Meaning in Life

February 21, 2022 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Credit: David Foster Wallace by Steve Rhodes / Flickr

David Foster Wallace’s final unfinished novel, The Pale King, describes a handful of IRS employees looking for meaning in life. One employee, Lane Dean Jr., seems to be particularly overwhelmed by the apparent tedious and utter meaninglessness of his job:

The rule was, the more you looked at the clock the slower the time went. None of the wigglers wore a watch, except he saw that some kept them in their pockets for breaks. Clocks on Tingles were not allowed, nor coffee or pop. Try as he might, he could not this last week help envisioning the inward lives of the older men to either side of him, doing this day after day. Getting up on a Monday and chewing their toast and putting their hats and coats on knowing what they were going out the door to come back to for eight hours. This was boredom beyond any boredom he’d ever felt. 

Lane Dean Jr. tries to browbeat his boredom into beauty by imagining a beach, full of sunshine and warmth, but after just an hour of work:

The beach was a winter beach, cold and gray and the dead kelp like the hair of the drowned, and it stayed that way despite all attempts.  

Lane Dean Jr. could not seem, try as he might, to conjure meaning in what felt to him to be a meaninglessness job.

Lane Dean Jr.’s struggle for meaning was a reflection of Wallace’s own intensely personal and desperate struggle. For all of his success as an innovative and creative novelist, who is still widely read and well regarded to this day, he too was on a search for meaning in life. But try as he did, he was simply not resourceful enough to create meaning ex nihilo in his admittedly brilliant novelsAnd his struggle cost him dearly as, tragically, he took his own life.

Wallace’s sad struggle with meaning in life is nothing new. It was King Solomon who once cried:

Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 1:2)

Solomon, like so many others before and after him, struggled to see meaning in life. Indeed, the Hebrew word for “meaningless” here is hebel, which refers to a “vapor” or “mist.” Solomon knew that so much of the stuff in life that we tout as meaningful – our jobs, our successes, our paychecks, our social networks, and even our morality – always and eventually evaporate before our eyes. They do not and cannot be lastingly meaningful in and of themselves.

So, what is the solution to our futile and desperate attempts to create meaning in life? It is to trade our obsession to create meaning in life for a humble and sincere desire to seek the meaning of life. For life to have lasting meaning, meaning must come from somewhere beyond life and from something larger than life. Humans cannot create true meaning ex nihilo. Instead of being created, true meaning must be revealed. This is why Solomon, after declaring all human attempts to create meaning futile, concludes:

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. (Ecclesiastes 12:12-13)

People may write volumes upon volumes of books, as did David Foster Wallace, seeking to make life meaningful, but only God and His Word can provide true and lasting meaning. It is in His Word that the true and lasting meaning of life is revealed – to obey God’s commands and to be loved by Him even when we do not.

Is this the foundation of your meaning?

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg Gremmer  |  February 21, 2022 at 7:43 am

    I imagine nothing might drain the meaning of life out of you quicker than having to keep 1,000 wives happy or working for the IRS. But true, only the Christian spirit inside can give one that strange, lasting, sense of joy that comes from putting the needs and desires of others ahead of our own.

  • 2. Jon Trautman  |  February 21, 2022 at 8:39 am

    For me, the core values of Christ are what keeps e tethered to the important stuff.


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