Our Need for Meaning

It’s the dawn of autumn, and everywhere people are telling us not to over think.

So let’s think about that for a minute.

After all, the only thing to gain from over thinking is understanding.

There is nothing wrong with advice that tells us not to complicate our relationships, or advice that tells us not to procrastinate our priorities, or advice that tells us not to lose the point about what’s important for the sake of debate.

It’s always good to be reminded to keep it simple.

Keeping it simple is a spiritual principle.

But telling us not to over think in an age when most of us have to admit that we do not spend enough time pondering deeply what eludes us hardly shows us how to find the simplicity and the clarity that we are looking for in great examples of wisdom such as charity begins at home, or forgive and you will be forgiven.

Telling us not to over think something doesn’t show us how to enjoy the ease and the simplicity that we all want.

Telling us not to over think something suggests that the hard part is letting go of all the clutter we love to adorn our thoughts with, enabling us to reach the promised land of wisdom simply by not trying too hard to get there.

The idea that something rare and valuable can be discovered by simply not trying too hard to find it as untrue as the idea that the heart is made stronger by not going overboard with love, or that a mind is made wiser by not going overboard with learning or that a body is made healthier by not going overboard with nutrition and exercise.

Like a lot of conventional wisdom, the “don’t over think it” campaign tickles the ear more than it rings true.

All we need to do is test its validity against another piece of conventional wisdom such as no pain, no gain to see that the “don’t over think it” advice is simply another one of our societal coupons with no face value that we give to people to demonstrate that we know something when we don’t.

There are examples every day starting with the poor soul hanging off of the Tappan Zee Bridge where saying “don’t over think it” would be the worst thing to say.

We wouldn’t say it so someone contemplating marriage or abortion or military service or a religious vocation, because deep down we believe that decisions with life-changing consequences need to be thought over deliberately.

And like other conventional wisdom that we spread without enough thought about its veracity such as “everything is relative,” or “all things in moderation,” there is a morbid philosophical agenda behind the “don’t over think it” campaign.

What is really being said is that there is nothing worth thinking about so hard that it hurts, because there is no meaning in life anyway.

This of course is the great lie of nihilism. It is the great scam of materialism. It is the great schism of capitalism.



The soul knows what the mind needs, even if the mind does not have the vocabulary to ask for it, even if the mind does not have the light to confess what it must have to live.

When I was young man – no longer a teenager but hardly an adult – I was beside myself in a crazy display of passion one night in the loft apartment my mother bought across the street from where we lived after the divorce.

My two best friends Jim and Dubbs were with me, trying valiantly to understand what I was saying through my tears about wanting to do something important and wanting to think important thoughts and wanting to plan so that the three of us would not get lost doing nothing.

I wanted them to promise that we would figure out something to do together so that no matter what, we would make a difference.

Jim and Dubbs were as patient as two good friends could be.

But they didn’t understand what I was saying. They didn’t understand what I was saying because I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling. It’s not only that I didn’t have the vocabulary of meaning that I might have had if I had been raised in the church, or if I had read good literature in school.

It was much deeper than that.

The fact is I had no confidence that there was any meaning. I thought meaning was something that had to be created, and it worried me to death that I didn’t know how to do that. It frightened the light out of me that I didn’t know where to start.

Jim had a plan. And the plan was to get drunk and go from there. We were already drunk, but his plan was the best one we had.

Everybody today would be proud of us. We didn’t over think it. We over drinked it.

It worked so well that night that I did the same thing every night for the next decade. And I ended up exactly where people end up who over drink and don’t over think.



The dialogue of meaning is not a dialogue with the rest of the world.

The world will tell you that the meaning of life is to live it. But the meaning of life is not to live it. The nature of life is to live it.

Slugs and skunk weed and single cell amoeba all live life, and they never make the mistake of over thinking it.

The world will tell you that meaning is what you make of it. But meaning isn’t what we make of it. We are not the creators of meaning any more than we are the creators of bugs or weeds or bacteria.

If anything, we are the destroyers of meaning. But the world won’t tell you that.

The world will tell you that meaning is nothing. But that is not meaning. That’s nihilism.

The world will tell you that meaning is anything. But that’s not meaning. That’s relativism.

Everyone who has ever suffered knows that meaning is something.

Everyone who has ever hoped knows that meaning is everything.

On a good day, the world will tell you that meaning is love. And this is not all wrong. It just isn’t fully true.

Even if you are a person who is always engaged with others and who is always engaged in action, those love relationships and those service activities are not where meaning is defined. They are where meaning is experienced or expressed, but not where meaning is understood.

God forbid a person close to you dies. Meaning doesn’t die. Meaning endures.



In November a movie based on the Tolstoy masterpiece “Anna Karenina” is coming to American theaters.

It would be a strange thing in these times to ask people to read the 1,300-page novel instead of watching the 130-minute movie.

It would also be hypocritical. I was never one to read “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” when I could watch Nastassja Kinski in the theater.

But my soul knew what my mind wanted, even if my body ruled my mind.

In those days of my early-life crisis, I used to tell Jim that I wanted to go to Russia, although I had no idea why I wanted to go.

Jimmy got so tired of hearing my threats to leave for the enemy country that he finally said “Why? So you can wait in line for toilet paper?”

I couldn’t tell him why then, because I didn’t read then.

But I have read since then. And I can answer with the reason now: Russia is where they write novels about meaning.

I am not going to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of “Anna Karenina” by revealing that the title character at the end throws herself under a train to punish her lover Vronsky.

This doesn’t spoil the ending because there is much more to the ending than the death of the title character – even if the movie version doesn’t know it.

There is a character named Levin, and the only thing more dramatic and breathtaking than the death of the gorgeous and the tortured Anna Karenina is the conversion of Levin.

He says all his life as a believer in the scientific process and in scientific progress he thought as hard as he could. And as hard as he thought he could make no sense of meaning.

“I was astonished … that I could not discover the meaning of life, the meaning of my impulses and yearnings.”

Levin comes to the following conclusion, not as a result of not over thinking it, but as a result of refusing to give up thinking about it.

“Now I say I know the meaning of my life: ‘To live for God, for my soul.’ And this meaning, in spite of its clearness, is mysterious and marvelous. Such indeed is the meaning of everything existing.”



If we think enough about it, we know that meaning is connected to pain and suffering and sacrifice. And that is enough to make us not think about it.

If we think enough about it, we know that meaning is something that belongs to us that we nonetheless misplace a lot and have a hard time finding. And that is enough to make us say it is not worth the search.

If we think enough about it, we know that meaning is transportation that takes us on unfamiliar travels when we are much more comfortable being grounded. And that is enough to make us say we’re not moving.

But we also have to admit that our search for the happiness that will ballast the pain and the loss and the change in our lives is ultimately a search for meaning.

So the answer we get when we ask the world to define the meaning of life is the answer we get when we ask the world to define who our neighbor is.

We get every good-sounding answer from the world except the correct one, because the answer is already written on our hearts, and it offends our sense of autonomy that the writing is someone else’s.

We know before we ask the question that everyone is our neighbor because every life has meaning.

Deep down we believe this because meaning is believing.

It’s why we bolt the signs to the beams of the bridges in New York next to the suicide hotlines that read “Life is Worth Living.”

We have always believed this, even though we have never trusted it.

We’ve never trusted it because we know how much life hurts.

The meaning we need to believe in is not that life is worth living for other people, but that our life is worth living – not just today, but every day of every season.

For that belief it takes a great faith in eternity where souls live happily ever after.

And there is no amount of over thinking that can spoil that.

About Rob Ryser

Rob Ryser is an indigent artist and a second-chance storyteller who is fascinated by the power of serious writing to transform life.
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