Making Meaning

inspired by a Gemini post by acdw

One of acdw’s recent posts struck a chord with me when I read it in the crapper.

I’m having a hard time finding meaning in my life of late. I want to make money but I really don’t want to do a job all day. Like, any job. I want to stay home and cook and read and make little things and stuff. I guess I really would want to be a house husband. That’s not going to happen though.

This is something I had to deal with as a much younger man over twenty years ago. When I was eighteen I realized that I would never been the musician I wanted to be. I was good enough for school orchestras, but that was it. Sure, Jean-Luc Ponty was famous as a jazz violinist, but there was no market for rock violists in the USA and nobody encouraging me.

I was pretty much on my own at eighteen for two reasons:

I honestly considered suicide, because all I could see stretching before me was decades of the same dreary routine: spending most of my days working to make rich assholes richer, going home to an empty apartment, eating alone, and sleeping in a cold, narrow bed so I could wake up the next day and repeat the cycle. The only respite would have been on weekends and holidays, most of which I’d probably spend doing all of the adulting I couldn’t do during the week because I was busy with my job.

It didn’t matter what the job was; no matter what I did it served the same purpose: further enriching those with entirely too much wealth and power already.

But my senior-year English teacher did me an accidental favor by publicly ripping apart a short story I had thrown together over the weekend for a creative-writing “elective” I had been forced to take. It was just some throwaway fantasy about a metalhead who took on both Heaven and Hell because God had made the mistake of setting the day of Armageddon for the same day that the metalhead would finally get to attend a festival where Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, and Type O Negative would perform. His ally was an electric wizard who called himself the Lead Bodhisattva, and his weapon: a sword forged from an undiscovered stable transuranic heavy metal called “antichristium”.

Sure, it was totally derivative, the sort of junk that Michael Moorcock would have burned lest it be used to embarrass him, but it wasn’t twenty-five thousand words of pure drivel. There was a plot. There was characterization. The major characters all had motivations. But it wasn’t modernist realism, the only genre of fiction my English teacher considered respectable. She said something along the lines of, “I hope you don’t intend to make it as a genre writer, because you’ve no talent for it.”

Did the meaning of my life become proving this ignorant shitfountain of an English teacher wrong? Not quite. But it gave me something I had lost at that point in my life after I had grown up a bit, was no longer a punching bag for bullies, and even had a little popularity. It gave me a struggle.

Sure, I could have wrapped myself in some cause. It was the 1990s, and there were plenty of causes clamoring for my attention and demanding that I devote myself to them: feminism, environmentalism, anti-racism, anti-militarism, anti-capitalism, anarchism, secularism, etc. But none of these were personal struggles.

Proving some bitter old woman wrong? Writing a novel that engaged with questions of justice versus revenge and whether the end justifies the means? Writing a novel that other people might want to read despite having no innate talent? That was the sort of personal quest out of which I could make a life that was at least meaningful to me.

Furthermore, writing was a way to engage with all of the causes that demanded my attention and engaged my sympathies on my own terms. There were so many young people my age trying to “make the world a better place” with no idea of their own of what a better world even looked like. Writing science fantasy became my way of trying to figure out what that “better world” might look like.

But since I came of age in the 1990s, a decade that gave the world “xtreme” everything and even killed off Superman (only to retcon him back to life about a year later), my idea of a “better world” still has a soft black underbelly where tyranny, corruption, and exploitation can flourish.

I had no problem imagining the end of the world.
Imagining the end of capitalism is much harder.
I still haven’t quite gotten there yet.

All the same, writing gave me a way to reach out to others once I got access to the internet that wasn’t monitored by anybody but Uncle Sam. I could share my attempts with other wannabe writers. I had common ground for a semblance of social interaction not limited by the tyrannies of geography or proximity. I started reading about existential philosophy, ostensibly as research for creating my characters, but found it helpful for myself as well. I fell in love with another would-be writer who lived in England. It didn’t end well, and I suspect that was mainly my fault, but I still wish her well and hope she was able to get over me more easily than I did her. Of course, I didn’t learn my lesson, and ended up falling for another would-be writer who lived in Australia.

We got married four years after that, and we’re still together. With her help, I eventually finished a novel. Then I wrote a couple more and got them published through a small press. They’re called Without Bloodshed and Silent Clarion. I may have mentioned them before.

How does this come back to acdw’s question of finding meaning? My experiences suggest to me that meaning isn’t something you can find. It’s something you’ve got to make. And it isn’t always easy to say, “this is the meaning of my life”. It’s even harder when you remember that we tend to conflate having a meaningful life with having a sense of purpose.

I’m not sure you can have the former without the latter, but the latter without the former? That’s easy. There are millions of people with a sense of purpose whose lives are so utterly meaningless that if they died today they’d be nothing but a fading, tattered memory even to their own mothers within a decade.

I wonder of acdw is afraid that he may be one of those people. I sometimes suspect I’m one of those people, too. In the absence of a believable religion, our only hope for a semblance of life after death is in the memories of the people we leave behind. The only way to earn a place in somebody’s memories is to make an impact on their lives. It’s hard to make an impression on other people when you’ve little choice but to devote the vast majority of your efforts to making rich assholes richer just so you can have a few scraps from their table to gnaw on.

How many times have I given everything I had to do a good job, only to be forgotten two weeks after I’ve cleaned out my desk and deposited my last paycheck? Every time. Work is not a source of meaning or fulfillment, and anybody who tries to tell you otherwise is lying to you so they can avoid facing the fact that they’re telling themselves the same damn lie.

It would be better to “stay home and cook and read and make little things and stuff”. It would be better to be a “house husband” and let a woman with more ambition go out into the world and work if she wants, when you yourself don’t have much ambition.

But our society doesn’t allow that. Our society can forgive men who don’t want to go to war if they have a “good reason”. But a man who doesn’t want to go to work? No explanation or justification will suffice. A man who would rather nurture those close to him and make a warm and pleasant home for them is not the sort of man those who rule our society want. Such men might even be a threat.

If people were mainly content to stay home and tend their own gardens, the entire skyscraper of cards we mistake for a society would collapse. The people living in the penthouse apartments can’t bear even the thought of that happening, for they know they probably wouldn’t survive the fall.

I know how acdw feels. I’ve had the same feelings. They’re valid as fuck. I just don’t have any answers that don’t involve “apocalypse and chill”.

Update for Wed, 22 Jul 2020

Apparently acdw found this post helpful:

I really loved starbreaker’s take, their story on proving their teacher wrong and how that made them find some meaning somewhere, to make it themselves. I agree with that, and I need to read more nihilism because I think it has something to do with that, that making your own meaning because there is no endemic to the world – it just is. I do want to push on the idea that men must work to have their meaning; maybe it’s true that there are many in society that see things that way, but I think of Gandhi(?): “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

But unlike him I don’t just want to be a househusband. I want to be my wife’s fuckbutler.

about the author

photo of a pale, blue-eyed man in a black coat with long brown hair outdoors in the winter

writes science fantasy inspired by heavy metal and has a day job as a software developer. He is currently writing a new novel called Spiral Architect. He'll use your pronouns, but doesn't care which ones you use with him. You can reach him at