We are, all of us, searching for meaning. As we approach the holiday season, this question of how to find meaning in our increasingly chaotic lives becomes even more pressing. In a September 11, 2011 column published in the New York Times, Clemson University philosophy professor Todd May reflects that a meaningful life is one “lived with abandon.” We can, he explains, find meaning in our lives when we devote ourselves wholeheartedly to pursuits that we value, and that are worthwhile. While perhaps not always attainable, this is a reasonable enough goal; but how do we do this in the wake of tragedy?
This question is at the heart of Anne Lamott’s latest book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (Riverhead, September). Lamott is the bestselling author of both fiction and nonfiction, and a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. Lamott’s novels frequently deal with loss, and now in her latest work of nonfiction, she tackles the subject again, this time from a more philosophical perspective. Early on in Stitches, Lamott writes, “Where do we even begin in the presence of evil or catastrophe—dead or deeply lost children, a young wife’s melanoma, polar bears floating out to sea on scraps of ice? What is the point of it all when we experience the vortex of interminable depression or, conversely, when we recognize that time is tearing past us like giddy greyhounds?”
In these opening questions, Lamott identifies the audience for her book: it is for all of us, as even those of us who have not lost a child or been diagnosed with cancer are citizens of this planet; we all witness to time slipping away. Lamott continues, “Where is life’s meaning after Katrina, or an unwanted divorce?…What if your perfect child becomes sick, obese, an addict or a homeless adult? What if you wake up at sixty and realize that you forgot to wake up, and you never became the person you were born to be, and now your hair is falling out?”
The book is for all of us, yes, and in asking so many questions Lamott lets us know that she does not have a specific solution for coping with one particular kind of tragedy. Instead she gives us a formula for finding meaning in our lives. The trick is to look for it. Stitches is a template for our search.
Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist and neurologist who lived through the Holocaust, wrote in his 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.” In the aftermath of tragedy, when it becomes difficult to remember a feeling other than intense sadness, people often talk of wanting to be happy again. It would be a mistake, though, to lump Lamott’s book in with the myriad books published every year under the broad subject heading of achieving happiness. Finding meaning in our lives, whether we have experienced recent tragedy or not, is not the same thing as finding happiness.
Social psychologist Roy Bauminster studied the difference between meaningfulness and happiness. Among other differences, he noted in Aeon magazine, “Happiness is about the present; meaning is about the future, or, more precisely, about linking past, present and future. The more time people spent thinking about the future or the past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives were… Meaning…seems to come from assembling past, present and future into some kind of coherent story.”
Stories are important. In his book How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom writes that literature “returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness.” Anne Lamott understands this. In Stitches she weaves inspiration from other writers—T.S. Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Heinlein—spiritual leaders and Scriptures, with personal stories and national tragedies to create a kind of literary quilt. And it’s the stitching that matters.
Ultimately, Lamott concludes, “The search is the meaning, the search for beauty, love, kindness and restoration in this difficult, wired, and often alien modern world.” These pages themselves make up a quilt, stitched together by Lamott and embodying her own search for meaning. Reading them, we can both witness her journey and come away with a pattern to follow as we set off on our own.
Anne Lamott: Photographer Sam Lamott
Polar Bear: World Wildlife Foundation, http://worldwildlife.org/species/polar-bear