Look around you. What do you see?
The meaning of the shapes around you does not come from them to you, an arrow shot from a quiver full of significance. The painting on the wall of my living room means very little to me. It was left behind by my landlord; I don’t know how he got it; it’s a print of a scene by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, about whom I know nothing. Maybe less than nothing. Other than filling up an otherwise blank space, it serves no function. It does not speak to me.
No, meaning is a boomerang that starts with you, extends to your surroundings, and curves back to meet you where you are. There’s an old textbook supine on an end table under the painting. It looks like it belongs in a big beautiful library where everyone admires but no one reads. I referenced that book a million times in graduate school. I spent hours absorbing knowledge from it, traveled with it, lived with it. It reminds me of a significant time in my life. I give it meaning, which it reflects back to me.
This is not just so much solipsistic drivel, but an admission that the objective nature of our surroundings contributes minimally to our subjective experience. One man perhaps, surrounded by a great crowd of critics, will fall into a depressive self-criticism and lose his will. Another in the same conditions will be a bull prodded by a thousand rapiers to enraged action. Yet another will hear and disregard, carrying on in peace. Some may never hear at all, being congenitally out of tune with criticism.
As children, we learn how to relate to our surroundings, guided by parents or friends or blind circumstance. We grow and learn and adapt and experiment. The stakes grow greater as we get older, and become responsible for our own lives and maybe for the lives of others. And at some point, the stakes grow too great—the possible consequences of our thoughts and actions too significant—and we stop. Stop growing, learning, adapting. Except when forced by circumstances, we choose to stay put in the mental depot, sit on a bench and watch the trains go by, maybe comfortable, maybe envious of those still traveling, but making silent and private justifications for why we can’t hit the rails one more time. We believe that things in life work, well enough, and we can only make them worse by making changes.
And so we wake in the morning when we must, dress as those around us will expect, eat what we are accustomed to eating, go to work and perform the motions we are expected and rewarded to perform, spend time with family or friends doing and talking about customary things…and at the end of it all, allow what few hours are left to pass in mostly thoughtless entertainment.
That’s never been me. I’m a naturally inquisitive and curious person. Recently, though, I have felt the cords of convention pulling at me and stirring within me the feeling that I’m losing the spark of initiative that has always made life interesting. I’m 32, I’m an engineer, I work at a large engineering company. I read much less than I used to. The world around me is not as interesting as it once was. My sense of humor has become less creative and more sarcastic with time. My average TV consumption has increased many times over since my college days. I didn’t plan or work toward any of that. It’s just something that happened. But did I want it to happen? Not so much.
Now, I don’t know anything about much of what I just said. I’m a physicist, not a psychologist, philosopher, or poet. But I do know that my mind and life can be more expansive than they are. In my relatively new adulthood, there need not be an end to the joys of discovery. Perhaps I have less time in which to find things out—when I’m not finding things out in my job, that is—but what do I do in the time that I do have?
The mind can ossify with time, or it can become more flexible and supple.
Our selves and our lives can be jails whose jail-yards we wander during life sentences; or they can be gardens blooming with ideas and fascinations. I, and too many people that I know, have a jail-yard mentality, and we have to break out. Break out, and get back to the garden. I am plotting my jailbreak. Maybe you need to plot yours?