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Jim Carrey Was Wrong, Meaning is Contextual

The other day I came across the now viral Jim Carrey interview at New York Fashion Week. In the video Jim Carrey states that “there is no meaning to any of this” and his goal was the find the “most meaningless thing I could come to and join”.

My first reaction was to agree, fashion in the grand scheme of things is pretty meaningless. Then I started to realize that meaning isn’t a universal concept we all agree on, it’s contextual and subjective. For those who put on the event and work in the fashion industry, New York Fashion Week probably one of the most meaningful events of the year.

Are sports meaningful? To some, watching sports can be seen as a childish and a waste of time. For me, sports is how I connect with my friends and family. I’ll never forget the 2012 Nationals season where my entire family would watch every game during the summer, and when I saw a walk-off home run live at Nationals Park during the playoffs with my dad and brother. Those memories are meaningful to me.

The same could be said for video games. Many see video games as a complete waste of time, time that should be spent reading a book or picking up a new skill. What people miss is that for a lot of people video games is a way to pick up new skills and connect with the world. Playing Playstation is how I stay in touch with one of my best friends, without the chance to play together we would rarely talk, that’s meaningful.

Towards to the end of Jim Carrey’s New York Fashion Week interview he says “we don’t matter”, a Nihilistic view of the world he has repeated over the past few years. The problem with this way of thinking is that it takes the theory that we don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, and applies it across all time frames. Taking a long long long term view, nothing you do in your lifetime will matter 200, 500, 1,000, or 10,000 years from now. As depressing as it is to understand, eventually we as well as everyone we ever met will pass.

Here’s a great video that explains just how small we are:

There are two ways of taking this information, one is like Jim Carrey, since nothing we do matters (in the grand scheme of things*) then this life is meaningless and we should have a negative view of everything.

The other way of taking the information is understanding that we may not matter many years from now, but we do matter while we are here. The relationships you have matter, you being alive at this point in time matters, your ideas matter, etc.

The best analogy I can give is that of eating food. When you sit down for dinner you don’t say “well I’m just going to digest the food in a few hours so it doesn’t matter what I eat”. The meal matters while your’e having it, even if in a few hours you’ll have already digested it. Will our lives of mattered 500 years from now? Maybe not, but they do now.

This is why meaning and “what matters” is contextual. Don’t hide what brings value and provides meaning to you. Finding a job “that matters” doesn’t mean it has to save the world, it just has to matter to you.

What is Meaning?

In order to understand this concept, we need to understand what meaning is in the first place. A popular article “A Nihilist’s Guide to Meaning” does a great job of explaining it:

Supposing there’s no ultimate, objective, metaphysical thing called meaning, we might instead approach it as a certain feeling or perception that people have toward the objects, events, and experiences in their lives, or toward their lives as a whole.

We’re all of us, nihilists included, familiar with this feeling. We all know that a wedding, for example, feels more meaningful than a random Wednesday at the office. Or that a letter from an old friend holds more meaning than an electric toothbrush (even though the latter is more useful). We feel meaning when standing in front of a national monument, but not when waiting in line at a grocery store. Music, for reasons I’m only maybe beginning to make sense of, almost always feels meaningful, and probably more so to the average teenager than to the average 50-year-old. (Actually, I suspect teenagers perceive more meaning in almost everything.)

So: meaning isn’t a substance, but rather a feeling. In this way, it’s a lot like beauty. Both are more-or-less subjective experiences that we perceive in response to external cues.

…..One especially important feature of meaning is that it’s highly contextual. My wedding is meaningful to me, but not so much to you. An inside joke can be meaningful to one community but completely irrelevant to another. Similarly, events in a dream often feel intensely meaningful, but typically lose most of their meaning when we wake up to real life.

That paragraph beautifully explains everything that Jim Carrey and a lot of others miss, meaning needs context and can change over time.

Before you look down on someone because of how they spend their time or what career choice they make, just realize that what’s meaningful to you doesn’t make it meaningful to them.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting ! I’m still thinking about this.

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