The Roads of National Significance: Reflections on Meaninglessness

Noon. The sun beat mercilessly down on the construction site I now inhabited, causing those operating machinery to close the doors and turn up the air-con…and those doing physical labour to despise them. A gentle north-westerly breeze did little to bring relief. Rather, it would periodically stir up brown columns of dust to scurry across the barren expanse of exposed earth we had created; bodiless ghosts of the landscape’s glorious former life, perhaps.

The earthy patchwork of the construction zone was punctuated by the flashing beacons and lumbering bulk of earthmoving machinery, rhythmically following their prescribed haul routes to topple mountains and fill valleys. Dwarf-like men in orange fluro and white helmets pointed at paper plans and traced imagined realities with their arms. The scene was bordered by the greenery of New Zealand bush, and covered by a ceiling of vibrant blue laced with refreshing wisps of cirrus clouds.

Alone. I inspected the imposing grey walls of a culvert outlet structure. Here on the periphery of the site, the throaty roar of 30 Tonne excavators died down to a distant rumble, and my world was interrupted only by intermittent static and the gravelly voices of site supervisors emanating from the radio hanging from my pocket. Compacted aggregate crunched beneath my boots and echoed off the nearby walls of concrete. Finally, the culvert inspection done, I indulged in a moment to ponder the enormity of what we were working to accomplish.

In just three short years, this barren ground, scarred by the deep cuts of excavators, would be moulded and shaped into 15 kilometres of four-lane expressway carrying the freight, people and ideas that facilitate the New Zealand economy. The road supported by this culvert would quite literally sustain the nation’s population, as I imagined the tens of thousands of trucks loaded with produce and supplies that would pass overhead on the way to nourish our nation’s largest city. Indeed, this messy construction site would become much more than a road, it would be one of the arteries facilitating the life and growth of society. This carriageway is so important to the future of our country that it has been dubbed one of several ‘Roads of National Significance.’

Naturally, I stooped to pick up a stone with all the gravitas of Maximus himself.  I rolled it between my dusty hands, gazing across the expansive earthworks site like it was my own Colosseum.

My thoughts and conversations about this project generally guided me to a heady realm, where my thinly veiled pride swelled at being a player involved in this infrastructure that captured the attention of the public and enjoyed the headlines of popular media. And yet something strange happened as I stood up reverently, looking on that cold, grey stone.

Meaningless. There was no other way to describe it. My thoughts had turned from the grandeur of the project to consider the significance of the angular chunk of greywacke rock I now held between two of my fingers. It boggled the imagination to try and comprehend how insignificant this rock was in light of the magnitude of the project. There were three million cubic metres of earth to be excavated moved and compacted along the length of this new highway. No one would notice, much less care, if I were to flick this into the bush where it would vanish into the undergrowth, and another millenia of meaningless existence.

Significant. At the same time I realised there was a paradox wrapped up in this stone, a mystery begging to be celebrated, if not understood. It occurred to me that although it would never again be spared a thought, let alone enjoyed, this rock would forever form part of the fabric of this vital expressway. United with a billion other particles, it would hold it’s own critical, albeit infinitesimally small, role in supporting not just a road, but the very economy of the nation. The fortunes of New Zealand, and the wellbeing of her population, would in the smallest of ways be influenced by this shard of stone. In doing so it would be, in a very real sense, nationally significant.

I couldn’t help laughing as the true profundity of all these bizarre thoughts dawned on me.

I am that stone.

I’ve always enjoyed Ecclesiastes, that awkward book of the Bible famous for it’s opening line: “meaningless, meaningless says the preacher.” It is counter-intuitive, perplexing, a bit depressing and yet…just so real. I’ve heard whole sermons arguing that the book describes the meaninglessness of a life apart from God. But somehow that has never sat quite right, because no matter what way I look at it, life with God still seems pretty meaningless.

The entire length my days will be an invisible blip on the spectrum of history. Even in this age I am but one of 7 billion souls who scramble away each day to make ends meet and enjoy the good things that come our way.  All my work, my ideas and thoughts, mean next to nothing to all but my closest family and friends.  And the deeper complexities of who I am, the richest part of me, is known by no one but myself.  When all is done, I will hand the results of my life’s work to the generations after me, and within a few short decades even my memory will fade from the family I leave behind.

No, I don’t think God responds to our desire for meaning by granting it to us.

I think God responds to our pursuit for meaning by inviting us to be enthralled by the grand tapestry of history that he is weaving, and embracing our minute role in creating it. Just as the small stone in my palm derives profound importance from its small part in national infrastructure, so our pathetic lives become epic through our daily contributions to the glorious cosmic narrative. The answers to whether good ultimately triumphs over evil, whether we iterate our way to the purest of joys, or if humans ultimately embrace truth or succumb to deception, are ultimately shaped by the trillions of decisions, thoughts, conversations and actions made by you and I everyday. Each of them meaningless, yet each of them profound.

The paradox of the stone is the paradox of my life.  It’s not that life becomes less meaningless.  It’s just that it becomes both profound and meaningless, at the same time.  In a strange way, our lives are both imbued with profound meaning while also remaining pathetically and utterly meaningless. But it’s the paradox itself that is beautiful, in that we can enjoy our meaninglessness without despairing, and carry the heavy burden of purpose lightly. It is precisely this paradox that allows me to laugh at whatever befalls me. Will I enjoy wealth, status and influence? I’ll hold them lightly, knowing that this life is a vapour and I’ll soon be forgotten. Will my life be marked by tragedy, struggle and turmoil? In this too I can laugh, knowing it also is meaningless, soon to be swallowed up in a story more vast and glorious than I can imagine.

I solemnly pressed the stone into the ground where it united with a million other particles, disappearing into the bland grey texture of backfill even as I stood up. It is utterly meaningless, not even spared a thought worth forgetting. And yet for centuries to come, it will remain part of the fabric supporting the infrastructure that will ultimately facilitate the economy, connections and joy of this country.

The Mindfulness [Joy] of Social Photo Sharing

This week I took a jaunt into the wilderness, and came across such jaw-dropping scenery that my first instinct was to take a picture and share it with everyone I knew.

Then I realized I didn’t have Internet in the Sierra Nevadas, so I just stared at it instead. And wondered

Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I’m a big fan of being awed.  If something stirs the soul, be it an epic soundtrack, beautiful vista or dramatic movie, I’m in.  Awe, that most precious and fragile of experiences, is a constant theme of my thoughts.  And stealing moments of wonder in the midst of the daily pressures of our 21st century world is, without exaggeration, the challenge I have devoted my life to.

So when I read these opening lines in a recent blog post by Leo Babauta over at Zen Habits, I was hooked.  I have a lot of respect for the mindfulness philosophy espoused by Leo, which resonates on many levels with my own ponderings on the meaning of life.  And with over 2 million subscribers, it would seem that a lot of other people like his take on things as well.  He continues…

…what is this urge [to share photos on social media] based on? And can we bring mindfulness into the process?”

As I trudged through pine forests and over granite boulders, I wondered about the urge to share:

  • Why is this moment not enough, without the need to share?
  • Do I just want to brag, or is there a good-hearted motivation there too?
  • What am I so afraid of, that I can’t refrain from sharing?

I read on with excitement; a sense that he was on to something profound, standing on the edge of an epiphany.  He is a man who ‘gets it’ at so many levels.  A man who has seen through the lies of our consumer culture, and knows that no accumulation of wealth, no pursuit of success can surpass the mysterious joy of looking with fresh eyes on the wonder of life in this moment.

And yet, as I read over his conclusions, I couldn’t help feeling a bit deflated.  Like enjoying the build up of a beautiful piece of music only to get a flat note on the climax, or being presented a delicious looking meal only to find it cold and tasteless.

When we find a majestic view of mountains in the sunset … it can be so lovely, so moving … that we feel the need to deal with this overwhelming feeling somehow. When we share a photo, this is our way of coping with this feeling that overwhelms us. I couldn’t share it with anyone, so sometimes I would yell out loud in joy.

But other times I would just turn inward and notice this overwhelming feeling of joyfulness. I noticed how strong the feeling was, and how strong was my urge to deal with it in some way. How do we deal with powerful feelings? By taking action, usually. What if we just stayed with the feelings, noticed how they feel, faced them with courage, explored them with curiosity? This is harder than most people realize, but doable.

And what happens when we stay with the feelings … is that we realize we can handle them, without needing to take action. We can find the courage to stay. We can just sit and do nothing. It’s a brave way to live, this facing without running.

The surest way to butcher a joke is to analyse it.  The best way to undermine intimacy is to try and describe the chemistry. And I can’t help but think an easy way to short-circuit an awestruck moment in the mountains is to focus on the awe itself.  He came so, so close to something beautiful.  But at the crucial moment, when the overwhelming sense of wonder could have erupted into a gloriously self-forgetful moment of thankfulness, he turned his eyes inward.  When all creation was so powerfully beckoning him to turn his eyes outward and upward, he looked inward.  And although it may have taken courage, I can’t help but think it was an empty place to turn.

The thing to realise is that the urge to share beautiful moments isn’t a byproduct of this age of camera phones, 4G networks and instagram.  Our technology hasn’t created this desire to share enjoyable moments with others, it’s only given us an easier means to do so.  Over half a century ago, before computers were invented and long before the ‘share’ button became part of our lives, C.S. Lewis grappled with the same questions Leo was asking, and came to quite a different conclusion.

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . .

Perhaps the urge to share beautiful things isn’t a quirky and redundant aspect of how we’ve evolved, or how society has conditioned us.  Maybe it isn’t something to be suppressed, overcome and resisted.  Perhaps the reason we feel an overwhelming desire to share beautiful moments is because we are meant to share them.  Maybe enjoying something wonderful in isolation doesn’t feel complete because it isn’t, in fact, complete.

So, if our impulse to ‘yell out loud in joy’ at the sight of something spectacular is good and right, and these moments of delight are actually incomplete until they are shared…what does that look like on a solo jaunt in the Sierra Nevadas?  I think it looks suspiciously like praise.

Just as opening a particularly lavish gift evokes spontaneous gratitude to the giver, or receiving a thoughtful note inspires us to thank the author…perhaps our gasps of awestruck wonder at the sight of majestic landscapes ought to be directed as praise for the architect who crafted them.

Christians tend to describe this with all sorts of spiritual jargon: ‘praising the Lord,’ ‘glorifying God,’ ‘rejoicing.’  Whatever.  In reality they all amount to the same thing; that magical moment where our unbidden, spontaneous impulse to share something beautiful connects with the very person who crafted that beauty.  Such a moment is anything but religious.  Instead, it just feels like the most pure, complete and satisfying taste of enjoyment; ‘Awe Version 2.0’, perhaps.  Lewis himself went on to draw the following conclusion…

 …The Scotch [statement of faith] says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.

So, the next time you’re confronted with something irresistibly beautiful, embrace the urge to share it.  Complete the moment by breathing out praise to the creator who carved every intricate detail.  And in that moment, I hope you experience the thrill of having your joy completed, of following the delight to it’s ‘appointed consummation’.  No cellphone coverage is required.

Air That Takes Your Breath Away

The other evening we were running ahead of schedule with the kid’s bedtime routine, so in an effort to hold out another 20 minutes we plonked ourselves on the couch and flicked on the news.

After a couple of stories about house prices, and something called Brexit, a segment came up that was actually really interesting.  It was an interview with a guy who hopes to make a lot of money exporting a New Zealand product to the Asian market.  This resource occurs naturally, is easy and cheap to access, is so abundant that supply will never be an issue, and no consents are required to take it.

What is this magical product, you ask?  Nothing but pure New Zealand air.

I actually laughed out loud.  The audacity!  The absurdity!  The cheek of it!  Images of this man’s grinning face were juxtaposed against flashes of anonymous multitudes of mask-donning Asians in the smoggy heart of Beijing.  I scoffed at how ludicrous the business venture sounded, but I think a big part of it was just jealousy that I’m not savvy enough to pull off a gimmick like this and make real cash from it.  Apparently Australian air has already hit the market and is doing quite well, with different flavours such as ‘Gold Coast air,’ ‘Blue Mountains air,’ and ‘Ayres Rock air’ appearing on supermarket shelves.  I laughed as I imagined households of Asians sampling the cans of compressed air like fine wines.

A part of me felt sympathy for the millions of Asians living in the toxic atmosphere of big cities, being driven to spend hard earned coin just to gain a few gasps of fresh air.  But it was just a small part, and quickly got forgotten as the glow of the TV faded and we were consumed once again by the daily madness of getting the kids to bed.

But today I got a particularly tantalising taste of some of New Zealand’s stock-standard air, and it caused me to pause and consider what this man’s ruse means for me and my fellow air-breathing friends.

I mean stock standard quite literally.  The air I sampled today was swept up by a biting southerly wind and carried across the rolling pastures of the Waikato.  The region’s thriving diary industry has raised concerns that the farts of a million cows are raising the methane levels of the atmosphere.  So this was no premium ‘Southern Alps’ air; crisp, clean oxygen infused with the untouched wildness of Fiordland and kissed by a hundred waterfalls.  It wasn’t even the delicacy of ‘Otago Peninsula’ air; cold breaths carried directly from Antarctica by an invisible hand and mingled with the subtle salty tang of a windswept coastline.

No, this ‘Waikato’ air I tasted was quite ordinary by comparison.  But it nearly took my breath away.

All I was doing was stepping out of the office between tasks to get something from my car.  But in that ordinary moment the cool breeze shocked me with a kiss that was electrifying.  Awakened by the tingling coldness echoing down deep into my lungs, my other senses shifted up a gear and I looked with new eyes on the magical world I now found myself in.  An oblique winter sun lacked any real warmth, but illuminated the rolling hills around me with crystal clarity.  Deeper shadows served to highlight the intricate skeletons of leafless trees, and sharpened the details of everything from decrepit fencelines to rustic farm buildings.  Above me, a blue sky was punctuated by serene puffy clouds, though the horizon was overcome by the moody darkness of an approaching front.

For some reason my thoughts returned to that man gleefully compressing air into cans ready for export.  It occurred to me that this experience of breathing fresh air, that I take for granted 99.99% of the time, is actually so incredibly precious.  This man’s entrepreneurial gambit now gave me a means of quantifying the gift that I consume so ungratefully, and the picture wasn’t pretty.  At about $20 a can, I realised that to enjoy just one morning’s worth of pure NZ air would require a loan.  And to buy the air I’ve enjoyed over the last year would send me into bankruptcy.

How tragic it is that we place so much value on what we don’t have, yet when we have something beautiful in complete abundance, literally under our noses and dispersing through every bronchiole of our lungs, we think absolutely nothing of it.

We’ll work hard to enjoy the thrill of getting the latest smart phone, or the subtle pleasure of driving a nice car.  Yet we never consider how lucky we are to have a heart faithfully pumping blood through our system.  We rarely take note of how precious it is to have witnessed a thousand sunsets.  We fail to recognise that the experience of warm rays of sun on an upturned face is quite literally a priceless gift.

The challenge I see in today’s world is not to experience new things, but to experience everyday things with new eyes.

I read an article recently about the life of J.R.R Tolkien, a man who wrote stories of epic adventures and heroic travels – though rarely ventured out of his own home town himself.  One simple sentence really struck home; “For Tolkien, his domestic routine, no matter how familiar, remained perennially fresh.”  Tolkein ‘got it,’ and in moments of clarity like this I can see clearly how foolish I am for chasing so desperately the new toys and novel experiences, when the world in front of me is magical enough if I would care to open my eyes to it.

So, if you’re reading this today, I invite you to take a breath.  Drink it in.  Don’t be polite, take an entire lungful.  Enjoy it as it swirls mysteriously through the cavities of your lungs and transmits life-giving oxygen from the atmosphere to the blood that fuels your miraculous body.  And breath it thankfully, because this breath (along with the last million you’ve taken) is on the house!*

*Unless you happen to live in ‘the smoggy heart of Beijing,’ in which case I apologise if this article has only inspired jealousy.

Lessons from the Spa

My chin rested on my arms as I pondered a mystery.  I could feel the cold kiss of rain on my back, and the warm embrace of the spa on my chest.  Somehow, suspended between these two opposing forces I never felt more alive.  The thought occurred to me that here, experiencing both extremes of pleasure and pain is where life is truly lived.  To immerse myself in the soothing waters of the tub brought lethargy, and to expose myself to the cold lashings of the rain led to misery.  Somehow experiencing both in full measure evoked a strange energy that coursed through my waterlogged veins.  It hinted, perhaps, at some curious relationship between those more profound manifestations of comfort and conflict.