During a bicycle tour from San Francisco to Los Angeles last week, I sat on a small dune overlooking a beach near sunset. It looked essentially the same as a dozen beaches I had already passed in Southern California, except for what the people on it were doing.
They sat on lawn chairs and blankets, tossed frisbees, took walks holding hands, etc. But at the same time, there was a procession of trucks and SUVs driving down the beach on the wet sand left behind by the tide. They drove at the pace of a jog, went down the beach a mile or two, stopped for a while, then returned the way they came. The drivers and passengers fit no particular demographic; I saw old couples, young couples, families and college kids, all taking whatever off-road vehicle they happened to own down the beach and back.
At this beach, that was the thing to do. The typical cluster of beach stores catered to beach-drivers and dune buggy-drivers (I didn’t see anyone driving dune buggies, but maybe I was in the wrong spot), renting vehicles and selling related clothing and paraphernalia.
Watching the people drive down the beach and back, I felt overwhelmed by how stupidly arbitrary the activity seemed. Why should people drive on this particular beach and not the others? Maybe the sand was harder here or something, but the artificiality of the entire enterprise engulfed me. It did not seem like an appealing thing to do. The practitioners did not seem to be enjoying it. It looked absurd.
Then I remembered that cluster of stores. They mostly had the name of the beach in their own name. Most of the things they sold -t-shirts and post cards and the like – were based on advertising the beach town, which apparently existed in the first place to advertise itself (and to allow you to drive your truck slowly on the sand).
Waves of disdain washed over my meditations on how meaningless that beach town had become. I felt that every human in sight was dull and uninteresting. People could think, feel, and chatter, but were unoriginal and perhaps mere automatons. The only conceivable reason to drive around on the beach would be that you knew that it is the thing you do here in this town, and that other people are doing it, and so you do it, too. I thought the people driving were mindless fools.
This judgment spread to everyone in sight. The people watching the low-flying stunt planes. The people flying them. The kids splashing in the water. The adults drinking beer and talking loudly. I wanted nothing to do with any of them. I thought that even if, unlike the bored SUV drivers, they were enjoying themselves, even if they were blissful or exhilarated, or basking in the camaraderie, friendship, or love of the people with them, they were still essentially reflexes – pointless and forgettable. I was certain that the thoughts of the two people sitting on the next dune over, staring out at the beach as well, were vapid and trite.
As the sun sank lower, my negativity focused inward. I began to catalog my own actions with increasing repugnance, recognizing the same pointlessness to my activities that I felt ruled the drivers on the beach. Why had I walked ten minutes from my campground to the beach? The beach has a reputation for being more pleasant and romantic than my campground, which was a patch of grass in an overnight RV park, but my patch of grass had shade and a picnic table, easy access to water and food, and was objectively superior by whatever standards occurred to me at the time.
The bike trip itself had dubious motivations. I wasn’t especially enjoying it. When I rode through a particularly beautiful area, I found I was running an internal monologue, telling myself that it was time to start enjoying my journey, but that internal monologue was only half-convincing me. “I need to bask in some awe now,” I would think. “I’m not feeling a lot of awe at nature’s grandeur and the vastness of this ocean, so I must be doing something wrong.” I was on the trip, I decided, simply because I had got in my mind that it was the sort of thing I should do – the sort that belongs on a bucket list.
It occurred to me how insane it is to write out a list of things to do because they regarded as having some worthy attribute, like adventure or sentimentality, and then to set about doing them because they’re on your list. I viewed my life as a series of bucket lists on different time scales, and my actions as wavering resolutions to cross everything off. The emotional response or satisfaction I derived from my activities had become secondary, I thought, to the goal of doing them. I hated this.
Such severe judgment and negativity is atypical for me. This and similar monologues have been in my thoughts for a decade or more, popping into sharper focus occasionally, but usually they are muted or buried. My weariness and isolation on my solo bike tour probably contributed to the particular mood of that evening. Sometime as I sat staring at the waves, my thoughts led me to deciding to ride all the way back to Pasadena, my destination, the next day, roughly 200 miles.
Reading my own account of the evening and reflecting on my memories of it, I would expect an observer to say I decided to ride all the way back to thrust myself into vital, visceral experience. I’m not particularly good with bikes. I have only extremely superficial knowledge about how they work, how to fix them, and how best to ride them. I hadn’t trained significantly for my tour, and usually just used my bicycle for transportation. I wasn’t even sure I’d be capable of riding 200 miles. Such an extreme act would force me to break my morose existentialism. It would be impossible to continue on a long difficult task if I thought it was meaningless. I would ride myself back to a normal, healthy psyche.
My true motivation was the opposite. I decided to ride back to prove my point about people and myself. I rode back because it was a stupid, arbitrary thing to do. Because it would be a bucket list sort of thing to do. Because it would be a conversation piece for the next month, and because I would view it as totally meaningless.
I was right. It did feel pretty meaningless to ride back all at once, to continue on all day, and then on through a long night, watching my body slowly deteriorate. The two days’ soreness and drowsiness that followed me when I finished and the surprise and admiration of my friends when I arrived all felt meaningless. I had no particular sense of accomplishment when I was done, all because I had decided that I would feel none as I sat on the beach the night before. I felt neutral towards the entire episode.
One cannot “find the meaning of life”. The phrase suggests to me that meaning is lying hidden behind a rock somewhere, waiting for you to overturn it. I always regard meaning as generated by the individual who has it. But evidently my personal perceptions of meaning, when I take some time to reflect on them, are fickle, and flitter in and out of existence only partially at my control.
I haven’t experienced that beach cocktail of misanthropy, isolation and absurdity in the days since finishing my trip, but undoubtedly I will experience it again. When I do I’ll be capable only of observing how it feels and watching what I do when under its influence. I value this particular incident as one small piece enormous puzzle that is my internal life. I’m endlessly curious about its illogical and surprising turns, and fascinated when I occasionally find similar descriptions from other people. Some characteristics of humanity that I hated on the beach – our interconnectedness, dependence, and the way everything we do is in some way a response to each other and an attempt to become one of the human race – now seem beautiful to me as I write. I have no understanding of how or why my opinion has changed so wildly, but it leaves me with the impression that we each consist of a deep, introspective existence whose pursuit, despite its ultimate ineffability, is the story of what we are.