What makes life meaningful?
Broadly speaking, I think there are two answers to that question: The things we do, and other people.
Because we’re anthropoid apes, we’re social creatures. We evolved in small social groups, so we’re keenly attuned to the attitudes, needs, and affections of those around us. Not only as infants, which is where those bonds develop, but throughout our lives.
Some of us find great meaning in solitary pursuits — trekking alone across the Alaskan wilderness, or writing poems and tucking them away in a shoebox. I’ve never understood people like that. For me, trekking alone across my back yard is kind of pointless.
I love creating things, mostly music and writing, but I was spoiled at an early age. In my early 20s I was playing a lot of gigs in a band. Not high-profile glamor gigs, to be sure — clubs and weddings and even frat parties. Nonetheless, I was playing music for other people, and they showed their appreciation by paying me. Later I spent 25 years on the editorial staff of a magazine, where every month the things I wrote were read by, on average, about 20,000 people. I think I probably needed that amount of involvement with a community of readers in order to survive emotionally. Not having been gifted with the ability to form a close relationship with a significant other, I needed a substitute. I still do.
Recording music to my hard drive is not a satisfying, meaningful activity, however much I may enjoy the process. For it to be a meaningful activity, the music has to be shared with other people. And uploading mp3 files to the Internet doesn’t count. Even if a few people do listen to the music, I get no feedback. In an emotional sense, the Internet is just a gigantic hard drive off in space somewhere.
Sometimes I play cello in our local community orchestra. The orchestra is not very good. Even if it were terrific, as a string player you’re not doing anything even remotely creative. Somebody puts a page full of dots in front of you, and your job is to wiggle your fingers in an expert manner so as to turn the dots into sound waves. You never get to improvise a solo. You don’t get to pick the pieces that will be on the concert. You don’t even get to say, “I can’t play those dots at that insane tempo — can we slow it down a little?”
The sad thing is, I’m tempted to keep doing the community orchestra thing, not because it’s musically rewarding but strictly because it involves me with other people. There are concerts. There’s applause.
If I lived in a major metropolitan center — or even a smaller city graced with a major university — it might be practical to put together a performing group to play my synthesizer music. It would be difficult, but there would be a community of active musicians to draw from, some few of whom might have compatible tastes and aspirations. But the town I live in is a cultural backwater. If anybody else in town even knows what a software synthesizer or a MIDI keyboard is — and there may be three or four people who do — where would they hang out and meet one another? How likely is it that they’ll want to play charts that require precise finger work in 7/4 or 11/8 time? When there’s no money in it?
I have no solutions. I’m just observing the problem.