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.