We humans

Can there be meaning in pointless torment?

May 21, 2014 /

“We cannot bear a pointless torment.” As is often the case with writer Andrew Solomon, you want to write down everything he says and think every sentence over for an hour, day, week. When Solomon delivers this line in his talk on forging meaning in our lives, he’s referring to a woman he interviewed for his book Far from the Tree, who experienced a rape that gave her a daughter — as well as a purpose. Through her adversity she was able to make meaning and find her identity. Solomon quotes her: “As it turns out, I’m the lucky one.”

But what about when that torment is without purpose? In March 2014, right before Solomon gave his TED Talk, the New Yorker published his profile of Peter Lanza, the father of Adam Lanza, the young man who shot and killed twenty students and six adult staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as his mother, before killing himself. The article contains this chilling line: “It’s strange to live in a state of sustained incomprehension about what has become the most important fact about you.” As a result of the tragedy, Peter had identity built for him, and for the rest of his life he will be defined by the fact of his son’s unspeakable violence — without reason, without solace, without any answers as to what might have caused his son’s eruption, or what Peter could have done differently to help him. This “pointless torment” is what drives Peter to seek answers he may never find.

As meaning-making creatures we seek narratives — with clear plots, causes, effects, lessons, conclusions — to cope with the chaos of an indifferent universe. As Joan Didion put it in her collection of essays The White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live … by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

But as Didion also reveals later, when the violence of the late 1960s — the Manson trials, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy — became too senseless, too difficult to make meaning from, she lost the narrative. “I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. … I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no meaning beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience.” Unable to make a true narrative from the nonsense, Didion created the narrative of a narrative-less decade. Through her writing Didion captured some of the most volatile years in recent American history in a way that had meaning even through its fragmentation.

Similarly Peter Lanza’s search for — and lack of — answers becomes the story itself. In a way that’s the specter looming over Solomon’s work. In fact, there is no inherent meaning to so much of the tragedy we experience, and thus we must forge meaning in order to move ourselves — and society — forward. Even if that story doesn’t give us any true understanding or resolution.