Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

When is a meaningful life even possible?

Perhaps there’s a better question than, “what gives life meaning?” That question is very hard, and we should expect no consensus answer. People and their contexts are too individually different. 

Maybe this question is better - what makes meaning possible? What is necessary and sufficient for meaning to even exist?

The first common thread I’ve found for all “meaning” and “meaningful experiences” in my life is intimacy. Everything with meaning in my life I have, I have deep entanglements with.

My relationship with my wife, family, and close friends is intimate. It’s deeper and more honest than superficial conversation. When I have meaning at work, it’s because I’ve been able to develop intimacy - relationships, understanding, and personal honest exchanges with my team or with our customers. With God, I have only had meaning when I have surrendered and spoken with him through prayer and listened for his guidance.

I only use these examples because family, work and faith are common sources of meaning for people I have met. There are certainly others.

I’m not suggesting that intimacy is necessary an sufficient for having meaning. I am suggesting, however, that it is necessary. Intimacy precedes meaning.

Intimacy is simple, but difficult. It takes two entities simultaneously being honest and true to themselves, while also accepting, listening to, and embracing that sincerity from their partner. That in itself can be incredibly difficult, but to have intimacy it must be done over and over again - intimacy takes time.

But here’s the bigger point. Because we can very strongly influence whether others can have intimacy in a domain, we can really affect whether other people are able to have meaning at all. Let’s take the instance of managers at work.

A moral manager treats people well, helps them deepen intimacy in their skills, relationships with colleagues, and interactions with customers. Immoral managers can destroy intimacy by making people react to fear, never explain why their work matters, and underresource projects so that no depth can be achieved because everyone has to rush. At work, managers have a lot of ability to affect intimacy, which ultimately affects whether their employees can find meaning in their work.

If intimacy precedes meaning, we have some culpability in whether or not others are able to have both.