Story, History, and Meaning

In the episode of Faith, Fern and Compass we posted this week, Alison and I talked a bit about stories, and what their purpose might be. Is storytelling something with evolutionary origins? If so, what? And why? It’s a completely open question, but an essential one: stories and histories, real or imagined, provide entertainment, bind communities together, give our lives meaning and provide guidance and comfort in difficult times. As we discuss in the podcast, figuring out how to cultivate storytelling and other types of art — while somehow accommodating the social upheaval they inevitably give rise to — is critical. As Susan Biali says, “We cannot afford to waste human gifts. We need to learn how to nurture the creative nature.”

After the podcast, I went back and looked a little deeper into the etymologies of history and story. There is an unfortunate urban legend that history literally means, and comes from, the words “his story”, and while there is a faint glimmer of truth in that — and of course the deeper, more abstract truth, that what we call “history” is too often the story of what dead white guys were doing — the fact is that history and story have more to do with wizard than anything else. These are all the same word, at root; they ultimately arise from a term meaning one who is wise.

With wizard it’s most obvious: the Proto Indo European weid, meaning “to see” or “to know” descended into Proto Germanic as wisaz and Old English as wis. In Middle English it was combined with the suffix -ard, indicating one who is or does (as in coward, drunkard), and made to mean one who is wise — perhaps even too wise.

But in Greek, this same Proto Indo European root weid became his (“wise”), and was combined with tor (“one who is or does”) to mean, basically, wizard; and the term histor was often used to mean “old man, wise man, judge”. A historia, then, would be a tale told by such a wizard. It was borrowed directly into Latin, and thence into French, becoming estorie.

It was then borrowed twice by English — once to become history, and once to become story. For a long time these two words were just two versions of the same term, like want to and wanna, but eventually story (the less formal version) took on connotations of ficticiousness and frivolity and went its own way.

Spiritually both history and story share connotations of a fertile, abundant path through grounded, earthy territory, rounding up with powerful motion that ends in an expression of fortitude and stamina. The hi- at the beginning of history adds a depth of rootedness, of something arising from a hearth and home. It is this rootedness that gives history its peculiar power to give guidance, bind communities, and infuse our lives with meaning.

On the Meaning of Life

“In our life there is a single color, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love.” – Marc Chagall

“The meaning of life is that it stops.” – Franz Kafka

“Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning.” – Joseph Campbell

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” – Albert Camus

“The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.” – Vaclav Havel

Does life have a meaning? If so, what is it? What is it that gives life meaning? And… should we care?

As is obvious from the quotes above, it’s a point of contention. Some people think that they have it figured out: life’s meaning is love or death or living or whatever. Or — more accurately — they think that love or death give life meaning; but they don’t say what that meaning is. Meanwhile, Albert Camus says that looking for life’s meaning will just make you unhappy; and Vaclav Havel implies that, even if that’s true, maybe living a meaningful life is more important than being happy.

Now, I’m not an expert on life; but as a linguist, I’m an expert on meaning. I know what meaning is, how words (and other things) get their meanings, and how those meanings can change over time and be different for different people. So even if I don’t know the meaning of your life, I can tell you how to give your life meaning.

There are basically three ways in which a word can have meaning:

  1. it refers to something concrete in the world, that we physically experience (like rock or run or happiness);
  2. it refers to a metaphorical extension or abstraction of a concrete experience (like rock-solid or running for office or happy accident);
  3. it refers to a relationship between a word of category (1) or (2) (like geology, an ongoing relationship between scientists and rocks).

How does this apply to life?

Well, because life is a concrete occurrence, it automatically has meaning in sense (1). We physically experience it; and the more conscious we are of that physical experience, moment by moment, the more meaning it has. This is a core teaching of Buddhism and many other contemplative traditions. It also reflects the quote by Joseph Campbell above.

As for (2): can life gain meaning by metaphor? Life itself is not really a metaphor for anything, but certainly many events in your life gain meaning by being metaphorical. If you are Catholic, for example, then eating the Eucharist is meaningful because you’re metaphorically eating Christ’s body (well, really you are in fact eating Christ’s body, but set that distinction aside…). Or if you set up a Christmas tree, an evergreen, to represent the continuation of life even in the dead of winter; or if you wear a religious symbol as jewelry; or if you collect souveniers that remind you of people or places important to you… All of these are meaningful acts and objects because of the power of metaphor.

And (3): can the events in your life gain meaning by being in relationship with something? Sure. The simplest kind of relationship is identity or similarity: if two things are the same, or alike, then they stand in relationship. So you can give meaning to something just by repeating it. Suppose you go to the same restaurant every week for dinner; or go to the same vacation spot every year. Just by going back again (and again), you give the event more meaning.

And life itself can gain meaning by being in relationship with… something else — something outside of life. Perhaps this is what Kafka was getting at, when he said that death gives life meaning; because life obviously has a relationship with death. What the relationship is, exactly, is unclear (does death set life’s boundaries? or does life continue after death? is death a kind of life? Does it give rise to life? etc.), but the relationship is undeniable, and that fact is enough to give life some kind of meaning.

But at some level, when people say they want to know the meaning of life, what they really mean is, “Why am I here?” They want to know that their existence matters; that their presence on Earth “makes a difference”. And this “mattering” or “making a difference” is just a kind of relationship. In other words, people want to know that their life has a relationship with something — anything — outside of itself. Perhaps this is why some people are so invested in the lives and accomplishments of their children. Even if their lives are meaningless, and their children’s lives are meaningless too, if the two lives are connected — if they have some kind of relationship — then suddenly meaning, of a sort, appears.

But is that really enough? Ideally you’d like to connect your life to something that itself has tremendous meaning — like some titanic struggle, or a god who has a great hidden purpose in mind, or a never-ending quest for knowledge and understanding. If you can convince yourself that these meaningful exterior things are meaningful enough in and of themselves, and you can establish a strong enough relationship between that and your own life, then maybe your own life will have great meaning, too.

Maybe. But when I’m tempted by these thoughts, I always remember Ozymandias.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. – Shelley, 1818

Perhaps the Buddhists have it right after all.