Bernard didn’t even pause to sip his coffee. “You thought it was a crisis of meaning," he told me as I was sitting down, not even wasting his breath on a simple Hello. "You think you can approach things philosophically. It isn’t a crisis of meaning and you can’t just approaching things philosophically.”
I was in a foul mood and had not wanted to meet Bernard. I responded with a serious tone, “It isn’t? What are you babbling about, Bernard?”
“You think this is a crisis of meaning. It isn’t. It’s a failure of love, not philosophy. You can’t approach everything philosophically.”
“Sometimes love seems so overrated.”
“That is such a condescending way to put things. Do you really think so lightly of love?”
“No,” I said, feeling like maybe I did but not wanting to admit it. “I mean, human beings need something more than just affection. Life has to have some kind of meaning for people. Even puppies can love.”
“Ha! You think that meaning is just about meaning? Meaning doesn’t stand alone. In fact, meaning itself is not a thing - it is just a web, a way to connect things.”
“Bernard, could you be more convoluted today?” I asked, seriously ready to just walk away and noticing for the first time that Bernard could be classified as an old fart.
“You want a happy life? You want to feel better than you do right now?”
“Then first thing, accept some coaching. You either change feedback or it changes you. I’m trying to give you feedback.”
“I’m all ears.”
"Your ears are kind of big. And you know what? Ears keep growing – right up to the time you’re my age."
“Great,” I tried not to smile. His stupid humor was kind of cheering me up, which I found annoying in my present mood.
“Use your ears. Shush.
“First of all, you want happy, you learn from Csikszentmihalyi. You find flow, or engagement in events. You lose yourself in tasks. Good. But if the happiness from flow is going to last, these tasks have to have some meaning."
“That’s what I said,” I retorted, a little miffed that he was trying to advise me with my own advice.
“Lesson one: this is not about you, so just listen.”
“Got it,” I said churlishly.
“Sometimes you think you do. Got it. And just remember, anytime you start feeling confident, it just shows how little attention you are paying. But what is meaning?”
“I can talk now?”
“Yes. I asked you a question. What is meaning?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know. Now you are talking sense.
"You look up the meaning of a word and what do you find? Other words. The meaning of words is just more words, which at some level makes no sense – at some level, meaning seems meaningless. It's just a web of connections. But when you read the other words, you learn what the word means. Meaning comes out of the interaction of one word with other words. Meaning comes out of relationships. This is just like life.”
“Life is meaningless?”
“No, you twit. Life has meaning when one life connects to other lives. So, if you want happy, you need two things: flow or engagement in the moment or in tasks; and a sense of meaning, a sense that your activities, your own life, connects to other people, to something bigger.”
Why are you telling me this? I told Life Hiker this a few weeks ago.”
“Sure, but if all you have is these pieces, they eventually collapse. You missed the most important and final piece of the happy puzzle."
“You did. And I don’t know why these things surprise you. You’ve missed more than this, but this is important. If you wake up one morning and realize that you don’t feel for anyone, it sucks all the meaning out of your life. Flow is unsustainble without meaning; meaning is unsustainable without love. You can't stay engaged in meaningless tasks and you can't sustain meaning without love.”
“So, all this to say that we need love? What is this, Bernard, you’re writing for Hallmark now?”
“You have no idea how stupid you look in the very moment you are feeling so smart,” Bernard told me, looking disgustedly at me.
“But you don’t just wander around passing out love like advertising brochures. Love has to be earned and sometimes people you are supposed to love are so far from lovable. What about when you just don’t feel like loving them?”
“’Don’t really feel like love,’” Bernard mocked me. “You think that people need to be worthy of love?”
“Well sometimes they’re so petty or jealous or full of contempt…” I trailed off.
“Because of that, they don’t deserve to be loved?”
“Yes,” I said, feeling like sticking it to him.
“Well, you are right,” Bernard said, surprising me. “They don’t.”
“So you agree with me?”
“No one deserves to be loved, really. I mean, not if you get technical about it.”
“My point!” I exalted. “So, when love fails we become philosophical.”
Bernard snorted. “Could you be more dense?” he stared at me. “Have you not heard a thing? Philosophy depends on meaning and meaning is all meaningless if the connections you make are to people you don’t love. You don't love because deserve to be loved. You love because it gives your life meaning. No philosophy can save you from a failure to love.”
“So we love to find meaning?”
“Well, yeah. That and it simply feels so much better to love than not love."
I paused a long time, letting my ugly feeling slowly drain from me. “So, love is better than philosophy?” I asked.
“Love is a philosophy, you twit.” And at last, his coffee now cold, Bernard took a sip.