Pig in the Python Wants Meaning
I’m not sure we’ve thought enough about what Meaning means. I’m still working on it.
As for Death with Dignity, let’s just say there is no widespread agreement, except maybe in Switzerland, about Dignitas, the hotel for dignified dying.
Part of my sense of meaning at the age of 74 comes from talking with people about meaning and dying. I’m not sure you can have one without the other.
Lots of people actually do like to talk about what it means to live and die and how to feel the best we can about our life. But it’s hard to find the time and place and the other people who also want to do it right when you do.
Mostly we have to face what is in front of us at the moment and meaning feels like a luxury there’s no time for right now. A large percentage of our waking hours are given over to our immediate roles as students or working people or family members — and then recovering from those roles, however we do it.
Life Expectancy Reached
When those roles are diminished or go away entirely, the silence is deafening. When we are no longer students or working people and our family role is substantially reduced in terms of what we actually do with our time, almost nothing happens by itself any more. Except aging.
The demographic bulge once known as the Baby Boom, now simply Boomers, is starting to experience life without those familiar roles. One at a time, people are facing the meaning question, or doing their best not to.
As FloridaforBoomers.com points out, recreation ’til your drop is an option if you have the money and don’t mind the company. I’m not knocking The Villages, Florida’s Friendliest Retirement Community, where the golf carts outnumber the cars and the margaritas start before lunch. Be sure to click on this link if you want to see nice videos of old people playing volley ball in a swimming pool, doing yoga, and sort of dancing. I’m sure it works for some people, for whom Meaning = Fun!
That leaves everyone who doesn’t have the money or who doesn’t like margaritas even after lunch.
The U.S. Census Bureau identifies 1946 as the start of the Baby Boom, when live births in the US went over 3 million and stayed there.
Of the 3.4 million born the year after a big war ended, 2.8 million are still alive. Just under 3 million are turning 77 in 2023. Bill Clinton is one of them.
Six hundred thousand didn’t quite make it to 77, the current and declining US Life Expectancy. The rest did.
I wonder if Bill Clinton wonders about meaning and purpose.
Does celebrity or accomplishment or both provide enough meaning to last a lifetime? Has Bill Clinton retired to the top-level elite version of The Villages because, in his own view anyway, he did so much?
Maybe we could get a second opinion from George Bush. He and Bill have both had their birthdays in 2023 so they have now made it to 77, life as statistically expected.
Or from Laura Bush, also born in 1946 — as a November baby, she’s still 76 for a bit longer. 76 Trombones. In case you wondered, Hilary is 75, still early in the post-war demographic blip that would shape the world in unimaginable ways.
Bill and Hil and George and Laura and me, (at 74 ) are all individuals, tiny particles, some tinier than others— but we are all indistinguishable from the larger wave that deeply determined every aspect of who we became.
It is as individual particles that many of the 76 million boomers are beginning to wonder about why they’re getting out of bed in the morning. A demographic cohort doesn’t have a sense of purpose but is very influential. An individual person does have a sense of purpose and some see themselves as Influencers.
Give Me Meaning or Give Me Death
Older Baby Boom males kill themselves at four times the rate of the US as a whole. Many more speak of feeling ‘passively suicidal,’ preferring to die but not to act on it.
What’s the secret sauce that changes preferring to die into preferring to live, that elevates living into a clear lead over dying so it’s not even close?
Is it some narrative device we find in our own story?
Doctor of Nursing and aging specialist Mary Lou Heater describes FOMO as her raison d’etre in a recent “Medium” article, “As I Age, What Am I Living For?”
Spoiler Alert: She finds life itself sufficiently intriguing to stick around just to be “a live witness to the future.”
She is not talking about a bucket list or ‘making a difference.’ The story that she sees unfolding all around is enough for her.
Life-Is-Interesting answers, ‘Why?’ for her, but doesn’t answer why she sees life that way. Someone else could look at pretty much the same life and not see it as sufficiently intriguing at all, but as one big bore.
It’s not that life is inherently the greatest story ever told — the attitude we bring has to be part of where the interesting part, and the meaning, comes from.
How did Dr. Mary Lou Heater come to this attitude? Does she always see Life-as-Interesting or just some of the time? Maybe it works best not to see life as interesting all the time. Her answer raises more questions for me.
The other main Meaning standbys are Helping Others and Spending More Time with Loved Ones.
Maybe doing these activities contributes to a Life-as-Interesting attitude, but I think they’re both misunderstood and overrated.
They both look pretty good when you’re not doing them. When you actually try to help others or to spend more time with loved ones, it turns out to be not that simple.
Most of us are clueless about helping or being helped and the older we get, the more our loved ones want to do what they want to do, not our idea of spending more time with them. Spend time, sure. But there are limits.
Not everyone even has loved ones, and for those of us who do, those loved ones are not here primarily to help us find meaning and purpose, or even if they are, it can’t be the priority all the time. That’s my opinion anyway.
I put Helping Others and Spend More Time with Loved Ones in the same category as Life is Interesting They are all healthy perspectives that emerge from something deeper.
The best term I have for that something deeper is Acceptance, without the sense of settling-for.
There is no settling-for, because there is no goal to measure the ‘settling’ against except our own made-up stories. Acceptance is pushing through the stories and then just learning moment to moment who we are.
Learning about who you are sounds like what’s supposed to happen when you’re a teenager.
When Bill Clinton was a teenager, the Sixties happened.
Many forces came together but one of them was a call for meaning and living a meaningful life, with only vague ideas about what that might be like.
Like most cultural revolutions, what happened wasn’t what almost anybody expected or saw coming.
Acceptance includes the world the way it now is. Acceptance includes the wave and the particle, the world we helped shape and the path our apparently separate selves have taken.
Acceptance is not something we attain and finish. It comes to us. First in moments of clarity then in longer stretches of a broad and all-encompassing state.
Acceptance includes mortality. Anyone who says we are ‘hard-wired’ against ever accepting the idea of personal extinction hasn’t done what it takes to get used to the idea.
There is a term for Acceptance Without Settling-For — Appreciation. I know we can appreciate the fact of personal death because I do.
Appreciation is not preference, as in “passive suicide.” There is no evaluation or judgment. Appreciation doesn’t mean you have to like it. It means seeing its deeper value.
I have not become appreciative on a full-time basis, just part-time. I am in the state enough to know that it’s an activity that begins with perception, the very foundation of how we look at things.
Where meaning is made.
Tom Nickel writes about new media technologies and other topics he has little if any standing to write about, such as existential philosophy.
Tom and the Tanzanian-British novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah were both born on December 20, 1948. They both went to went to London to study in 1968. Abdulrazak went on to become a Professor and a Nobel Prize winner.
Tom holds a Black Belt in Learning and is active in both physical and extended realities (XR). He also writes some, more here.
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