corruptness. Science, with its dry reason, makes for a poor substitute. Violence, pain, depression, anxiety and stress. We see it everywhere. Don’t believe me? Turn on the TV. Think mindless consumerism and an endless repetition of America at war, here, there, anywhere.
I am not going to attempt to provide answers. This is not what this piece is about. This is about a man, that would be me – hello – , sharing some thoughts of feeling disconnected from a world he is trying to understand. This is about a desire to have a guiding myth or a guiding story to take away some of the confusion and fear of getting up, day after day, and finding yourself confronted with questions like: What is my purpose? What am I here to do? Is there more to life? This is about asking what we can take away from life and about connecting to something, anything, to keep on truckin’.
I want to end with one final thought. I will leave it to you to join me in digesting it.
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a 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, The Power of Myth