What We Mean When We Talk About Meaning

Searching for meaning (in life) is not the same thing as doing something meaningful (today).


The former is a philosophical exercise, the latter is done through action.


Here’s why.


“Meaning” is a noun.


Nouns are hefty. We put both proverbial and literal weight to nouns because we presume they are specific things we can see, touch, or collectively identify. Rocks, burritos, voltage, and Copenhagen all fit in that category.


But then there are nouns like joy, God, soul, love, and meaning. But these are emotive nouns, an almost sixth human sense. They are personal and intellectual. States of mind. Neuronic. It’s the difference between feeling something with your hands and feeling something “in your bones.”


That’s why we circle these nouns endlessly in debate; only able to describe them with metaphors, analogies, and subjective you-just-had-to-be there-s.


So how do we find meaning?


That’s where meaningful comes in to help. It’s our philological bridge to meaning, because while meaning is an intimidating singular noun, meaningful is an adjective to many possible nouns. That, on the surface, should alleviate some pressure, but we still need to look under the hood because meaningful isn’t your normal adjective.


It is not a description of something the five senses can understand, like: yellow, soft, sour, or dusty are.


No, meaningful is really an adverb in adjective’s clothing.


We want to do something meaningful.

We want to live a meaningful life.

We want to have meaningful conversations, relationships, and experiences.


Look at all those nouns that meaningful is describing above: life, conversations, relationships, experiences.


Sure, those are all nouns, but de facto, they are verbs when we envision them.


Meaningful conversations and relationships happen by being honest, vulnerable, curious, and kind. All of those things are nouns, but to be them, you have to tell the truth, share something scary, ask questions, and listen.


Something becomes meaningful to us as a result of the time we spend enacting verbs that ask us to have some skin in the game; not the ones that have us peering through binoculars without a scuff on our sneaks.


Ergo, meaning is revealed through action and perspective; through dirty hands and rough drafts. Through time spent on something that might not work, but still appreciating the agency you had in the endeavor.


In short, the hunt for meaning is not a single game of hide and seek, it's a forever one of try and see.

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