A while back in a post entitled Myth and the Matrix of Meaning I offered a way of understanding our personal and cultural myths (referring simply to a narrative plot, from the Greek mythos) as constructed upon a deep system of codes (matrix) which generate the concerns and motifs that preoccupy us as human beings. If our lives are to have meaning, the stories we tell and put into action must orient us meaningfully inside this matrix.
Meaning is not something we look for and find in reality, but rather something we as humans project onto reality. We spin meaning like a spider spins a web: it comes out of us, anchors to the matrix at specific points (which I’ll review in a moment), stretches across the present mystery of reality, and serves as a habitat. So the popular notion of our “search for meaning” is fundamentally mistaken. If we find meaning, it’s only because someone else put it there. Perhaps we’ve stumbled upon a floor clipping of our own or an unpublished draft we don’t remember setting aside long ago.
The belief that meaning is out there to be discovered is part of the heritage of theism, which, particularly in its monotheistic variant, promotes the myth that (a) god purposefully created the universe and made it meaning-full. Our “search for meaning,” then, is coming behind god and finding what he put there beforehand. Conceivably there is nothing that does not “have” meaning; we just need the intelligence and wisdom to discover it, or else count on some angel or ordained expert to reveal it to us. As theism loses currency these days, more and more people are having to come to terms with the responsibility of making the meaningful life they want.
The matrix of meaning consists of four primary human concerns and four narrative motifs. Each concern and motif exists in polarity with another concern or motif. Thus the concern of Security stands in opposition to that of Suffering, while Freedom stands opposite of Fate. Other creative and interesting relationships among the primary concerns are the more lateral associations of each concern with its neighbors on either side. Similarly the motifs comprise oppositions of Love and War, Work and Play. This dynamic of polarity – opposites that are connected along a continuum – gives the matrix its creative energy.
For a deeper dig into the primary concerns and narrative motifs making up the matrix, you might be interested in the post referenced earlier. At this point, however, I want to explore the composition of meaning as it is spun around, between, and across these supercharged polarities of the matrix.
The design of the matrix, as illustrated in the above diagram and already mentioned, is all about polarity. If we could go to the very center of all this creative opposition we would arrive at a point where each polarity is effectively neutralized, approaching a kind of perfect and non-energetic equilibrium. One set of stories that human beings weave defines a zone in the web of meaning (colored bronze in the diagram) which I will name neutrality. This is where we feel comfortable and things are “manageable” – stress and conflict are minimal, we are holding it together, and things are copacetic.
When life is fairly predictable and we know our way around, a trance state can start to set in. Living our lives doesn’t require much deliberation, as the routine pushes us along and behavior becomes automatic. Humans perhaps have a natural preference for neutrality, where the situational requirements on our active attention and focused effort are reduced and we can accomplish our daily tasks without too much mental investment.
It is also in this first zone of meaning that the more profound insights into reality picked up by sage philosophers and mystics are “dumbed down” into the platitudes and catchphrases of pop-culture. We think that repeating a fifty-cent affirmation at the beginning of each day will fill us with spiritual vitality, or that going to church will add significance to our lives. We glorify our messiahs and turn shamans into celebrities, then give them book deals and send them into early retirement.
Second Zone of Meaning: Conflict
Moving out from the center puts us deeper into the countervailing forces of polarity, where the strain of this-against-that is acutely felt. This zone of meaning (defined by a mauve strand in the web) is definitely not comfortable and our well-practiced habits of life don’t move us very effectively through the stress. Consequently it amplifies into distress, interfering with our ability to manage well, think straight, and accomplish our goals. Quite often our disturbed state will upset the status quo in our relationships, stirring up miscommunication and discord.
One short-term value of conflict is that it can focus us in an instant, which makes it a common tactic of politicians and preachers when they want to jolt their constituents and congregations out of complacency. Conflict just feels electric and alive. Occasionally we will actually seek it out as a kind of therapy for lethargy and boredom with life-as-usual. Antagonism – directing our energy in opposition to something we hate or can’t stand – can be a quick fix when irrelevance starts seeping under the floor-boards of our world. If it goes on interminably, however, we can lose hope and start looking elsewhere for purpose.
Many of us at this point (or in this zone) take steps to relieve our distress by self-medicating (with food and intoxicants), seeking help from medical or mental health professionals, or using exercise to burn off our nervous energy. If we do nothing, then our nervous system is at risk of crashing into depression. We might try a meditation technique for a while and experience some initial benefits, but it’s not long before the strain of life – or in a more existentialist vein, the “burden of existence” – turns the discipline into one more demand on our precious and shrinking resource of time.
Third Zone of Meaning: Paradox
While popular wisdom, which turns out not always so wise, calls us back from the strain of daily life into the zone of neutrality where meaning is flat and predictable once again, our real challenge at this point is to step through the strain and into the higher tension of paradox (violet strand). But whereas the tension of the second zone is merely unproductive and exhausting strain, the tension of paradox is creative. This is where a dualism such as freedom versus fate is finally understood as a proper polarity: freedom in fate, and fate in freedom.
Creativity is itself paradoxical, as a marriage of freedom and fate, chaos and order, wild energy and fixed form, raging waters and the stable riverbed. Each of the four polarities in the matrix can be appreciated in this same way (as paradox), but only as we are able to push above the neurotic dualism of everyday life strain. It’s not freedom or fate, security or suffering, love or war, play or work but all of these currents swirling together in the vibrant stream of reality.
We come to learn that our moral campaigns and utopian ideals where fate, suffering, war, and work are eradicated and the world returns to its original paradisaical state of bliss, are nothing more than fantasies – and sometimes dangerous delusions. It’s at this stage, in fact, that we become aware of our human responsibility in constructing meaning and creating the worlds we want to live in.
The present mystery of reality is transparent and opaque, random and provident, the ground of being and the abyss of extinction. And just as in quantum physics, reality will “show up” according to what we set out to prove.
Imagine that each of the zones in my diagram outlines a world we have constructed and inhabit. Each step outward across the web of meaning translates the tension inherent to the matrix into a larger and more complex (and also complicated) worldview.
We can choose to live small and stay where the tension is minimal, where our daily habits allow us to sleepwalk through life.
Or we might sign our allegiance to one dogmatic orthodoxy or another, drawing excitement, purpose, and hope from a crusade we believe in.
We also have the option of stepping through the veil of conflict and taking in a bigger picture, where the world (our world) is not such a simple place – for neutrality and dualism are both simplistic constructs. As our web of meaning is capable of supporting an appreciation for polarity and paradox, we can live with ever-greater fidelity to the way things really are.