Short Story: “The Meaning of Love”

Like most of his friends, Burt hates his job and lives for the weekend. And when his friends start installing modules into their brains that make them enjoy their work, Burt is furious with them. What’s the point of escapism if there’s nothing to escape?
Young girl

Young girl with closed eyes and neon glowing brain. Women’s Mental Health and Meditation © Pavlova Yuliia /

December 03, 2023 03:09 EDT

Something to consider when reading/listening: Could you live a good life if you enjoyed every part of it? 

Burt James was one of those people who hated his job but loved his life. He’d watch the clock, he’d do the bare minimum, he’d get through the day. And when work was over his world would switch from monochrome into vibrant high definition.

For most of his life, his friends- and Burt had a lot of friends- all felt exactly the same way. The purpose of work was to build up steam so they could blow it off on evenings and weekends. Parties, extreme sports, furious arguments, whatever. 

Work was bad. But life was good. 

And on his thirty-fifth birthday, Burt’s life is very, very good indeed. He doesn’t just have friends, he has a long-term girlfriend who he adores, he finally has some money, and he is going to throw the biggest Friday night party the world has ever seen. 

He’s hired a DJ. A chef. Catering staff. Enough drugs to sedate an elephant. And, as he makes his way around the room…everyone… is talking… about how much they love their job. 

“The hours are flexible, which is super convenient.”

“My boss is so reasonable.”

“My colleagues are top notch.”

“We get free gym membership.”

“Free health insurance.”

“I wake up every morning with such energy.”

“I love helping the customers.”

“No, I shan’t drink too much tonight. I want to be fresh for Monday.”

Burt pulls his girlfriend for a private word. “This is horrendous,” he says. “What’s the point of escapism if there’s nothing to escape?”

Mona smiles and says, “Everyone seems to be having a good time to me.”

“But it’s so sedate,” says Burt, “there’s no energy. It’s like a networking session. I can’t stand it. I hate my job. I loathe it. The thought of doing it all again on Monday morning makes me feel ill. I wanna get so mashed up I can’t even remember having a job. And this lot used to feel the same way.’”

“You should be happy for them,” says Mona. “Life’s too short to hate what you do for a living.”

“But this,” he says, “Friday night. This used to make it all worthwhile.”

“Times change,” she says, “People change. There’s no point resisting.”

“Ok,” says Burt, “let’s spike everyone’s drinks.”

“No,” says Mona. “There’s nothing wrong with being happy.”

“I’m gonna tell ‘em. I’m gonna go round to each of them and explain how awful their jobs really are. Carol does sixty hours as an assistant to a full-on narcissist. Rob gets told off for going to the loo without asking. Ian is an emergency plumber who has to work nights. And look at the three of them over there, smiling away talking about their drive and sense of purpose. It makes me feel sick.”

“And what would you prefer?” says Mona, running her hand through his hair, “For them to hate the thing they spend the majority of their waking hours doing?”

But consider this for a moment. “Yes,” he says, “yes of course I would. That’s the way it’s meant to be.”

She laughs. “It’s hard to feel sorry for you,” she says, “when you know exactly how to make this better.”

Burt folds his arms. “No way,” he says, “no way am I doing that. You know how I feel about it.”

“Look what it’s done for everyone else,” she says. 

“Yeah, it’s sedated them. It’s made them slaves.”

“It’s made them happy.”

“I’d rather be free.”

“And this is freedom is it? Ranting about your friends’ choices? Being annoyed they’re not miserable? Hating a huge part of your life? That’s freedom?”

He nods. “At least I know what’s real.”

“Only in this one specific area.”

“And what does that mean?”

“I just can’t understand why you’ll happily install the love module but you’re so adamantly against the work one.”

“What are you talking about?” He feels a strange sensation in his stomach.

“Look how happy the pair of us are. That’s real, isn’t it? So what’s the difference?”

The colour drains from Burt’s face. “What are you talking about, Mona? I never installed a module to make me love you.”

She looks over his shoulder, gestures to someone in the distance and tries to walk off.

“Please tell me,” says Burt, “that you didn’t install a module to make you love me.”

She looks at the floor. “What? No, of course not.”

“Mona, do you only love me because of a module you’ve had installed?”

“Look Burt…”

“Answer the question.”

“It’s not about loving…”

“Answer the question.”

“The modules create…”

“Answer the question. I won’t ask you again.”

“This is why I love you. Your passion. Your energy. The way you care so much. Yes, Burt. I had a module installed relating to you but it can’t make you love someone, that’s impossible.” She tries to look at him but can’t. “The vocation modules don’t make you love your job either. We don’t understand love, we have no idea how to create it. What the modules do is add meaning. They make our jobs or our relationships feel meaningful. It doesn’t mean they aren’t hard. It doesn’t mean we’re slaves who will put up with anything. It just means… It just means. Because without meaning, what’s the point?”

Burt can’t believe what he’s hearing. 

“I should be the one upset with you, you know that,” says Mona. “Our relationship, from your point of view, it’s just what? Just about the dopamine hits?”

“Don’t try and turn this around.”

“I feel a need for you, Burt. With every molecule in my body. I can’t be apart from you. If you and I aren’t together, the world might as well end. And what about you, huh? Am I dispensable?”

Burt takes both her hands and looks into the eyes of the woman he loves. “We create our own meaning in life.”

“Oh here we go.”

“My love for you is raw. It’s real. It’s… I dunno… it’s… it’s unexplainable, unquantifiable. It’s… maybe it makes no sense but it’s true. It’s there. It’s unstoppable.”

“How I feel towards you is truer than anything I’ve ever felt in my life.” Her eyes start to water and Burt can’t stand seeing her upset. “I want you to get the module,” she says. “It’s not fair if it’s just one way. I thought… I assumed…”

“But I don’t need to.” He kisses the top of her head and pulls her into him. “If I loved you any more, I think I’d break.”

“But how do I know your love is true if you haven’t installed the module?” says Mona.

“How do I know your love is true if you have?” says Burt. 

“I won’t uninstall it,” she says, “if that’s what you’re asking.”

“And I’m not having it installed.”

They stand there, arms folded, unsure what to say. Unsure what to do. 

“I do apologize,” says a man in a three-piece suit who must be a guest of one of their friends, “I positively loathe listening in on other people’s conversations but I couldn’t help overhearing. I work at Dell. I’m one of the chaps who installs the modules and there’s a new one you might be interested in taking for a spin. It’s the cognitive dissonance module. It allows the user to reconcile two opposing beliefs.”

He turns to Burt. “You believe your better half loves you but you also believe the love module makes that love inauthentic.” He turns to Mona. “And you believe your man loves you too but, sans love module, his love is meaningless.” And now, addressing them both, he says, “The cognitive dissonance module will clear all that up nicely. You shan’t change your mind about anything and yet your relationship and your love will continue to grow.”

Burt and Mona look at each other and weigh up the proposal. 

“But I don’t agree with the whole principle of having modules installed in the first place,” says Burt. “To get one would go against everything I believe in.”

“‘Aha,” says the man, with a big smile, “and this is precisely what makes this particular module so clever. It shan’t affect your principled aversion to modules one jot. You’ll still be able to think and behave like someone who’s never had one installed in his life. Thanks to the cognitive dissonance module, you’ll be able to think whatever you want about anything without any of your other thoughts popping up and demanding to be held. You were talking about freedom earlier weren’t you? This module, sir, gives you the ultimate freedom. With this module everyone will be able to love their jobs while they’re at work and despise them on Friday night. You get all the fun of escapism without having anything to escape.”

Mona frowns. “I thought you said you positively loathe listening in on other people’s conversations,” she says. “And yet you seem to have listened to every word of ours.”

The man smiles. “You see? That’s the power of this module.”

Mona turns to Burt. “What do you think?”

“I hate the idea,” he says. 

“Me too. So should we give it a go?”

“I think so, yeah.”

[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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