Here's a great question that Lesley Hazleton asks at the start of the Making Meaning chapter in her book, Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto.
What do you do when someone tells you about a treasured experience that you know is in all probability untrue? True to that person that is, but not objectively true.
Since people share all kinds of religious and mystical experiences in comments on my blog posts, I'm confronted with this question often. Usually I have the same answer Hazleton chose when a woman told her about orca whales lining up and singing to her as she stood on a low cliff overlooking the ocean.
I chose discretion over honesty because I had no desire to hurt this person by questioning what was clearly so meaningful to her. There can be great beauty in the enterprise of making meaning, that very human desire to find significance in the world. But it seems to me essential that we be aware that this is what we are doing, and that we retain a certain sense of bemusement, even amusement, at our proclivity to translate the world into human terms. Aware, that is, of our own subjectivity.
Life is difficult.
Whatever helps us get through the day, the week, the month, the year, the lifetime -- that's to be embraced, even if it is based on a fantasy. I have no problems with fantasy, nor does Hazleton. But I heartily agree with her that it's important to recognize that the meanings we ascribe to the world are our meanings, not an objective meaning inherent in the universe.
Here's some additional passages from the Making Meaning chapter about how the absence of objective meaning creates a wonderful space for us to fashion our own subjective meaning.
The absence of an "ultimate" meaning of life -- a grand, over-arching explanation of everything -- does not render life empty of relevance. On the contrary, it makes it all the more relevant.
It means we can no longer use divine intent as an excuse, in the same way fatalists talk of fate. It places responsibility directly on us -- responsibility for how we act, for what we do, for our relations with others, with our society, with our planet.
It is we who determine meaning by what we do. And part of that meaning is the awareness that we are not and cannot always be in control, that we are indeed subject to chance, to serendipity, to the unforeseen, the unanticipated, the fortuitous.
I see no reason why meaning and significance should be any less for knowing how vast the universe is, and how small I am in it. Far from being appalled by this, I am excited by it. It allows for life as an adventure, and for the unexpected and under-appreciated value of misadventure -- for wrong turns and dead ends, chance discoveries and unintended turns.
It makes life a matter of open-ended exploration instead of a predetermined slog along a straight line from birth to death.
Instead of what's the meaning of life, then, I'd rather ask what makes my life meaningful. Instead of mission, I'm happy to wake up in anticipation of a new day, with work I want to return to, people I want to walk and talk with. Happy, that is, to wake up with desire, with appetite, and with the bemused acceptance of being human, fallible, and imperfectly rational.
I rejoice in there being no single meaning -- in there being instead a multitude of meanings, an infinite number of ways in which we exercise our subjectivity and imagination, rendering meaningful what is objectively meaningless. Meaning is ours to make, and to choose.
The search for meaning, then, is itself a choice. It offers the hope of a consoling narrative that will stave off the awareness of an indifferent universe.
It's the go-to defense against the fear of insignificance, against the realization that there's nothing personal in nature -- that it's not about me, or you, or us -- and that whatever narrative we detect in it is entirely of our own making. We make ourselves significant. We persuade ourselves that whales sing to us. Even, as happened to me, that a snow-covered mountain speaks to us.
...I may like to think that I have no illusions about the terms of my existence on this planet, but that itself is merely an illusion: my own pathetic fallacy. Romanticism lingers, a sop to my vanity, to my sense of the centrality of my own existence.
However clearly I think I accept the case with which I could, at any moment, cease to exist, some part of me stubbornly refuses to accept my own insignificance, and sees personal meaning in impersonal forces. I shamelessly insist, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, on my own significance.