by Eric Maisel, PhD
“What man needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
Victor Frankl - author of Man's Search For Meaning
first objection is that donning the mantle of meaning-maker is somehow
an arrogant, pompous, self-important thing to do.
laugh with the other sophisticated parents about our children’s
drinking — only after three of them are killed in a car accident do we
say what we believed all along that there was too much drinking going
it felt too difficult to say what we knew to be true and today it is
easy to say it — but it took a tragedy to unseal our lips.
not arrogant to speak your truth. It is, however, difficult, and for
difficult, first of all, because it must actually be your truth and not
some piety or opinion you are mouthing because it serves you, masks
some hatred, avoids responsibility, or in some way pays lip service to
principles or ideals while actually only protecting your ego and your
is arrogant, to speak as if you were being truthful and feign righteous
indignation when in fact you have gone to no deeper, more honorable
place than self-interest. Making your own meaning is very different
from that, and not arrogant but heroic.
2. Meaning-making flies in the face of
second objection is that to don the mantle of meaning-maker is to break
with tradition. Most traditions do indeed point a finger at anyone who
announces that he knows what he knows and believes what he believes and
you must indeed break with that part of a tradition.
in a tradition like Zen Buddhism, where a central tenet is that no one
should claim more knowledge than anyone else, the very hierarchy that
produces Zen Masters supports the unspoken core principle of every
institution, that some people are on top and that everyone else should
defer to them.
will need to choose what part of your tradition you can accept—if any.
not like to fly in the face of tradition—the very phrase makes us a
little squeamish. Tradition is what we know and it may feel like the
glue holding a fragile world together.
to ourselves, “Yes, it is just a tradition, but no doubt it serves some
purpose, so although I don’t really believe in it, I can live with it
and, more than that, I need it.”
donning the mantle of meaning-maker involves choosing where to invest
meaning and where to divest meaning, a position that would force you to
look at your group’s traditions with a new, more critical eye, and
since the possibility of losing those traditions makes you sad, scared,
and squeamish, you back off from donning that mantle.
the smarter, braver part of you knows that a tradition is only of value
if it is of value.
be your group’s tradition to abort girl fetuses, burn witches at the
stake, or damn everyone but members of your group to hell.
the more innocent-seeming family, community, or religious traditions
may exist solely as a function of the ability of some authority (like a
father, a President, or a God) to make demands.
honest person, you know how unrighteous that seems as a reason to honor
a tradition. Part of you feels that there is something deeply right
about tradition and part of you knows that a given tradition ought to
be honored only if it ought to be honored.
brave and look at your tradition with open eyes. If you must reject it,
because you no longer can accept its central tenets, bravely do exactly
that. If you wish to retain it, look for the existential thread in your
tradition that supports personal meaning-making.
3. Meaning-making is an obscure phrase
easy to throw up your hands and cry, “I don’t get the idea of
meaning-making. How can you make meaning? Either there is meaning or
there isn’t. You can’t just make meaning like you can make a car or a
violin. No, I don’t get it—so I think I’ll pass!”
objection is at once reasonable and fully disingenuous. It is
disingenuous because each of us follows a path of complete mystery
already, buying concepts like Holy Spirit, karma, or nirvana without
blinking and, more tellingly, knowing in our bones what the phrase
“making meaning” signifies.
know perfectly well that it is comprised of ideas like personal
responsibility, courage, engagement, and authenticity.
part of the objection is not at all disingenuous. It is the part where
we cry out in pain. What we are objecting to is not the obscurity of
the phrase but the nature of the universe the phrase posits.
object to a universe where meaning has to be made. We object to a
universe that is meaningless until we force it to mean. We object to
nature pulling this dirty trick and making us a partner to it, giving
us exactly two choices, to not look this reality square in the eye and
live as a coward, or to see what is required and live as an absurd
not the obscurity of the phrase “making meaning” that disturbs us but
what it says about life. It is hard to meet the objection that we would
like life to be other than it is.
way we meet it is with a certain maturity of being, by asking ourselves
to face this central reality, that meaning must be made, and all the
peripheral realities, that meaning can be lost in the blink of an eye,
that meanings change, and all the rest. We understand what this
maturity of being feels like and we understand that it is available to
need to do is stand up and embrace it.
4. Meaning-making demands too much personal
can you smoke two packs a day and claim to be making meaning? How can
you kick your dog as a stand-in for your boss and claim to be making
can you watch television four hours every night when your pet project
remains untouched and claim to be making meaning?
can’t—and you know it. As long as you prefer not to take personal
responsibility for your life, you will sprint rather than stroll away
from the idea of making meaning.
protect all the places where we want to abdicate personal
responsibility, we create a worldview where personal responsibility is
minimized. We cast blame, announce that everything happens for a
reason, invoke fate, consult our chart, submit to God’s will.
host of ways we protect our desire not to take personal responsibility
for our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
is natural—but it does not make us proud. We would love to take that
responsibility and make ourselves proud, but we know ourselves too well
and doubt that we are equal to the task.
have drifted off too many diets, left too many books unwritten,
squandered too many hours, and failed to rise to the occasion more
times than we care to remember.
You can leave it at that, remain disappointed in your efforts, and
throw in the towel, or you can take a deep breath, locate that place
inside of yourself that relishes effort and that takes pride and joy in
trying, and cast aside this objection.
can say, “I accept responsibility”—because that is exactly what you’ve
5. Meaning-making is too much work
want to kick back—you don’t want to make meaning. You want to get the
items on your to-do list checked off and be done with work—you don’t
want to make meaning after work.
want the company picnic, the Saturday movie, the visit with friends,
the things that you do to be just what they are without adding on the
taxing matter of whether they are meaningful or not.
don’t want everything you do to come with this added task, of judging
its meaningfulness. You don’t want every passing second to come with
this added demand, that you invest it with some meaning.
It makes a person exhausted just thinking about it.
enough—if you think that ease has value. But no existential person
really does, nor do most of the world’s traditions.
Judeo-Christian tradition, you aren’t offered six Sabbaths and one day
of work. It is a tenet of the authentic person to work at the project
of life, as that work is life, it is the very way we justify ourselves,
create ourselves, and make ourselves proud.
our obligation and the way we express our love of life.
Ernest Becker put it, “When we understand that man is the only animal
who must create meaning, who must open a wedge into neutral nature, we
understand the essence of love.”
accept that meaning-making is work, but it is the loving work of
self-creation. It isn’t slave labor or a life sentence but rather the
choice we make about how we intend to live our life.
if it were slave labor and a life sentence, we might still be able to
smile and accept our lot. That is the message in Albert Camus’s famous
essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in which the narrator discovers that he
can retain his freedom of attitude even though he is sentenced to an
eternity of pushing boulders up a mountain.
for us, it isn’t slave labor: it is only and exactly the loving work we
choose to do to make our life as meaningful as we can possibly make it.
6. Meaning-making involves too much
a simple truth, though not very well understood, that choosing provokes
anxiety. It can—and often does—make us anxious choosing which new car
to buy, whether to accept or reject a new suitor, even whether to go
for the cereal that tastes good or the cereal that is good for us.
hurry along all of this choosing, so as to get past the feelings of
anxiety that attend to each choice, we make snap decisions (and often
call that “using our intuition”). Many of our actions in life occur
simply because we will do almost anything not to think too hard about
the choices in the front of us.
this ubiquitous dynamic, of avoiding choices at all costs, it is
natural that we will not want to make meaning, which amounts to making
one choice after another until the end of time.
is hard enough choosing which cereal to buy, how much harder it will be
choosing where to invest your meaning minute after minute and day after
day! Better to stay with a simple routine, keep your head down and your
clothes clean, move another day closer to retirement, and not think too
much about meaning.
anything than a mountain of choosing! This is entirely understandable.
But it isn’t authentic. Freedom equals choosing: there is no
intellectual freedom, no personal freedom, no human freedom without a
commitment to lifelong choosing.
value that means something to you is involved, you must make a
choice—or fail yourself by not choosing. When work that means something
to you is at stake, you must choose to do it—or fail yourself by not
choosing to do it.
you can orchestrate a way of being that minimizes choosing, rather than
frankly and forthrightly considering the countless meaning choices that
confront you. That would be far easier—only dishonest.
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Maisel, Ph.D. holds Master's
degrees in Creative Writing and Counseling, and a Doctorate in
Counseling Psychology. He is a
California licensed marriage and family
therapist, a creativity
coach and trainer of
creativity coaches, and teaches through lectures, workshops, and
Dr. Maisel is widely regarded as America's foremost creativity coach and has taught thousands of creative and performing artists how to incorporate Ten Zen Second mindfulness techniques into their creativity practice. See his site EricMaisel.com for ebooks and more information on his work.
He is the author of more than thirty
books - some titles at right:
Also see more articles by Eric Maisel.
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