In Search of Meaningful

Gary and I went to the Vermont History Expo last Sunday and had the fortune of listening to University of Vermont’s Professor Harvey Amani Whitfield speak about The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont 1777-1810.

The root of the multi-faceted problem is that although Vermont did outlaw slavery in its constitution – the first state to ever do so – a significant amount of slavery persisted for several years thereafter; moreover, the ostensible freedom delivered by such a radical-for-the-times anti-slavery provision was not meaningful for even the Afro-Vermonters who subsequently acquired it.

That is, according to Dr. Whitfield, they did not have meaningful freedom.

One example he gave of this lack of meaningful is illustrated by the aforementioned law prohibiting slavery only for adults. African-American kids, who were thus not protected, were routinely kidnapped and sold into slavery without repercussions. So a free African-American parent would be forced to work closer to home regardless of whether better wages could be obtained elsewhere, just so they could offer defense against such common occurrence.

In some ways, meaningful here seems to cash out as real or true; as in, if a person is given two choices where one of the choices is not a decent option at all, then that person hasn’t been given a real – or true — choice; that person does not have real or true freedom.

So why use the term meaningful?

Good question and one I might ask the professor if I have a chance. Or one that I might find in his eponymous book published by the Vermont Historical Society. But for now I’ll offer my spin on it, which makes the nuanced phrasing meaningful to me:

Because meaningful carries more subjective weight and is what we use when we are evaluating our circumstances.

Real and True both give off a false air of objectivity, as if the existence of such things as personal freedom can be decided externally. The loaded terms seem to invoke chalkboards and checklists; some kind of tests; an unchanging algorithm of indifference. But meaningful is a human quality only observed through the eyes of personal circumstances, either yours or someone else’s.

If asked whether or not a parent with a child at risk of being kidnapped has true choice, true freedom, we might start weighing risks, sorting out different possibilities, and assigning values. However, when we are asked about it in terms of meaningful, our landscape — our point of view — immediately changes to a more sympathetic one. When it does, what might have been options under another view suddenly dissolve into absurdity.

Indeed, so much so, I want to take his nuanced phrasing – the addition of meaningful – and use it elsewhere, like in talks of decent wages, opportunities, and living conditions, where decent far too often becomes like real and true, subject to a false objectivity that smugly mistakes crumbs for nourishment, walls for doors, and cages for castles.

Or in talks of peace incorrectly viewed as absence of war; or in talks of ethics where good intentions bow to bureaucracy; or in talks of fighting poverty while those with the power to do so only add more rungs.

On and on it goes, with the meaning of our precious nouns meaning less and less. We need meaningful Life, meaningful Liberty, and meaningful Pursuit of Happiness.

Forget finding the meaning of life. What we need are more meaningful lives and an America that contributes to their development.