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Meaninglessness is A-OK

By Xinyu "Cynthia" Zhang
If you’ve ever written an “hour” at Stanstead College, you may have noticed the first line: “Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu: ‘All your teaching is centred on what has no use.’” I used to see it as an ironic preview, but over time, I realized that it’s, in a sense, a summary of everything. When you think about it, why are we here, and is anything we do truly useful or meaningful?  

I used to have a better idea of that. During my homeschool years, I split my time into “work” and “rest.” The former was meaningful, while the latter was pointless. Khan Academy was work, YouTube was rest; writing essays was work, doodling was rest; flying to take the TOEFL was work, driving to the beach was rest. 
Within the walls of my home, the system worked, but when I came to Stanstead College, it started being a gong show. There were so many important things to do, but so little time. At first, I created this hierarchy in my mind. Human connections came first, because it’s useful for my sanity. Then grades – useful for the future – then  exercise – useful for health. Anything that wasn’t on the list, like watching movies alone, was to be avoided at all costs.  

Even though reality had too many complications and conflicts, I tried to hold on to my way of thinking and felt compelled to squeeze the most meaning from my life. It came to a crux during the season of college applications. I worked day and night to write and polish my – yes – 30 essays to get into a college with a good name – which I felt would make me a more valuable person. It was the longest and most gruelling academic experience I’ve ever undergone. But more than that, I skipped weekend trips, walked away from conversations in the TOD office, and turned down dates with friends. As the rejection letters came in, I lamented over all the precious moments that went down the drain. My sentiments were echoed when I talked to my advisor, who showed me giant boxes of college papers, all gathering dust. “Does any of that have any part in the life I’m living now?” he asked. “Sharing my passion for music, coaching soccer in sunny afternoons, having great conversations with kids in my office – does any of that have to do with those essays and tests?”  

You might not relate to my nerd issues, but I’m sure that you’ve all experienced conflicts of the same kind. When you find out that your sport wasn’t a good fit; when a relationship ends in betrayal; when the school you went to wasn’t right (hopefully not Stanstead); when you spend decades on a job you hate; when what you’ve believed in and fought for turns out to be a lie – you might feel the same kind of loss. You might also feel pressured to do things you hate because society says they are useful, or feel unmotivated to follow conventional paths because you don’t see the point, or caught between both and paralyzed by indecision. If you feel any of this, it can be helpful to renew your perception of what is useful. 

Turning to great prophets and philosophers, I found that there’s no way to know. In Ecclesiastes, a book of the Bible, the teacher says, “Hevel, hevel, everything is utter hevel” – everything is meaningless; everything is a mystery. And one of the tenets of Buddha’s teachings is the emptiness of existence – the physical world is an illusion and material pursuits are futile. Tibetan Buddhists even have a fascinating ritual as a reminder. They would meticulously craft sand mandalas, and then destroy them in one sweep and return the sand to the river. 

It’s normal to be saddened by this thought, but we can also choose to see it as an opportunity. Our dear philosopher from “hours.” Chuang Tzu, told a story of a huge old tree, which a carpenter dismisses since it couldn’t be made into any building or furniture. But the tree asks, “If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large to provide shade for travellers?” In real life, we see countless examples of how “useless” things can surprise you. For instance, if Steve Jobs gave up calligraphy classes, thinking that they had nothing to do with his career, then iPhones would only be overpriced bricks, rather than stunning designs. As Chuang Tzu put it, “If you have no appreciation for what has no use, you cannot begin to talk about what can be used.”  

So what should we do? If you’re usually skeptical of calculus or quantum mechanics, give them a chance. If you believe the only things that matter are good grades, a prestigious school and a well-paying job, think about what you’ll remember in the last moments of your life. If you’ve had bad experiences or made bad choices, don’t look back with regret, since nothing is a waste. Everything is a part of life’s journey if you allow it to be.  

I will leave you with this Biblical quote: “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart… Enjoy life with your wife (and everyone else), whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days.” I can’t tell you what paths to make or even what to take from my speech, but I do hope that you’ll walk away with more peace and have more fun writing those hours. 

Thank you and have a “meaningless” day!