Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Mattering is Meaning

Jennifer Roback Morse from Townhall's C-Log pointed the way to this Tech Central Station article by Ilya Shapiro. She was touched by the way he described the pervasive unhappiness he sees and experiences in today's Generation X.
Complete article here: http://www.techcentralstation.com/041905A.html

Shapiro writes, It is a conversation I keep having, or talking around, with my friends and peers -- the type of folks who 20 years ago would have been called yuppies (which label I at least am happy to wear now, if in a descriptive rather than ascriptive way). They -- we -- have everything we could ever want in this stage of life, but still we search for meaning... Some haven't quite found a match between vocation and avocation, or feel trapped by their jobs or paper credentials. Others feel lost without a soulmate, or in relationships held together by inertia. Some can't quite put a finger on the source of their discontent. For most it's a combination.

Read Morse's complete response under Is That All There Is? here:

The emphasis is mine. Morse responds: I really found myself, believe it or not, in motherhood. In 1991, we adopted a two-year old Romanian orphan boy, and gave birth to a little girl within six months. It became apparent to me that my little boy had to have me, in particular. Not a generic mom, not high quality, low-cost day-care, but me, to be his mom... All of a sudden, I was uniquely important in a way I had never been before. My life had meaning to them, the other members of my family.

I hope to put this concisely and well. I believe that for most of us non-saints, for our lives to matter, in some arena, we must be the unique cause of an end-state effect. And this is increasingly difficult in careers and lifestyles where we are small, often interchangeable, parts of a complex process that neither begins nor ends with our efforts. One of the keys to human happiness is having attributable, causative power. In my words, that's mattering.

The idea's clearer when we examine popular, "meaningful" activities like parenting, artistic creation, charity. In each of these, we cause a unique effect on another person or to an end result. Does anyone matter more to a child than his parent? Did anyone matter more to the statue than the sculptor? Consider the examples of a composer to a symphony, the gardender to a prize geranium, the cook to a great meal, the lover to the beloved, or the rescuer to the person in distress. All of these matter the most to the other. We acknowledge the satisfaction that humans experience when a unique application of talent or effort or even one's simple presence makes a difference that can be experienced. And our impact doesn't have to be beneficial to make us feel better. Consider bullying, graffiti tagging, or the toddlers who knock things over because they can and then giggle like the happiest destroyers on earth. What IS important is that difference we make must be easily recognized, NOT "I was on the steering committee that issued the recommendations for the manufacturing procedures of the prototype of the internal ganglywrench." Huh?

I DID THAT and IT MATTERED. It's about simple proximity of cause and effect. When it's obvious to us and others how our presence and abilities make an impact on something- anything- then life feels more meaningful. That's why even high-paying, prestigious careers made of procedures and hierarchies, and expensive consumerism which experiences and displays but doesn't create still leave us feeling insignificant. We've become estranged from the native human satisfactions of causing intrinsically understood end-state effects. Attributable, causative power matters. Mattering is meaning. And meaning is essential to happiness.

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