As a constructivist I regard meaning as something human beings create (construct) rather than search for and find in reality. While this has often come across as a radical and dangerous opinion, the idea that meaning might not be fixed and absolute is evident in our daily experience. The very same event or occasion can support numerous and even contradictory interpretations of what it means.
We used to think that uncovering the bald facts underneath all these competing perspectives would give us “the truth” – its actual, essential, and eternal meaning. When we dug our way to this shining core of meaning – this supposed absolute, universal, and timeless truth – what we found was something that didn’t make sense without an explanation. In other words, we learned that language, words, and narrative are what we use to make something meaningful; without this human projection, reality is quite literally meaningless.
To get at what’s behind this engine of meaning, this creative imagination that compels human beings to spin patterns of causality, identity, and significance, I’ve offered the notion of a “matrix of meaning” – something like a great loom upon which our minds compose the meaning of existence and construct the worlds we live in. My concept of the matrix incorporates the work of Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces), Northrup Frye (Anatomy of Criticism), Erik Erikson (psychosocial stages of development), and James Joyce (specifically his idea of a “monomyth,” the single underlying plot that structures and informs all stories, or at least those worth telling).
I’ve integrated the theories and insights of these authors into a framework of Four Ages of a human being, as carried in the perennial philosophy, which is a persistent and cross-cultural wisdom tradition that has seeded world religions and spiritual revolutions for thousands of years. Instead of promoting an orthodox “theory of everything,” the perennial philosophy encourages us to engage the present mystery of reality at our location in the evolutionary stream. Not male versus female, young versus old, insider versus outsider, or modern versus something else, but as an individual human being, right where we are.
The diagram above illustrates this unitive theory of human nature and development according to the perennial philosophy, again with some clarifying insights from modern-day theorists. Let’s take a walk through the model and consider how it all fits together.
At the center is a reminder from the work of James Joyce regarding what he called the “monomyth” at the heart of all great stories. It is the “one plot” worth telling and writing about; everything else in story supports and serves the integrity and advancement of this plot. Joseph Campbell named it The Hero’s Journey. Instead of seeing it as a kind of abstraction from the granular details of many individual stories, the monomyth is better appreciated as the structuring principle of narrative consciousness itself.
I want to use Joyce’s term to name the “one plot” every human being is busy composing, with help from his or her family, community, and larger culture. It’s not something we sit down and write, like a screenplay of our lives, but is rather the shape of life – or the shapes life takes on – as we move through the major phases of our development as individuals.
We all start from home and depart on a journey that inevitably takes us into initiations where our character is authenticated and disillusioned. In our search for deeper meaning and higher purpose we arrive at a point where security and control (if we still have these) must be sacrificed – given up but not thrown aside – for the sake of creativity, communion, and fulfillment. Upon our return we find that the business at home invites a double vision, allowing us to perceive a precious and eternal reality in the passing little things of life.
This monomyth is like a hologram of fractal geometry, where the larger holistic pattern (the circuit just summarized) is replicated at more refined levels which play out in distinct narrative modes – what Frye named comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony. These modes correspond to the primary concerns that preoccupy human beings at the different stages (the Four Ages) of life: security in childhood (birth to age 10), freedom in youth (years 10 to 30), suffering in adulthood (years 30 to 60), and fate in later life (age 60+).
Comedy turns the monomyth around a focus on security, usually where some higher (taller: adult) power is in charge, everything is in its place, and life is just boring enough to arouse curiosity in the protagonist (most often a child) about what’s outside the door, over the wall, or down the rabbit hole. True to the mytho-logic of the monomyth, the comfortable security of home will typically be thrown into jeopardy as the youngster loses his or her way, or gets captured by some wicked thing. The nature of comedy, however, ensures that a successful escape will be made and the frightened hero or heroine returns safely home again.
Youth is the Age when the palace grounds seem limiting and oppressive: It’s time for adventure! The narrative mode of romance is not only about the lure of perfect (and even more irresistible, forbidden) love, but how the protagonist – and let’s not forget that we’re talking about ourselves – longs to explore (and transgress) the boundaries on freedom. He or she goes out in search of something, encountering obstacles and opponents along the way. The resolution to getting cornered or captured is not about making it safely back home, but rather overcoming the evil force and taking destiny in hand. Romance is the narrative mode most associated with heroes in popular culture.
Our thirties are the favored time for stepping into careers and starting families: We are Adults at last. But with this transition we are also crossing into a landscape of deepening shadows. Responsibilities put limits on our time and energy, and our passion for life gets tethered to mundane commitments and deadlines. At some point – what I call the midlife reset (around age 45) – we can become positively overwhelmed by feelings of emptiness and disorientation. A decline in fitness and creeping challenges to our health, not to mention an increased frequency in our confrontation with death (older relatives, parents, and even close friends), force us to set aside many of our youthful dreams and ambitions. Suffering simply cannot be escaped, bravely ignored, or permanently medicated out of awareness.
The crossover into the Age of Elder might see us becoming gnarled, bitter, and cynical. Or else, if we can follow the lifeline of our monomyth, a spiritual wisdom might ascend within us, even as our animal vigor is ebbing away. For so much of our life we had reached for light and run from shadow, held on to life as if death was the enemy, chased Utopias (“no place”) in future deals, better opportunities, greener grass, brighter lands, and otherworldly paradises. Now we understand – or are understanding more keenly – that light and shadow, life and death, good and evil, joy and grief, passing time and timeless eternity are many aspects of a single, profound, and ineffable mystery.
The narrative mode of irony provides a way of contemplating existence at two levels (or more), where we no longer have a need to split reality into opposites and flatten out its paradoxes. A spirit (or the stomach) for not only tolerating such a communion of opposites but even celebrating it as the Golden Way (gospel, dharma, tao) into life in its fullness requires that we be at a place psychologically where the orthodoxies of Flatland no longer constrain us.
When we are ready we will see that the Cross of dereliction is also the Bodhi tree of enlightenment; the hemlock in our cup is also the wine of new life. Death and rebirth (or resurrection) are misunderstood if we insist on arranging them in temporal sequence, as life after death. The dark principle, Lucifer, whom we frantically try to push behind us and out of our life, holds the light (Lucifer means “light bearer”) we’ve been too afraid to accept as our own.
Across this matrix of meaning stand the great paradoxes of the wisdom teachings: security in suffering, freedom in fate. Grasped as a higher pattern, the monomyth offers us guidance as we construct meaning and compose our personal story. The truth of our story lies not in the facts, but in its power to carry a vision of what is still to come.