The Meaning of Life

Some years ago, I was playing with one of my decks of Tarot cards and asked the question, "What is the meaning of life?" The deck that I was using was Alexandra Genetti's beautiful "Wheel of Change," and the card that I picked was the Eight of Disks: "Spiders Weave Their Webs in the Branches of a Weathered Tree." Spiders, webs, trees: how, I wondered, was this the answer to my question? Something about Fate and threads? Something about creation and death? I don't get it.

Ah, here it is: "The web represents strong connections. It symbolizes any network of people and things working together to build something. Each person pulls the thread along and, in his or her interactions, knots it together with the threads of others, building the interpersonal web that makes up a life. The web of your life is made up of all the people, places and things you interact with."* At which point, if I remember correctly, I started to sob. Not out of sadness, at least I don't think so, but out of recognition. Of course. All that striving for attention, ambition at work, anxiety over whether I would keep my job (I don't think I had tenure yet, which is probably why I was playing with the cards, at least at the time): all of it mattered, but not in itself, rather for the connections that it enabled me to make. What is the meaning of life? It is the web that we weave in our relationships, to family and friends, in our work, through our hobbies and sports. We are not lone individuals, trying to carve out distinctive and isolated identities, but creatures of society, defined by those with whom we are able to connect.

Here, thanks to Nexus, is a snapshot of my web:

What's interesting, if I could stop writing like a book and remember this is a blog post, is how different my web is from those of some of my friends. For one, the number of links. I have (as of today) 169 friends with 659 links between them. My sister, in contrast, has about the same number of friends (183), but with hers there are 1380 links between them (see below for hers). Whereas my graph shows a number of disparate centers, not linked by anyone, her graph is one great starburst, with almost all of her friends interconnected and only a scattering of outliers. What does this mean? Clearly, at least on Facebook, I am someone who makes at least a certain number of friends, but my friends do not tend on the whole to know each other.

See, there, in the picture, the big clump of friends on the upper right? Those are the fencers. Lower right are my friends from college; mid-left are my friends from church. And everyone else? Some colleagues in medieval studies (but, interestingly, no big clump); some family members (with a little knot of cousins on the lower left); some friends from high school (knot in the middle-right), but nothing--unlike my sister's graph--suggesting a real focus or center. To be sure, the graph itself is an artifact of those links that I have made through Facebook. If it were a graph including, say, everyone whom I saw last month at the Medieval Academy or the members of my department on campus, doubtless it would look somewhat different. Or would it?

Is it any wonder, I think, looking at my web, that sometimes I feel out of sorts, unsure of who I am? Who am I? Am I the fencer or the academic? The church-goer or the fellow alum? I am, of course, all of these things, but rarely at the same time or in any given social situation. Once a year, to be sure ("to be sure"--see, I'm still in book-mode!), my family and I throw a party, inviting all of our friends from all of the different parts of our lives and fling them together for the evening with pancakes and--because it's nominally a Mardi Gras party--beads. I enjoy it because, for one evening, I am somehow whole, able to introduce my fencing friends to my colleagues from work, my husband's colleagues to my students, my church-friends to the fencers. And yet, why don't I do this sort of thing more often? Perhaps, after all, I prefer the disjunctions, the separate webs.

I'm not sure, at the moment, how this translates into the meaning of life generally or the meaning of my life particularly as opposed to that of my sister or other friends. We each make webs of different shapes, some more interconnected than others; but is one web intrinsically more meaningful than the others? Surely not. Would I be happier--ah, there's the rub--if my web were more centralized? Probably not; this is the web that I've made, so it must reflect something about the way that I define my life, make connections, jump from one social setting to the next. Come to think of it, it's rather like the list of links on my blogshelf: no one governing motif, but variety, disparate connections to several different conversations of which I enjoy being a part. Because, after all, there is a center to the web which you cannot see: everybody who is my friend on Facebook knows me.

*Alexandra Genetti, The Wheel of Change Tarot (Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books, 1997), p. 145.


  1. Good post--I like both the metaphor of the web of relationships, and the graphic representation. Here is a poem I wrote trying to get at the on aspect of the same thought
    I too, have a yearly event where I try to make the different circles intersect (a tricky Venn diagram.) For us, it is Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. I think it is appropriate to use this day, when we contemplate the impermanence of all things, and paradoxically the permanent connection even to people who are gone, to celebrate the web of relationships we spin in life. Bear will have to come, some year!

  2. This is the one great drawback of the Pancake Party: only people who are here in Chicago can come. Much as we try to mix the various groups in our lives, the party never includes the friends that we see at conferences and tournaments. Alas for the complexity of things!


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