Without Meaning To
I search for meaning everywhere. In television shows, theme songs, top 40 hits, novels, Internet memes, and casual comments from friends and strangers. I look for meaning in relationships. In the words, spoken and not. In the emotions that radiate in gestures, silence, frowns, smiles, and tears. I look for meaning in the people that surround me. There are the small hands that reach out to hold mine. There are kisses and hugs. There are fleeting touches and glances that shift away. There’s the intimacy of sharing a life for years and knowing what this body communicates. I search relentlessly for the meaning of a life, my life, theirs, or maybe even yours.
Truth appears and recedes, but meaning feels just out of my grasp. I’m searching for something, but I’m never sure what. At moments, I feel I’m on the cusp of discovery. But then, the search tugs and pulls me in a different direction. Discovery becomes a dead end. Meaning seems almost tangible, and I reach out for it frantically. I can never be certain it is directed at me.
The television blares in my living room. The theme song from one of my daughter’s favorite television shows catches my attention. My daughter, her best friend, and my son dance wildly to its catchy beat. The song urges me to be who I wanna be “yeah, yeah.” The children sing along loudly and enthusiastically. The girls know the words; my toddler sings the words he thinks he hears. Their joy is infectious. I stop to watch them dance and sing. They don’t have the time for existential questions meaning or identity or belonging in the world. Their lack of concern makes me a bit envious.
As I enter and exit my car, a particular song plays on the radio. It’s an anthem that still manages to be mopey. The singer assures me that “one match can make an explosion.” Its heavy repetition on the radio captures the attention of both of my children. My toddler falls in love with this song. He marches around the house singing “This is my FIGHT song” at the top of his lungs. Occasionally, he punctuates his singing with chops and kicks. He missed the song’s meaning and made up his own.
For months and months, this song remains stuck in my head, and it followed me into the new year. I find myself humming it as I pour cereal into bowls each morning, when I wash dishes, pick up toys, as I go to my desk to write, or when I move around my house to and from my office. Sometimes, humming isn’t enough, and I sing “I have a lot of fight left in me.” This lyric reassures me. I do have fight left. But, singing along is also my attempt to rally. To reach down deep and find that fight, especially when I don’t want to. There are days that I’m not sure what I’m fighting. Is it boredom, anxiety, stress, or worry? Am I fighting for my space in the world? Am I learning to inhabit that space? Or is my fight really a search for meaning that I can’t quite find?
The song doesn’t always reassure. It claws at me too. Scratches and wounds. I sing quietly: “all those things I didn’t say are wrecking balls inside my brain…” Words do bang around in my brain. Constantly. That’s the writer’s burden. I wonder if I can just get them down on the page, maybe the words will leave me alone.
I keep looking for what all of this means. I’m not sure what I’ve found.
The meaning I find is mostly reassuring. Messages about being the person you are or becoming the person you want to be. Authenticity, or maybe realness, emerges as the desired goal. If only you can be who you are, everything else will follow. These are easy messages that point to a vague truth that feels almost right. Or at least, something close enough to truth to fool us.
Be yourself, yeah, yeah, because that’s what you are supposed to do. Slip off one self, put another on. Carry on.
I bristle at the suggestions. I try to imagine how one would know what is authentic. How do you claim the real? How do you know what you’ve found? But, more importantly, what might it all mean?
This is where I flail away from messages that seem too easy. This is where I get stuck, and I start to search again. I’ve chased meaning or transcendence or truth throughout my life, and nothing manages to stick. The habits never take. The popular wisdom leaves me cold. I start to search again.
This is when I begin to wonder if maybe meaning isn’t what I hope it will be. Maybe the meaning I seek won’t offer explanations, soothe hurts, or make the world more intelligible. Maybe the search is what matters. Maybe pursuing meaning is the best that I can hope for. Maybe I’m seeking something big when I should focus on something smaller, like a chubby toddler hand in mine. Maybe I found the meaning I seek was always there, I just didn’t know what to look for.
Kelly J. Baker writes about the apocalypse, zombies, mental illness, trauma, and higher education. She's the author of The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Higher Education, and Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness, forthcoming Fall 2020. She's also the editor of Women in Higher Education, The National Teaching and Learning Forum, and Disability Acts. You can find her hanging around on Twitter @kelly_j_baker, tweeting about coffee, parenting, writing, and other shenanigans.