Is life what happens to us, or is it more about our response to what happens? Are we really hapless patients in the process, reacting to the events and conditions of our life only after they have befallen us?
No doubt, that’s how it often feels. We barely have enough freedom to raise our attention above this relentless swirl of causality to consider where it’s taking us.
This common belief is not just a postmodern twenty-first century phenomenon. The evidence would suggest that it’s a universal and longstanding opinion of our species. By “evidence” I am referring to the perennial philosophy or wisdom tradition that’s been around for millenniums.
There would be no need for such an ancient and running collection of principles, precepts, and practices designed to help us take creative authority in our lives, if we and the thousand generations before us didn’t struggle with this question of freedom, purpose, and the ultimate meaning of life.
In The Power of Myth I anchored this question to the mythic archetype of Youth (ages 10-25), when we are constructing an identity, hopefully with the providential support of a family and community that are, on balance, more spiritually awakened. Such support earlier on (birth to age 10) would have served to establish in us a foundation of security and the corresponding faith in Reality as provident.
When we have around us a community that knows what it’s doing, and that has our personal wellbeing and human fulfillment as a top priority, we come to appreciate our responsibility in making life meaningful.
But many, perhaps most of us don’t emerge from our youth with this sense of creative authority and personal responsibility. And while it may be tempting to lay the blame for this on broken families and dysfunctional communities, that would only perpetuate the false belief that life is what happens to us.
Perhaps that is why the wisdom we need cannot be found in fresh supply inside the cultural depositories of religion. Just as its source is outside our institutions and orthodoxies, the timeless truths of Sophia Perennis flow in the borderland beyond conventional belief.
What is it that we need to learn? If we’re not helpless victims of life as it happens, what can help us take a new and better view on the meaningful life that seems to elude us?
Meaning is constructed in the choices we make.
In the illustration above, a path extends ahead and into the future. From a foreground vantage-point we can see that this path is composed or made up of individual stones, which will represent the many choices we make as we move along.
I’m not suggesting that we choose everything that happens. There are countless events and conditions, both inside and around us, that we have no control over, much less awareness of. I can even agree with the hardline determinists to some extent, who insist on something of a lockstep causality generating our physical universe and the “explicate order.”
Despite all of that, each of us is also taking in perceptions, assigning value to what we perceive, deciding what it means, and reacting behaviorally to our perceptions and to our own mental constructs of meaning. This flow or sequence of events isn’t determined in the same way as the physical universe, which is why those individual stones of the path are not meshed together like gears in a machine.
A strategic achievement in creative authority is gained in taking responsibility for the “gap” between what happens to us and our perception of it, between our perception and the value we assign to it, between our value assignment and the meaning we construct around it, and between this belief and our behavioral response.
Even if we can’t yet detect the gap separating one step and the next in real time, later reflection can usually identify where in the process we actually did have a choice.
We may resolve to do it differently next time. But without ongoing reflection and an intentional commitment to a new direction, the old chain reaction will likely take over and reinforce the belief in our own helplessness.
Meaning is a way of life.
What we are really struggling with is not the presence or absence of a gap between the stones paving the path of our life, but rather the practiced habit of doing things a certain way, over and over again. This is where our perspective shifts from the discrete choices we are making in the foreground, to the “way” or pattern that is formed, reinforced, and repeated over time.
We have moved from choices to character – not leaving choices behind us but acknowledging how our choices become habits, and how our habits form an identity and way of life.
We sometimes think of character as this unchanging, immortal core of identity that we carry within ourselves. But the fact is, character comes into shape and takes on force as our choices, beliefs, and behavior coalesce into a more or less consistent identity – much as the character in a story grows more familiar and predictable with the narrative progression.
Changing our way of life is less about converting to a different ideology or lifestyle, than it is taking personal responsibility for our choices and using our creativity to author a better story, one more aligned with our spiritual aspirations for deeper meaning, higher purpose, genuine love, and inner peace. That’s what I mean by “creative authority.”
Meaning in life is articulated in our philosophy of life.
Such talk of spiritual aspirations invites a further shift in focus, from the specific choices we are making, through our character and way of life formed over time, and ultimately to the vision we hold of a life well-lived. More than just an explanation or theory of life (which strictly speaking is biology), our philosophy of life serves to clarify what truly matters – not only to us but to others with us, and all of us together amongst the rest of life on planet Earth, for generations to come.
It’s not about getting rich, or how to win friends and influence people, but instead focuses our devotion on those ideals, aims, principles, values and practices that promote a reverence for life and advance communities of inclusion, freedom, justice, and equality.
It is still ahead of us, perhaps far ahead, but we can begin realizing our vision in the choices we make today.