The puzzle of meaningness

Hands with wedding rings

Two years ago, well into a mainly happy marriage, you began a secret affair.

The attraction was overwhelming. The sex was scalding. You loved with a passion you had never felt before.

Your lover—also married—understood parts of you that your spouse did not. You were able to be a different person. You explored aspects of your personality that you had never been able to express before. You made different sorts of jokes. You went on adventurous dates, trying things your spouse—who you knew was sweet but a bit dull when you got married—would never have agreed to do.

After a year and a bit, the passion waned. Your secret meetings began to feel slightly repetitive. You found that your personalities would not be compatible in the long term. You wanted quite different things out of life.

It began to seem you were going through the motions. You had one meaningless fight about nothing. Then you discussed the future, and agreed to end the affair on good terms.

Now, you wonder: what did that mean?

Where did the meaning go?

In the beginning, the affair seemed enormously significant. By the end, it had slid into a casual friendship plus sex.

Were you wrong to think it was meaningful at the start? Was it always meaningless? Or did it have a meaning that it lost?

Perhaps the original meaning lives on in memory, and in the changes in you? You know that the effects of the affair will reverberate for years to come. But what meaning will it have in ten, twenty, thirty years, when life has moved on to other dramas? What could it mean after everyone involved is dead?

How could meaningfulness come and go? To be more than just an opinion, or a feeling, shouldn’t meanings stay the same eternally?

The ethical dimension

“Eternal” reminds you uncomfortably that, of course, there is an ethical dimension to adultery. From the beginning, and all through the affair, you could not ignore that.

You grew up Christian, and you know that any pastor would say that adultery is always wrong. But you left the Church in your teens, when you decided you had to say what was right and wrong in the Bible, not the other way around.

You also have friends who say a married affair is definitely OK—so long as some conditions are met.

But you yourself find it hard to decide whether this one was right, or wrong, or perhaps somehow somewhere in-between.

It was mostly a remarkable and enjoyable experience (with some slightly yuck moments toward the end). If it were not for the ethical concerns, you certainly wouldn’t regret it.

More importantly, you think, its lasting consequences were mainly good. Your lover was quite different in bed from anyone you had been with, and you learned to be more open when making love yourself. That has improved sex in your marriage; your spouse is happy about that.

On the other hand, if you had been caught, it would have hurt several people besides you. Putting innocents at risk must be part of the moral equation.

And there is another lasting effect. You aren’t sure if it is good or bad. Your affair confirmed that something important is missing in your marriage—something you will never get from your spouse. Before, you suspected; now you know. Now, you cannot un-know that.

That is bad for the marriage; but maybe it is good for you. Maybe even for your spouse, in the long run.

You cannot help wondering about other possibilities. Is it realistic to want lasting passion and compatibility?

You do not want to become a serial adulterer in an attempt to find out.

Ethics: what are they good for?

You are introduced to a rather odd woman at a cocktail party. She is deathly pale, with a black leather miniskirt and extensive, spiky tattoos. She sounds normal enough, though, and explains that she teaches philosophy at a local university.

“Oh? That’s interesting,” you say. “What kind of philosophy?”

“Well, um, ethics, actually.”

“Ah,” you say. “Um—I wonder if I could ask you a professional question?”

“Well, if you want personal advice—” she begins, frowning.

“No, sorry! Not like that. You see, I got really interested in ethics recently. I kind of geeked out on it, actually. I read a bunch on the web, and then a couple books. So I learned all about virtue ethics and deontology and consequentialism and stuff. But what I don’t understand is how you would use all that to figure out what to do in a real-life ethical quandary. It seems awfully abstract.”

“Oh dear,” she says, grinning. “You have discovered our dirty little secret.”


“Well, you know, most ethicists have the same problem. Our professional work usually isn’t much help when ethical push comes to practical shove.”

“Oh,” you say.

“How does that make you feel?”

You call your friend Susie. After some small talk, you come around to the point. “Susie—I’m not sure how to ask this, but—you remember you told me once about a therapist who was helpful to you?”

She laughs. “Yes, of course. After my first was born—”

“Sam,” you remember.

“Right, Sam. Can you believe he’s in second grade now? Anyway, I had post-partum depression, and Janet was really helpful. Are you OK? Do you want me to give you her number?”

“Yeah, I’m OK, I think. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with me—”

“You don’t have to be crazy to see a therapist, you know!”

“Yeah, I know. But what I remember is your saying that everything seemed meaningless. And—”

“I had all these expectations about what being a mother would be like. And the reality wasn’t anything like that. She helped me figure out how I felt about that.”

“Right, so I’m kind of wondering what something in my life means, I mean meant, so I thought—”

“Sure, of course. Hang on and I’ll look her up. If I can just figure out how this damn phone works…”

Talking with the therapist doesn’t go as smoothly.

“How does that make you feel?” is her mantra. After answering that dozens of times, over several sessions, you finally rebel. “I know how it makes me feel. What I want to know is what it means.”

“Well, what does it mean to you?” she asks.

“But that’s just it,” you say. “I want to know what it actually means. Not just to me. I mean, meaning isn’t just a feeling. Ethics can’t be like that. Some things are just right or wrong, no matter what you feel about them.”

“That seems like quite a polarizing view,” the therapist says. “Maybe things aren’t so black and white… I see our hour is almost up. Next time, perhaps it would be helpful for you to tell me about your parent’s marriage.”

You decide there won’t be a next time.

Meaningness is not mostly ethics

Ethics, you realize, couldn’t answer the question “what did that mean?” anyway. Even if you could be sure whether the affair was right or wrong, the one word “right” or “wrong” would hardly begin to express the meaning of the relationship. Even an explanation of why it was right or wrong would still ignore most of what seemed to matter about it.

The meaning of the affair seems to have many dimensions besides ethics. Yet you find it hard to say what those would be.

Certainly, how you feel about it is another dimension. And how your former lover feels too.

But what it says about you seems more important. You didn’t think you were the sort of person who would cheat—and you still don’t. But apparently you are—because you did.

What else does that imply about you? Are you less trust-worthy than you thought, in other ways?

You felt, in the initial rush, that you had no choice. You tried as hard as you could, you thought, to resist your feelings, and failed. Could you have done differently? Is it just sleazy self-justification to say that you would have had to have been a different person to have chosen differently—and that it is not possible to be anyone other than you are?

But now, in fact, you are not the same person you were. The affair changed you; and that is another dimension of its meaning. Your risk-loving lover gave you a confidence you did not have before. And the affair exposed parts of yourself you were only vaguely aware of. Now those often come into play as you think and feel and relate.

Beyond all that, you suspect there are dimensions of meaning that transcend the personal; that go beyond the effects on anyone involved.

Marriage is a sacrament, according to the Church. It is a contract with God as well as another person. You don’t exactly believe in God any more… but marriage doesn’t seem to just be an agreement between two people, either. Maybe it is society, not God, to whom you are responsible? Marriage is a foundation of society. But whose business is it what you do, if it has no consequences for them?

Besides which, the affair itself seemed at first to have a sacred dimension. Sometimes, making love, the sense that you were separate people dropped away. There was simply intense sensation and exquisite action—with no one there to feel or act. And then sometimes it seemed that it was the entire universe making love. Awareness extended into infinity, and there was the presence of the God you don’t believe in.

But surely that was an illusion. This is just self-justification, isn’t it? It makes no sense at all to talk of self-indulgent pleasure as sacred.

A life lesson

During the affair, you told no one. It was a private thing, just for you and your lover. But now, needing perspective, you confide in two close friends.

Over lunch, you tell Chris the short version. You want to be clear that you are not looking for sympathy or support or advice. You need help figuring out what it meant.

“It’s a life lesson,” says Chris. “The universe always sends you the exact experiences you need to develop your true self. It’s the way you find out what you were really meant to do.”

“But what’s the lesson, then?” you ask. “What am I supposed to do?”

“That’s up to you,” says Chris. “You are totally responsible for your own reality, you know. But you have to use your intuition. I think you think too much, sometimes. I mean, really, reading philosophy books is not going to help you find the meaning of an affair! If you go deeply into your feelings, you will find the answer. Maybe that’s the lesson, in itself!”

Lunch ends a little awkwardly. Chris has fit your experience to a generic spiritual story. Nothing in it takes account of any of the details, of the complex texture of your relationships and your life. What you want to know about is the meaning of your affair, not about meaning in general. You are a bit annoyed that Chris doesn’t understand, or is ignoring what you care about; and you can’t completely hide it. Chris always was a bit of an airhead, you think. In retrospect, not the right person to consult.

You are aware that Chris, in turn, is a bit annoyed, because you are dismissing valuable spiritual insight. You seem excessively skeptical, materialistic, and self-involved.

There is an unspoken agreement: “we won’t talk about this again—and we’ll avoid other topics that would expose our different takes on life.”

Life is for living

You meet Kim for drinks after work. Kim is sensible, and you know won’t get mystical on you.

At first, the discussion seems to go well. Unlike Chris, Kim wants to know about the details. Exactly what was so great about the sex? Where did you go on dates? How did you keep the secret?

After an hour, you start again to be a bit frustrated. What you want to know is what it meant. The details matter—but not every detail matters. It would take a year to tell the total story of a year-long affair; and then what? The story itself is not what matters; it is what it means.

“Why does it have to ‘mean’ something?” asks Kim. “Why can’t you just let it be what it was?”

“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?” you say. “What was it?”

“It’s just life,” says Kim. “Life is for living, I guess.”

“What does that mean?” you ask. “That’s what I want to know—how should I live life?”

“You mean, like, is it wrong to have an affair?” asks Kim.

“Well, that’s part of it,” you say.

“Geez, I don’t know,” says Kim. “I guess you only get one life, and the point is to enjoy it. So you have to look out for yourself, and get what you want, some of the time. And, of course, you have to have some kind of ethics. But no harm, no fault. Anyway, it’s over now—why worry about it?”

You nod agreement, but silently you think: That seems too easy.

“So when you did it in the stairwell at Chez Jean’s, were you, like, standing against the wall, or lying down on the landing, or what?” asks Kim.

What kind of world is this?

Neither of your friends’ views was helpful. Chris has a big-picture theory of meaning, which probably came out of some self-help book, but it doesn’t seem to explain anything about your affair. Kim isn’t interested in any meaning beyond the mundane and obvious.

Neither view seems exactly wrong, but both seem to miss what is important. You wonder if somehow they could be combined. Is there a way to understand meaning that takes account of both the big picture and the details?

To be useful, a big picture story has to help make sense of specifics. But, it occurs to you, the meaning of the specifics says a lot about what the big picture has to be.

The world is a very different place depending on whether your affair was definitely wrong (or right), or if that is just a personal opinion—or a cultural agreement.

The world is a very different place depending on whether “the universe” sends you ideal life lessons, or “the universe” is some rocks and gas scattered through vast empty space.

The world is a very different place depending on whether you could have chosen not to begin the affair, or if (being who you are) you could not have acted differently.

The world is a very different place depending on whether somehow the meaning of the affair could become perfectly clear—or if it was inherently nebulous.