My Quest for Virtual Meaning

Published: 2020-08-09

Updated: 2023-03-16

Note: This post is from the previous iteration of this blog.

I recently came across a New York Times story about how to cope when a life upheaval, such as divorce, job loss, serious illness, etc. occurs.

As I was recently laid off, this story hit home for me. After experiencing my “lifequake”, as the story puts it, my coping mechanism was to launch myself at the job market with all the energy I could muster. It was an effective strategy for finding employment, but it was a coping mechanism nonetheless. When I get anxious about something, I tend to throw myself at the problem and work on it with a laser-like focus, driven by my need to vanquish the source of my anxiety.

My job loss was no different, but I think the source of my anxiety (which has continued despite having accepted a job offer) has shifted from my lack of employment (resolved) to an uncertain future at a new job and a complete lack of closure about what happened (unresolved). I think what I ultimately want now is to look back and see some kind of meaning, silver lining, or happy ending to all this.

I’m afraid of potentially ending up worse off and beaten up by life, without any real closure or reason for it beyond the cold hard truth that life often sucks. I want this painful, difficult experience to mean something.

How could it mean something? I suppose that if I land well and really like my new job, this experience would mean I wasn’t at the right job and I found a better one. If I don’t end up feeling better about my situation, perhaps I can find some other kind of meaning for it through personal growth, a learned lesson, etc. But I honestly don’t know yet.

Of course, I realize how ridiculous this sounds. All this “meaning” is something I and everyone else imagines for ourselves and which has no bearing on the real world. I know some people believe that life, etc. has inherent meaning, but let’s save that argument for another day.

Let is stand for the sake of argument that we are meaning making machines. That is our nature, and we are extremely good at it, sometimes to a fault. But why are we so good at inventing meaning behind the otherwise meaningless?

I believe it’s because we can’t function well without it. Meaning is like motor oil for our consciousness – it keeps our emotional and mental functions humming along as they should. The moment I can’t find meaning behind what I do and experience in life, everything inside my brains just locks up doesn’t want to work anymore. The question “why?” no longer has an answer, and my motivation becomes nonexistent. In other words, I have an existential crisis.

Reaching this point – believing that all meaning is made up, but recognizing it’s importance and embracing the meaning I construct for myself – has taken years of experiences, reflection and study on various philosophical a topics. From the moment I grappled with and finally embraced the idea that our absurd world and everything we do in it is meaningless by default, I have been carefully crafting my own meaning. Many existential crises later, I have built a framework of imaginary meaning by which I live my life, all with the understanding that it exists outside of reality. I call this “virtual meaning”.

Virtual meaning is like code that gives computer hardware a purpose. A computer without an operating system is basically a hunk of metal and silicon. The question “why” regarding its existence has no answer, and it has no impetus (think motivation) to perform any of the functions it is capable of performing. The operating system, or any other code that runs on the computer, has no physicality to it – it exists virtually – and yet it gives the physical components their purpose.

Likewise, the meaning we construct for ourselves gives us purpose. My desire to find meaning behind my job loss is like a computer trying to interpret a keystroke by running code. The keystroke has no significance to the hardware beyond an electronic charge on a circuit – only the operating system knows what the keystroke means. My job loss is the keystroke – it’s meaningless by itself. My own internal operating system is what assigns meaning to it.

Part of me balks at the idea of making up meaning to make myself feel better. This drive to attach meaning to everything seems like a weakness. It is what leads some people to have crazy superstitions and act irrationally. But another part of me acknowledges that human drive as a very real and necessary one. Like all of our natural drives, they serve a purpose, and that purpose is always to further our wellbeing and help us survive. Realizing this, sometimes I have to tell the absurdist inside of me to shut up so that I can get on with living my life. I think this is one of those times.

Only time will tell what meaning my iOS (internal operating system… sorry I couldn’t resist) comes up with for this event. I am still processing the whirlwind of things that have happened, and I will have to see how everything turns out with the new job, etc. But writing this post is probably a good step in the right direction toward peace, resolution, and some kind of understanding (even if it’s virtual).

Thanks for reading. Cheers.