Music Boxes and Meaning

Years ago, I worked with a charismatic and very gifted co-worker named Craig.

Craig was an amazing man. I only knew him a couple of years before he retired, but I wish I could have known him better. He and most of the other men his age that I worked with were an inspiration to me. Either they came from a better generation than I, or they were just more mature, but they had a depth my generation seem to lack. I didn’t stand above the flaws either: my most pressing concerns back then was my lacking romantic life, a stupid and self-centered angst.

But back to Craig. In many of my interactions with him and the legends that my other co-workers would tell, Craig’s life was a striking series of missed opportunities. In an interview with another company before he came to Xerox, he was asked to design a solution to an engineering problem on the spot. He did so, but never got the job. However his idea was so good that his interviewees took it and patented it, and it has been integrated into successful products ever since. Craig at times would find any reason to pull out his wallet for others to see and flip through the bills. He would watch closely for your reaction when he flipped past the thousand dollar bill among the twenties. It was all in good fun, but I couldn’t help but notice that there was a tinge of sadness – as if he and everyone else were wondering: why didn’t this guy make it big?

I had the unique opportunity one evening to be invited to Craig’s house. I look back at this event as one of the most important in my short life, but can’t tell you why. His house was amazing. His wife was one who you could tell had learned incredible patience in dealing with the eccentricities of having a brilliant man as a spouse. It was a house no guy like me could ever forget. He first showed me his tropical plants he had taken great pains to grow – I think it was a pineapple tree. He showed me his wood shop where he also had a metal lathe and manual milling machine which he had used to build his own scroll saw, piece by piece.

But the most profound thing he showed me was his music box collection. He had a couple of beautiful player pianos that were in amazing condition. But he took us upstairs to the main display area for the majority of his collection. He told me the history of many of the pieces – it was a work of love for him. One piece stuck out to me – a beautifully carved music box with two ball-shaped wood carvings attached to either side. He told me that when he originally bought it, one ball-shaped carving had broken off. He then spent the better part of the next couple of years tracking down the region and the similar location to find a tree that would identically match the ring and color pattern in the wood found in the rest of the music box so he could carve and exact match. I was astounded. Why would he go through so much trouble? Why was this silly wood thing worth so much time and energy that would cause him to travel around the United States studying trees? He smiled and told me that it was a passion for him.

During that visit and afterwards, he told me that he had met other music box collectors across the United States that had similar pieces that he had. They had become very rich by selling to famous and wealthy collectors, or they themselves had become quite wealthy to amass a huge collection themselves. He would talk to me and others at great length about their collections. He told us how they became so successful. Craig would finish his story by wondering out loud why he wasn’t wealthy, famous, and successful like they were. We all wondered why too. He was one of the most charismatic and brilliant men I’ve ever known.

Craig finally retired, and his party was the biggest one I’ve ever seen. It was attended by hundreds. It wasn’t fake like most work parties, like the one you see caricatured in Office Space. People there really liked the guy, and we were all sad to see him go. He was an amazing guy. And why he never made it big like he wanted so badly to do, we never knew. We just knew that Xerox was not his final hurrah in life – he must have other plans. I never saw Craig again.

Craig’s struggle to find meaning in his life that didn’t work out the way he thought consumes me tonight. Why didn’t he make it big? Why wasn’t the top of his career more than just a humble engineer running a usability lab? Other men he knew just like him had become wealthy and achieved great fame– set the world on fire, but he remained in the shadows. Why? If I could point to anyone slated for greatness it would be him.

I don’t believe Craig had any religious tendencies. And this confuses me. For men and women who believe that all reality is only in what can be seen with the senses, the ones I’ve come to know personally, they each live lives of great inner turmoil. What is the cause? Often times it revolves around a failed attempt to find meaning in the chaos of their lives and the lives of those around them. Why did Craig not make it big? It haunts him still. Why did my father contract a lifelong illness when other men his age did not? I have no idea. Why do some men become successful when others do not, even if they all have the same abilities?

Why do people who cling to naturalism as a philosophy live a life where they spend inordinate amounts of mental anguish and emotion trying to find meaning in a life where they deny any exists?

I was talking with a pastor once about how angry I was about getting a speeding ticket from a corrupt cop. I went on to tell him it was probably because God was in it somehow. He told me that life is meaningless, events just happen at random, so it isn’t just the naturalist who thinks this way, but there are schools of thought in Christianity that also see things the same way.

My rebuttal against this pastor and against the naturalist is the same one I have against many thinkers who think one way and live quite another: You’re heart and life deny your belief. David Hume questioned how we can possibly know reality, yet he lived his life like everyone else assuming that everything he encountered in the physical world was in fact real. His philosophy was just an abstract mental game of debunking the philosophical orthodoxy of the day, but had no bearing on real life. If meaning and purpose in life do not exist, why do we spend so much of our inner lives trying to make sense of it? Either we are cursed above all animals to be consumed with fairy tails and myths on a daily basis against our will, or life really does have purpose and meaning. To say otherwise would require you to drown out your heart that screams out against you. How can one stop listening to their heart? How can you hide the pain that is there every day? Doesn’t physical pain indicate something wrong? Are headaches just fantasies generated by our brains for no reason at all? Of course not. Why is the pain found in our hearts different? It shouldn’t exist to the naturalist, but it does.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think we are cursed above the animals. I think life does have meaning and purpose because my heart and the heart of every naturalist I’ve met in person says that it is so. It is not mere wish fulfillment: that is the next step to alleviate the pain that is already there. We were not here by purely naturalistic forces built up by infinitely small sub-atomic particles though random cause and effect within a closed natural system that began unnaturally and formed into the people we are today. Our lives have purpose and meaning, and no matter what we believe, we strive to live meaningful and purposeful lives, and will continue to be haunted by a desire to do so from deep within our hearts.

    5 Responses to “Music Boxes and Meaning”

    1. Mark

      I would say that we are not cursed, however we are very blessed and yes life has purpose, we are all here for a purpose, we simply must be silent and listen to know what it is. Most people struggle for their is to much noise in their life to hear their purpose. The more they chase after their purpose, the more noise they generate and it becomes a viscious cycle.

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    2. Jonathan
      Author Comment

      Mark – you are absolutely right! I think I worded the beginning of that last paragraph wrong. I can definitely see the vicious cycle – if a person has no room in their worldview for meaning and purpose, they must adapt. Either they borrow from another worldview and subconsciously adjust to conflict over time, or they become very discouraged people – life will keep on happening, and their hearts will keep trying to understand the meaning of their experiences.

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    3. Stacie

      Your post and ponderings reminded me of when I stumbled across the lyrics to Music Box Dancer (yes, there are actually lyrics!) when I was on a children’s sing-a-long site with my daughter. There’s a lot there if you read into it. It gave me chills the first time I read it through. Here’s the link if you’re interested:

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    4. Jonathan
      Author Comment

      Thanks Stacie!
      I never knew that there were lyrics to that song either! I went over to the lyrics page you provided and read through it about 20 times — there really is some depth to them – it gave me chills as well :). I definitely appreciate the link – thanks for stopping by!

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    5. ask

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      for the reason that i enjoy to gain knowledge of more and more.

      Reply to this comment.

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