Commuting from the suburbs into the city each day leaves a lot of time to think, read, and if I really want to torture the people around me, call friends all over the country. Having recently graduated college this past May, none of us know what we’re doing, let alone what we should be doing. There are buds finding the fit of the classroom too restrictive, friends finding childhood bedrooms surprisingly comforting, and loved ones drowning in alcohol to feel alive. What we all have in common is that we are lost and unsure of what will actualize us. In a world filled with possibilities, how does one choose the right one to have a meaningful life? Philosopher Todd May’s book A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe, published by the University of Chicago Press, gives us a refreshing recourse on how to understand our lives. Todd May is a professor of philosophy at Clemson University, and while his lectures on anarchist politics are interesting, his thoughts on meaning are relevant to all those who feel a little lost.
Todd May’s book is thoughtful in its answer to the question: how do we define meaningfulness with the culturally secular vernacular of 21st century America? In trying to reach a shared definition of meaningfulness, May focuses on the secular by excluding faith as a standard. Neither does he accept happiness as a metric, since happiness is such a personal experience; a shared definition of meaningfulness demands objectivity.
What he proposes is not a fully defined standard to gauge the significance of our lives– his writing is much too gentle to be so dogmatic– but rather the foundation for understanding meaning as both an objective and subjective experience. He explains how one way to look at whether or not a life is notable l is to examine the temporal trajectory of our thoughts and actions to look for themes and characterizations like one would do with novels. A significant life would contain narrative values defined externally, but experienced subjectively.
Unlike most academics, there is a palpable sincerity in May’s prose. He isn’t trying to prove to you that he’s right as much as he is exploring a thought experiment to its logical conclusion. May is not afraid to make the work personal or his examples relevant to contemporary readers. He is not here to sound smart, and his work is all the more accessible because of it. Explanations are unencumbered by the details that give classical philosophy treatises both its authority and its inaccessible character. Such a trade off, accessibility for rigidness in thought, is worthwhile here as the culmination of May’s efforts is an honest book filled with as many doubts as answers.
In a world overfilled with self-help books, programs promising happiness at the low cost of $-, and other people stuffing their great advice down your throat, it is so rare to find a book like May’s that centers on the meaning of life without demanding you to do this or be that. May’s humility throughout the book makes the book worth reading by itself; here is a clear example of how to write in a way to inspire them to think for themselves.
Meaningfulness can take shape in a number for ways under May’s schemata of a definition, and exactly because he gives a schemata rather than definition itself, we are treated as fellow thinkers rather than simple followers. That’s not to say May encourages pluralism in language; meaningfulness for him does have an objective standard, which is to say that there are wrong definitions of the term. Just because one thinks something is meaningful does not make it so. However, May’s standard isn’t here to limit us, but rather free us from typical associations of what’s important. His treatment of Dilsey from The Sound and the Fury reveals this; he sees her, a poor black maid, as a prime example of someone having a meaningful life. The narrative value that is reflected in her life is steadfastness, and for all that she is not, she has a significant life under his understanding of the term. Anyone and everyone then can have a meaningful life: the weak, the powerless, and the ordinary. Not everyone does, but one does not have to be Odysseus or Mother Teresa to have a notable life.
The train screeches to a stop, and I strain to hear what the voice on the other end. Consultants, volunteers, or homebodies trying to find a sense of ordinary, it doesn’t matter, we are all trying to make our lives worthy. Todd May gives us a way to evaluate if they are objectively.
Find Todd May’s A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe at a local book store for $18.00. Published by the University of Chicago Press; you can also buy it here.