On Meaninglessness

Pritpal S Tamber

April 15, 2017

A friend of mine is searching for meaning right now. I suspect that sounds like a first world problem, but I think it’s an endemic issue that’s being ignored too easily. We live in times when so little of the world around us makes sense, and so finding meaning to one’s own life is getting harder and harder.

The 2008 financial crash is by far the best example of the senselessness of the modern world. Apparently a few ‘rogue’ banks and bankers took bets on people’s lives and lost. The consequences were dire for many. And yet, somehow, no one was held accountable. The banks are where they were, aside from a few absences here and there. And all but one or two of the bankers are still around, doing what they did. Meanwhile the ‘many’ have been left to pick up the pieces of their lives unsure of how they got there.

Effort-to-Value Relationship

Not being able to relate your personal experience with the bigger picture is, I believe, poisonous. People need to be able to relate their effort to the overall value being created. When the effort-to-value relationship is broken, meaninglessness is an inevitable consequence.

I experienced this when I tried to stop large trucks parking outside my house as they delivered to a neighbouring office block. The developers of the office block got permission to build in a semi-residential area partly on the basis that it would not increase local traffic. To achieve that, they had to include a delivery bay around the back of the building. However, getting in and out of the (badly designed) bay has proved tricky, so drivers would park on the street, right outside my house, and deliver their goods on wheeled crates.

Person to Person

I asked the building developers to ensure delivery drivers used the bay. They said it wasn’t their fault, it was the fault of the companies renting the office space. So I asked the office managers of the companies renting the office space to ensure delivery drivers used the bay. They said it wasn’t their fault, it was the fault of the delivery companies. So I asked the delivery companies to ensure their drivers used the bay. They said it wasn’t their fault, it was the fault of the individual drivers.

The above process took over a year. Everyone involved was polite and polysyllabic but, when I got to the end of the line, it became about me versus the drivers. Person to person. Somehow, the intervening systems – the building developers, the companies renting the office space, the delivery companies – were completely absolved of any responsibility. They were all, in their view, without blame; it came down to me versus the drivers.

Side-Stepping Civic Responsibility

How is it possible that we’ve created systems that extract value from society without having to take responsibility? How is it that multi-million pound companies can so easily – and politely – side-step their responsibilities, effectively reducing a legitimate issue to a person to person battle that might be characterised as ‘pesky resident’ versus ‘errant drivers’?

I chatted to a few of the drivers. They told me that their schedules were so packed they had to be as efficient as possible to meet their targets; the time it took to get in and out of the bay was an issue. They also told me that for every complaint lodged against them (for instance, via their vehicle registration plates) they potentially lost pay. All in all, the battle became between my lung health and their economic survival. Individual to individual. The systems had expertly excused themselves from any and all civic responsibility.

Fundamental to our Future

In my example, the effort-to-value relationship was not just broken but set up to lead to a one-to-one battle between individuals. It was a zero-sum game between us, with no consequences for the systems involved. It was – and is – a perfect example of how my voice had become meaningless to the bigger picture. And it made me angry.

Last week, I interviewed someone who told me our definition of agency was too weak. It’s not the ‘ability to make purposeful choices’ that matters but actually being able to change things. She’s right. In my example, I had the ability to make purposeful choices on how to deal with the trucks parking outside my house, but almost no power to change anything. In fact, the only power I had, which it took me over a year to discover, was to imperil the economic livelihoods of a few delivery drivers.

To my mind, restoring the effort-to-value relationship is fundamental to our futures. I’m tired of watching good people lose their rudder, grapple with the seeming meaninglessness of their lives, while systems continue to thrive, seemingly at the expense of individuals.

Pritpal S Tamber

Independent Writer, Researcher & Consultant | pritpal@pstamber.com

I'm an independent writer, researcher and consultant focussing on community health and medical information. I'm a former physician, medical editor and medical publisher, and also the former Physician Editor of TEDMED. I began my career at The BMJ. For more information, see the About page.

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