- A soul that is kind and intends justice discovers more than any sophist. [Widely attributed to Sophocles]
Meaning is an element of religion and it is also an element of flourishing. A person who feels that life is meaningless is at risk for depression and is likely to have difficulty functioning: after all, if nothing matters, then there is no reason to do anything.
Meaning is a function of how we look at things. We can decide what our lives mean to us. People who find a sense of meaning in their lives are more likely to be happy and to contribute to the well-being of others, because a sense of meaning cements the relationship to human preferences, bringing them to life and making them tangible.
And what about all of the scholars and critics over the years who despaired that Leonardo squandered too much time immersed in studying optics and anatomy and the patterns of the cosmos? The Mosa Lisa answers them with a smile. [Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci, (Simon & Schuster, 2017), p. 494.]
Humans employ complex symbolic languages to communicate. This makes possible a rich life of meaning. The history of language translation offers a particular insight into the attainment of meaning through symbols.
- David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Faber & Faber, 2011). A good translation is "more like a 'portrait in oils'" than a school quiz.
- C.G. Jung, The Red Book: Liber Novus (1930): the great psychiatrist’s attempt to represent the mind symbolically. Here is a link to a “Reader’s Edition.”
Other narratives on meaning as an aspect of flourishing:
- Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face (Houghton Mifflin, 1994): “‘Autobiography of a Face’ is a book about many things: sickness and health, body and soul, gender and social expectation. It is, importantly, a book about image, about the tyranny of the image of a beautiful -- or even a pleasingly average -- face. In the end, this tyranny is not so much overthrown as shrugged off.”
- Giorgio de Chirico, The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913)
Music: songs and other short pieces
Film and Stage
- Il Postino (The Postman), a film exploring the rich emotional life of the poet Pablo Neruda
- Ninotchka: this spoof on Soviet materialism may not reflect a high level of spiritual development but it makes the important point that no one can live without a sense of meaning
- Silk Stockings is an updated musical version of Ninotchka
- That’s Life!: a film that explores what matters most
- The Thin Red Line, a war film that “contemplates mankind's self-destructiveness, the oneness of a company of soldiers, the rape of nature and the emptiness of Pyrrhic victory on the battlefield”
- Paterson, about two people finding meaning in their own quirky ways, and in each other
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73, can easily be heard as an essential romantic symphony but a closer listen reveals the life-affirming, generous components of kindness and meaning. Here are performances conducted by Bernstein, Szell and Masur.
- The first movement (Allegro non troppo) begins with a pastoral and idyllic theme, soon followed, after a brief enthusiastic segue (1:42), by Brahms’ famous lullaby (2:21). Whatever Brahms may have intended, both motifs express an attitude of kindness. Affirmations of the themes appear repeatedly, for example, at 2:56. Dramatic variations (3:18) are not moments of doubt but occasions to return to the main theme (3:56, 4:26). The solo horn offers an affirmation (5:17), picked up and further affirmed by the orchestra and its several parts. Written in D major, the most resolved of all keys, this symphony promises to be a straight-ahead affirmation (for example, at 7:39). Like a baby in its mother’s arms, we are repeatedly and gently reminded of the essential theme (8:26) until the movement draws to its peaceful conclusion (12:40).
- The second movement (Adagio non troppo) sounds a commitment to goodness (1:07). The commitment, fully at one with its subject, deepens (2:19) and persists throughout the movement. The values of kindliness and service toward a deeply appreciated subject never waver. Occasionally the music seems to cry out for “more!” (7:09)
- The third movement (Allegretto grazioso [quasi Andantino] – Presto ma non assai) begins in an uncharacteristically similar vein for a third movement: peaceful, almost idyllic. At 1:12, Brahms begins to introduce a fuller affirmation. Members and sections of the orchestra affirm each other repeatedly (for example, at 2:20). The main theme is infused with new energy (2:57).
- The fourth movement (Allegro con spirito) begins quietly but quickly opens into boisterous enthusiasm (0:30). A new warmth appears (1:33), affirming and augmenting the old themes. This work is a generous affirmation, at one with its subject, in other words, a work of great generosity ending, as we might expect with a vigorous affirmation of the pervasive theme (6:00 to end).
These works by Edouard Lalo:
- Symphonie Espagnole in D Minor, 21 (1874)
- Violin Concerto No. 1 in F major, Op. 20 (1873)
- Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, "Concerto russe”, Op.29 (1879)
- Nickel, Symphony No. 2: this is music about the seriousness and importance of our lives, and about life's vagaries.
- Verdi, La Traviata (The Fallen Woman) (1853) is a story of a woman torn between two romantic relationships, who dies in true romantic fashion at the end. What did it all mean? Here are performances conducted by Ghione, Carlos Kleiber and Guarnieri.
- Giannini, Symphony No. 4 (1959)
- Enescu, Poème roumaine, symphonic suite for orchestra and wordless male choir, Op. 1 (1897): the composer was invoking the “distant images of familiar images from home.”
- Agricola’s, secular music expressed everyday concerns simply and with care.
- Willan, Poem for Strings (1959)
- Paul Simon, “So Beautiful or So What”
- Bill Frisell, “East/West”
- Virko Bakey and California E.A.R. Unit, “Dream Time”
- Angelica Sanchez & Marilyn Crispell, “How To Turn the Moon”
- Benjamin Boone, “The Poets Are Gathering”
- Charles Rumback, “June Holiday” “Overtones hang in the air only to be juddered by spasmodic clusters of cymbals and toms, summoning something far more meaningful than an unabashed love song or a freak out.” [Peter Margasak, Downbeat magazine, July 2020 issue, p. 37.]
On the dark side:
- Ginastera, Bomarzo (1967): in this opera, a man looks back on his life after being poisoned (performances conducted by Tauriello and Rudel).
Just as my fingers on these keys / Make music, so the selfsame sounds / On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound; / And thus it is that what I feel, / Here in this room, desiring you,
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk, / Is music. It is like the strain / Waked in the elders by Susanna:
Of a green evening, clear and warm, / She bathed in her still garden, while / The red-eyed elders, watching, felt
The basses of their beings throb / In witching chords, and their thin blood / Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.
[Wallace Stevens, “Peter Quince at the Clavier”]
- Sara Teasdale, “The Dreams of My Heart”
From the dark side:
In O. Henry’s iconic short story, two young lovers sacrifice their most prized possessions, and are rewarded with something far more important, and meaningful.
“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again—you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say ‘Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice—what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”
“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.
“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”
Jim looked about the room curiously.
“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.
“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you—sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”
Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.
Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.
“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”
White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.
For there lay The Combs—the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims—just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.
But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”
And then Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.
“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”
Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.
“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”
The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi. [O. Henry, “The Gift of the Magi” (1905)]
In stark contrast is the episode from the dark side. In this scene from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the love of Scrooge’s life rejects him because love and money do not mean the same things to her as they do to him:
For again Scrooge saw himself. He was older now; a man in the prime of life. His face had not the harsh and rigid lines of later years; but it had begun to wear the signs of care and avarice. There was an eager, greedy, restless motion in the eye, which showed the passion that had taken root, and where the shadow of the growing tree would fall. He was not alone, but sat by the side of a fair young girl in a mourning-dress: in whose eyes there were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Christmas Past. "It matters little," she said, softly. "To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve." "What Idol has displaced you?" he rejoined. "A golden one." "This is the even-handed dealing of the world!" he said. "There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!" "You fear the world too much," she answered, gently. "All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?" "What then?" he retorted. "Even if I have grown so much wiser, what then? I am not changed towards you." She shook her head. "Am I?" "Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man." "I was a boy," he said impatiently. "Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are," she returned. "I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you." "Have I ever sought release?" "In words. No. Never." "In what, then?" "In a changed nature; in an altered spirit; in another atmosphere of life; another Hope as its great end. In everything that made my love of any worth or value in your sight. If this had never been between us," said the girl, looking mildly, but with steadiness, upon him; "tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now? Ah, no!" He seemed to yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of himself. But he said with a struggle, "You think not." "I would gladly think otherwise if I could," she answered, "Heaven knows! When I have learned a Truth like this, I know how strong and irresistible it must be. But if you were free to-day, to-morrow, yesterday, can even I believe that you would choose a dowerless girl--you who, in your very confidence with her, weigh everything by Gain: or, choosing her, if for a moment you were false enough to your one guiding principle to do so, do I not know that your repentance and regret would surely follow? I do; and I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were." He was about to speak; but with her head turned from him, she resumed. "You may--the memory of what is past half makes me hope you will--have pain in this. A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke. May you be happy in the life you have chosen!" She left him, and they parted. [Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843), Stave II: The First of the Three Spirits.]
- Anna Quindlen, Miller’s Valley: A Novel (Random House, 2016): “What does home really mean? Is it the people around you who make a place familiar and loved, or is it the tie to land that’s been in your family for generations? Anna Quindlen’s mesmerizing new novel investigates both . . . ”
- Ann Napalitano, Dear Edward: A Novel (Dial, 2020): “While none of the adults in either the real crash or the novel it inspired survive, Napolitano’s fearless examination of what took place models a way forward for all of us. She takes care not to sensationalize, presenting even the most harrowing scenes in graceful, understated prose, and gives us a powerful book about living a meaningful life during the most difficult of times.”