Listen: There are things we are supposed to want out of life, and there are the means by which we are supposed to attain them. There are cultural events, life milestones, rites of passage, and personal interactions which we are supposed to eagerly anticipate, and those we are supposed to bemoan. There are standards of comportment we are supposed to uphold, degrees of amiability we are supposed to project, and durations of eye contact we are supposed to maintain.
We are supposed to know when to laugh and when not to laugh. We are supposed to stand a certain way and sit in a certain way, and ways in which we are not supposed to stand or sit. We are supposed to have street smarts, as opposed to book smarts, but we should have enough street smarts to know how to attain those book smarts. We are supposed to be honest, except when we aren’t supposed to be. We are supposed to be careful and we are supposed to take big risks.
We are supposed to have jobs and we are supposed to seek to advance in both position and compensation in these jobs. We are supposed to look forward to lunch. We are supposed to care a great deal about food and eating and sporting events and and acts of geographical transit and the weather. We are supposed to care a great deal about many, many things, and we are supposed to know what those are without being informed in advance.
I have lived my life riven by “suppostas.” From the very first moment I realized that the world had expectations of me beyond the routine of elementary school classrooms, I was in a state of near constant bewilderment as to how I should go about my existence. All rules were unspoken and yet somehow universally understood and viciously enforced. I never received instructions, only penalties for failing to follow them.
So I flailed about in search of guidance; examples to follow and role models to emulate. But I never found any templates that I could build upon, no maps I could interpret, no ciphers I could even attempt to break. In day-to-day moments, there were ways to sit, to stand, to walk, to move, or not move, and I coudn’t make sense of them, which often meant defaulting to keeping very still. In my education, there were crucial tasks to accomplish that had nothing to do with that was in the syllubus, and yet were somehow clear to my peers. In the professional world, the litany of unwritten rules, agendas, rites, and rituals were so perplexing and numerous that it caused a kind of paralysis.
From the quotidian to the global, I simply could not figure out how to be. How I was supposed to be.
The problem may already be obvious to you. My error has been to seek meaning and validation through my perceptions of what other people value. I don’t know how I could have known any better. To observe other humans is to see them behave based on some combination of motivations that are invisible to me, guided by some set of rules that is equally inaccessible. Existing, as I do, as a single individual with no way to read the contents of anyone else’s thoughts, all I can do is look and guess, like trying to describe the constellations in the night sky by looking through a paper towel tube.
I would be 38 by the time I realized why the behavior of my fellow humans baffled me so, and why I was so lost navigating this ocean of “suppostas,” for that’s when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, when I found out I am autistic. One aspect of this neurological difference is difficulty with ascribing agency to other people. Another is difficulty deciphering, or even perceiving, nonverbal communication. There are many more parts to being among the neurodivergent, but it all boils down to this: I don’t think or behave the way everyone else does, and I have a lot of trouble understanding what is happening around me if it’s not being explicitly stated. I have a neurological supposta deficit.
But forget that. Placing too much value on external validation is not solely the burden of autistics. Being baffled by the motivations and behavior of other people isn’t exclusive to the neurodivergent. We austistics are more likely to face these kinds of difficulties, often to greater degrees of severity, but feeling misunderstood or alienated is part of being human. We all fear being lost or alienated.
We can’t just dismiss this phenomenon as an error in thinking and move along, though. Whether or not we’ve identified the error, we still have the underlying problem, which is, really, how are we supposed to have meaning in our lives? How are we supposed to matter?
I think I have looked to others to tell me what is meaningful because I couldn’t work it out for myself analytically. When I think about the whole life-cycle trip we’re all taking down this mortal coil, it looks like this: We’re born ignorant and helpless, and starting from absolute zero we then spend twenty-odd years learning how to be a human in the world, and then spend what time we have left deteriorating until we eventually expire and utterly cease to exist at all. Good lord, what, I ask you, is the point?
Given that it looks so plainly like there is no point, and that existence has no meaning, the anxious young mind eagerly looks to the example of others. What’s meaningful to them? To what ends to they direct their finite time and energy? What do they celebrate and what do they revile? In short, what do they value? I hoped that by aping the moves of the humans around me, I would know what I was supposed to value.
This was never going to work.
Of course, society at large will always, at the least, set up the guardrails for what we find meaningful about life. We all learn by example from our family, our peers, and our broader culture. None of us find meaning in a vacuum.
What I didn’t realize, and what I think many people don’t realize, is that there is no meaning there to be found. Those expectations that society places on us, or that we place on ourselves, those “suppostas,” can nudge us in one direction or another or, hopefully, keep us from finding meaning in the grotesque or destructive.
Meaning itself, however, is not something that anyone or anything can provide or even define. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the supercomputer Deep Thought is built in order to answer the great question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Famously, after millions of years of calculations, Deep Thought declares the answer to be 42, which of course makes no sense to its egregiously disappointed audience. Obviously, the Answer is supposed to have a Question, so it builds another, even more unfathomably advanced computer to figure out what the question is that would spit out the cryptic answer 42. More hilarity ensues.
The first (several) times I read that book, I took it as I suspect most people did, as a wonderful example of humor, literary cleverness, misdirection, and a great poke in the eye to know-it-alls everywhere. And it is all of those things. But only now, at this point in my life, do I actually get it.
As a miserable, alienated, and frightened pre-adolescent, terrified of each new school day, I would have given anything to have a Deep Thought of my own to tell me What The Hell It Was All About. Throughout my adulthood, even with whatever wisdom I had accumulated, I would have no less welcomed an algorithmic answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. But it doesn’t exist. It can’t exist.
In recent years, coming closer to terms with who I am has allowed me the psychic space to better appreciate those things that do not fit into a formula for optimal meaning generation. An atheist and skeptic through and through, I have yet developed warmer feelings toward practices and frames of mind that are usually the domain of religion. I don’t need to believe in the literal existence of supernatural beings in order to find peace, connection, or motivation through ritual and story. I am developing a love for the numinous and the immeasurable.
Ritual, for me, can come in the form of artistic creation. Writing essays like this is a kind of prayer or meditation, allowing me to have a conversation with myself, to interrogate and beseach my own mind for insight. Making theatre is not unlike having a church, where great stories are told by a congregation of participants in order to be shared and experienced by the community. Indeed, theatre and religion are siblings, both born from the stories told by our earliest ancestors around the fire.
These things are not, in and of themselves, meaning. Theatre may have an effect on me that is akin to “spiritual,” and I might just really like doing it, but that’s not what makes it meaningful. It’s not even enough to say that something in my life has meaning because I have chosen to bestow meaning upon it. Really, it’s the fact that I’m not at all sure that it has any meaning at all. Or that anything does.
For our lives to matter, and for what we do to have meaning, we have to endow it with meaning ourselves. But, remember, in the sense of some core, cosmic truth, meaning does not exist. So for me to bestow meaning on something is the same as my granting myself a knighthood. I can do all the bestowing I want, but it doesn’t make it so.
The point, then, is not to discover meaning. The point is to look for it. It’s the search, the investigation, and yes, the agonizing doubt. There are precious few creatures living, that we know of, that are blessed, or cursed, with the ability to even engage in this kind of inquiry. It is a quest to satisfy a yearning for that which can never truly be had.
And there is no single way one is supposed to go about it. “Suppostas” are meaning-repellents.
I was about 10 years old when I realized I was something of an alien among other humans. After college, dear friends of mine told me I’d figure myself out by age 27, and that didn’t happen. At age 41, still fresh off of an autism diagnosis and a divorce, I looked at an actuarial table that showed that I was at the precise midpoint of my lifespan. Barring unfortunate events, I had lived the first half of my life. A few weeks ago, I stepped into the second half.
Maybe it’s age. Maybe I’m just too old at this point in my life to care anymore what people think of me. Maybe it’s not the result of personal enlightenment, but that I simply no longer have the energy to care. Or maybe being fatigued by all the pretending, all the masking, all the passing as “normal,” maybe that very exhaustion is what has allowed for clarity. I just know that my life is likely more than half over, and I’m tired of the suppostas.
I no longer want to fit in. I want everyone else to make room.
So now I actively combat my old instinct to worry about what it is I’m supposed to be like. It is a daily battle, but at least now I’m waging it. Now I am more interested in that yearning, the endless inquiry into meaning and mystery. And I often feel frustrated by the lack of solid answers and despairing of my failures, but I can also accept that the frustration and despair are themselves part of the story, as much as anything else.
It turns out the question was always the answer. And it just so happened that I would arrive at this understanding at this particular time in my life. So, in a way, the answer was, in fact, 42.