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Making Meaning

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

It isn’t at all easy to say, “I am a meaning-maker.” First, it sounds a little pompous and arrogant. Who am I to make meaning? How self-important that sounds!

Second, it flies in the face of tradition. Most traditions ask you to blend in, serve, and bow to the common will. Third, it isn’t that clear what the phrase means or what you might be agreeing to.

For these and other reasons, at least ten of them and each significant, you stop on the threshold of announcing that you are a meaning-maker and take an involuntary step backward.

The mantle of meaning-maker is there for you to don but you refuse, consciously or unconsciously objecting.

TEN OBJECTIONS TO DONNING THE MANTLE Let me try to meet your objections one by one. First, here are the ten main objections as a list. Then we’ll examine each one in turn.

• Meaning-making is an arrogant idea
• Meaning-making flies in the face of tradition
• Meaning-making is an obscure phrase
• Meaning-making demands too much personal responsibility
• Meaning-making is too much work
• Meaning-making involves too much choosing
• Meaning-making increases core anxiety
• Meaning-making is an invitation to make big mistakes
• Meaning-making guarantees that meaning will never be settled
• Meaning-making is as artificial and subjective an idea as any other idea about meaning

1. Meaning-making is an arrogant idea

A first objection is that donning the mantle of meaning-maker is somehow an arrogant, pompous, self-important thing to do.

At the heart of this objection is a misunderstanding of the difference between standing up for your own cherished beliefs and principles, which you know is not an arrogant thing to do, and acting like you are better than other people, a position you are right to condemn.

“I am living by my principles” is not the same thing as “I am better than you are.” Does it feel arrogant to say, “I am living by my principles?” I think it feels exactly the opposite: I think it feels grounded, humble, sincere, and honorable.

Still, it may feel arrogant. We have so many injunctions against saying “This is what I believe and I wish you wouldn’t try to bully me with your beliefs” that, instead of speaking and acting bravely and sincerely from a place of personal conviction, we retreat to a familiar place of common agreement.

Becoming accustomed to that place and feeling safe in that place, taking even a small step into the territory of personal belief feels arrogant and scary.

We 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 on.

Yesterday 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.

It is not arrogant to speak your truth. It is, however, difficult, and for many reasons.

It is 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 self-interest.

That 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 tradition

A 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.

Even 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.

So you will need to choose what part of your tradition you can accept—if any.

We do 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.

We say 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.”

Since 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.

However the smarter, braver part of you knows that a tradition is only of value if it is of value.

It may be your group’s tradition to abort girl fetuses, burn witches at the stake, or damn everyone but members of your group to hell.

Even 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.

As an 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.

Be 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

It is 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!”

This 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.

We know perfectly well that it is comprised of ideas like personal responsibility, courage, engagement, and authenticity.

However, 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.

We 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 hero.

It is 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.

The 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 us.

All we need to do is stand up and embrace it.

4. Meaning-making demands too much personal responsibility

How 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 meaning?

How can you watch television four hours every night when your pet project remains untouched and claim to be making meaning?

You 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.

To 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.

In a host of ways we protect our desire not to take personal responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

This 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.

We 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.

Fine. 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.

You can say, “I accept responsibility”—because that is exactly what you’ve always intended.

5. Meaning-making is too much work

You 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.

You 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.

You 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.

Yikes! It makes a person exhausted just thinking about it.

Fair enough—if you think that ease has value. But no existential person really does, nor do most of the world’s traditions.

In the 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.

It is our obligation and the way we express our love of life.

As 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.”

We 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.

Even 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.

But, 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 choosing

It is 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.

To 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.

Given 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.

If it 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.

Better 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.

When a 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.

Yes, 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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Eric 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 teleseminars.

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 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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