Making Meaning vs. Finding It

Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (album)
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes I think the difference between making (creating) meaning and finding it is the difference between reality and wishful thinking. Sometimes I think it divides the non-believers from the believers. And sometimes I think it might be nothing more than a matter of semantics.

The idea of finding meaning implies to me that meaning, although intangible, is inherent in situations, circumstances, relationships, events, and things. It comes pre-loaded, so to speak, as a hidden file, and it’s our job to locate, download, and access it. As I’ve written before, this sort of thing is not a game I’m particularly interested in playing. It’s like a metaphysical scavenger hunt. And the huge question it raises is if meaning is inherent, by what means did it become part of the stuff of our human lives? This view of meaning pretty much implies the existence of an extra-human force or being as creator of the game of life we all must play.

The Meaning of Our Individual Lives

Both James Hillman, a Jungian psychologist, and Viktor Frankl, an existentialist–as two examples–were convinced there is a reason for our existence and that we are responsible to that reason.

From The Souls’ Code by James Hillman:

Each person enters the world called.

[This book] does speak to the feelings that there is a reason my unique person is here and that there are things I must attend to beyond the daily round and that give the daily round its reason, feelings that the world somehow wants me to be here, that I am answerable to an innate image, which I am filling out in my biography.

You are born with a character; it is given; a gift, as the old stories say, from the guardians upon your birth.

From Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, who survived several years in Auschwitz:

[M]an is a responsible creature and must actualize the potential meaning of his life.

I think the meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves, but rather detected.

The majority…consider themselves accountable before God; they represent those who do not interpret their own lives merely in terms of a task assigned to them but also in terms of the taskmaster who has assigned it to them.

There are those who believe God has very specific plans for them. There are those who believe they are being directed by spirit or the universe to travel particular paths in life and to have certain experiences. The idea that everything happens for a reason may be their attempt at accepting unpleasant circumstances by assigning meaning to them, even if that meaning isn’t yet know. They are all are entitled to their views, of course, and the meaning they find in their lives. But obviously not everyone is religious or even spiritual. Not everyone believes in the existence of a “taskmaster” to whom we are responsible.

I don’t mean to deny the considerable mystery surrounding our existence. To the contrary, I see much that is mysterious and am glad for the mystery. I don’t know all there is to know, and neither does anyone else. Perhaps there actually are celestial guiding forces at work in our lives pushing or urging us in one direction or another.

On the other hand, what if life is empty and meaningless?

More next time.

Creating: Making Things Up

Sky Woman from Earth on Turtle's Back
Sky Woman from Earth on Turtle’s Back (Photo credit: patentboy)

We are all creative. We must be because we all create. We all make things up. Each day we create thoughts, ideas, meals, impressions, relationships, goals, deals, situations, and objects of all types, shapes, and sizes. We create sadness, happiness, love, peace, violence, and everything in between. We create order out of chaos and chaos out of order. Occasionally we create works of art. To an extent, we create ourselves: each of us is a work in progress.

Sometimes the acts of creation are haphazard and sometimes they are well-thought-out, well-planned, intentional acts. It’s a little bit easier to be intentional about creating when we know that’s what we’re doing. I think one reason we sometimes have a limited view of creation is because we think it only applies to such things as art or music. Maybe we assume you have to have some special ability to create things. Maybe we also assume there is always intention behind creation. But these thoughts or concepts just obscure the reality that we are always in the process of creating something.

Creation is essentially a form of communication. It is how we express our authentic selves in the world. There is a Native American view that each of us possesses original medicine, meaning that we each have something original to contribute to the world. If we’re willing to experiment, to make a mess, to explore both the inner and the outer world, we can better determine what it is that we have to contribute and how we might make our contributions.

Holding back out of fear, false modesty, or an unwillingness to make a mess doesn’t serve us or those around us. Moving forward in the middle of the mess, the uncertainty, and the lack of guarantees is just the way of being in the world, of fully participating. And, really, what else is there to do?


Dancing Girl
Dancing Girl (Photo credit: Just Mary Designs)

Creativity is not efficient. She has a different relationship to time than most of us. A minute can last a day and a day can last an hour. She loves all the seasons. She is on intimate terms with the sun and the moon. It is New Year’s all year long at her house, what with celebrations for the Celtic, Hebrew, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, and other New Years too numerous to mention. Creativity loves to gossip with the birds and put on her masks and beads and dance with the animals. Although bright colors amuse her, she most often wears neutral tones. She is especially partial to off-white.

Some people consider Creativity selfish because she does what she wants I have always found her to be gracious and most generous. She is certainly complex. If you have only met her in a serene mood, her flair for drama may offend you. She is not your aunt with the porcelain teapot who plays chamber music. If you are one of those people who only go to see her when she is starring in a major melodrama, you will not hear her rain songs. If you insist she is mad, you will never see how still her face is when she returns from a dream.

Sometimes Creativity disappears completely or wanders around the back alleys for weeks at a time. She has a strong need to be occasionally anonymous. If you run into her at the post office line during one of these periods, you will probably not recognize her. She is in a different place. It is almost as if her blood has slowed down. When the blank period is over, Creativity brings her free self home with her. Her skin is new. She is ready to work. More than anyone else, Creativity understands the secret meanings of the months when nothing seems to get done.

J. Ruth Gendler, The Book of Qualities

The Book of Qualities is a beautiful little book that portrays human qualities as characters and gets to the heart of each of them. The assorted qualities Gendler brings to life also make a great journaling keyword list, too.

More on creativity next time! 

You Are What You Do

The to-do list
The to-do list (Photo credit: Digging For Fire)

You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do. –Carl Jung

The future is filled with a profusion of things to be done, or at least things we say are going to be done, even if we only say it to ourselves. They are listed on our calendars and to-do lists, jotted down on random scraps of papers as reminders, declared as New Year’s resolutions, itemized as goals to be achieved, and enumerated on “bucket” or wish lists.

Some of these are things we have to do. Some are things we think we should do. Some are things we aspire or hope to do. And some are things we want to do. So that’s at least four categories of things to be done. And those categories can be broken down further.

  • Of the things we have to do, some are easy and automatic, some are annoying and difficult, some can be put off for a short time, some require drop-everything-else attention, and some have unpleasant consequences attached to their not getting done.
  • Of the things we think we should do, some are bad habits we want to change, some are good habits we want to take up, some are admonitions from our Inner Critic, and some stem from our own or other people’s expectations.
  • Of the things we aspire or hope to do, some reflect our highest and best intentions, some are things we’ve previously attempted and failed at, some are challenging but exciting, and some seem always to be the bridesmaid, but never the bride.
  • Of the things we want to do, some can be easily satisfied (instant gratification), some require a little or a lot of planning, some are like itches that have to be scratched, and some are pie-in-the-sky dreams we don’t really expect will be realized.

These are just some of the categories, and the list is by no means exhaustive. I’d suggest you stop right now and write down everything you have to, should, aspire to, and want to do, but you probably already have too much to do. I know I do.

Things to be done can be a vicious taskmaster ruling our every waking hour and ready with the lash should we fall a few steps back. Once in thrall to things to be done, we tend to forget we played a role in creating the beast in the first place.

If it’s true–to any extent–that we are what we do, a good question to stop and ask from time to time is, “What am I doing?”

Fear of Cannibals

Sketch of the Essex being struck by a whale. S...
Sketch of the Essex being struck by a whale. Sketched by Thomas Nickerson 20 November 1819 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

or, Learning How to Read Our Fears

Fear is one of the components of any significant transition, especially those made in midlife and later. At least the fear that accompanies these transitions seems to have a different flavor, maybe more urgency. But fear finds all of us at some point in our lives. We are human; therefore, we have fears. The question is, what do we do with or about them.

Karen Thompson Walker, author of The Age of Miracles, gave a TED talk in June 2012 called “What Our Fears Can Teach Us.”

As we grow up, we’re often encouraged to think of fear as a weakness, just another childish thing to discard like baby teeth or roller skates. And I think it’s no accident that we think this way. Neuroscientists have actually shown that human beings are hard-wired to be optimists. So maybe that’s why we think of fear, sometimes, as a danger in and of itself.” Don’t worry,” we like to say to one another. “Don’t panic.” In English, fear is something we conquer. It’s something we fight. It’s something we overcome. But what if we looked at fear in a fresh way? What if we thought of fear as an amazing act of the imagination, something that can be as profound and insightful as storytelling itself?

She has an interesting premise, which is that if we look at our fears as stories, they might be able to teach us something.

Now we might just as easily call these fears by a different name. What if instead of calling them fears, we called them stories? Because that’s really what fear is, if you think about it. It’s a kind of unintentional storytelling that we are all born knowing how to do. And fears and storytelling have the same components. They have the same architecture. Like all stories, fears have characters.In our fears, the characters are us. Fears also have plots. They have beginnings and middles and ends. You board the plane. The plane takes off. The engine fails. Our fears also tend to contain imagery that can be every bit as vivid as what you might find in the pages of a novel….Fears also have suspense.

 What Will Happen Next?

Just like all great stories, our fears focus our attention on a question that is as important in life as it is in literature: What will happen next? In other words, our fears make us think about the future. And humans, by the way, are the only creatures capable of thinking about the future in this way, of projecting ourselves forward in time, and this mental time travel is just one more thing that fears have in common with storytelling.

Of all the possible things that could happen next, what fearful outcome(s) do you focus on? What’s your fear story? Walker’s TED talk centers around the 1819 sinking of the whaleship Essex more than 3,000 miles off the coast of Chile–an event that inspired parts of Moby Dick. The ship’s sailors had to make a decision about what to do–mainly which shore they should try to reach.

Walker quotes Vladimir Nabokov as saying that the best reader has a combination of two very different temperaments:  the passion of an artist to get caught up in a story and the coolness of judgment to temper his or her intuitive reactions to it.

The sailors of the Essex, Walker says, had the artistic ability to vividly imagine many horrific outcomes–including being eaten by cannibals–but they were unable to apply the coolness of judgment to them. They were not adept at reading their own fear stories.

Reading Our Fears

Who or what are the cannibals in your imagination? Why are they so compelling? What is the likelihood they will actually “get” you? Does their specter swallow your attention and take it away from what actually needs attending to or from seeing things more clearly, more coolly?

Properly read, our fears can offer us something as precious as our favorite works of literature:a little wisdom, a bit of insight and a version of that most elusive thing–the truth.

Watch/listen to the complete TED talk: