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The Five Facets of Meaning

The brand of humanistic spirituality I ascribe to regards human beings primarily as creators, and what we create is meaning. This brings in another key concept as it relates to meaning itself, which is that meaning is created – or constructed and projected – rather than intrinsic and merely awaiting our discovery in objective reality.

In short, existence is meaningful because (or to the extent that) human beings make it so.

A high prevalence of depression, suicide, and relational conflict in our day especially suggests that we are not as successful in making meaning as perhaps we once were. It could be a function of the fact that our worldview is much more complicated now, along with the stepped-up media campaigns to bring as much bad news to our attention as possible.

On the other hand it’s possible that our modern worldview is not complicated as it is fractured – pulled apart and lacking an integrative center.

But if human beings are meaning-makers (aka storytellers, knowledge builders, and world creators), then our contemporary experience of chaos may not so much be happening to us as caused by us – or at least it might be a consequence of our abdication of creative authority. Something’s going wrong, and I’m not responsible!

Even though human beings have always been responsible for the meaning of life, it’s only been in the last 100 years or so that we’ve become self-conscious of doing it. Prior to our awareness of culture, worldview, and the meaning of life as purely human constructions, we imagined other beings as bearing the responsibility for creating worlds, establishing moralities, setting destinies, and supervising human affairs from above.

Our disillusionment in this regard coincided with the revelation that we have no one to credit or blame but ourselves.

The rise of constructivism, of the theory that meaning is constructed by human creators, has therefore brought with it a heightened sense of accountability – not to whom so much as for what. Our world(view) and life(style) promote either harmony or calamity, wholeness or conflict, wellbeing or anxiety, happiness or depression, genuine community or neurotic isolation in some degree. Whereas in previous centuries and generations these conditions seemed to simply happen to us, we are now beginning to understand that we are doing it to ourselves (and to each other).

We know now that somebody once upon a time had made it all up, by formally posing or else quietly assuming authorship as seers and privileged witnesses to exclusive revelations. Their stories of cosmic origins, tribal beginnings, cultural foundations, and future apocalypses were (and still are) great artistic construction projects of meaning designed to provide context, orientation, identity, and perspective for their contemporaries.

For the longest time subsequent generations simply accepted their narrative portraits as ‘the way it is’. But as I said, once we started to recognize the human in this all-too-human design, the veil came down and our modern angst over meaning commenced.

This also explains the fundamentalist backlash we are seeing in religion today, as true believers strive to recapture the earlier mindset of mythic-literalism and thereby reestablish security in a world of divinely warranted truths.

I’m arguing that our way through the current chaos and insecurity will decidedly not involve going back to an earlier worldview and mindset. Instead we need to go forward – through the falling veils and deeper into our disillusionment, until we come to full acceptance of our creative authority as meaning-makers. As we do, we will realize that meaning is multi-faceted – not monolithic, absolute, and universal as we once believed – and that the more facets we consciously attend to, the more meaningful our project becomes.

My diagram illustrates what we can think of as the Gem of Truth, consisting of five such facets of meaning. We can, if we so choose or naively assume, focus on one facet to the exclusion of the other four, but then our sense of meaning will be proportionately diminished. When all five facets are included, our worldview and way of life will be meaningful in the highest degree, simply because we are accepting responsibility as creators.

Let’s look at each facet in turn.

Significance

One facet of meaning has to do with the fact that language (our primary tool for making meaning) is essentially a system of signs – of ideas, phonemes, and logical operators that refer to other things. In some cases these other things are terminal facts in objective reality, such as that thing over there.

But in the foreground, between our mind and that over there, is a complicated cross-referencing web of signifiers, linking, classifying, and defining what it is. Once we arrive at the objective fact, that supposed thing-itself, we will find it flinging our mind outward to still other things – into a vast background and expanding horizon of inferences, reminders, and associations, as far out as our curiosity will take us.

Importance

Just as the root-word ‘sign’ is our clue to the facet of meaning called significance, in the way it refers or alludes (as signs do) to something or somewhere else, importance contains the idea of importing something from elsewhere. Although we commonly use these terms interchangeably, their etymologies argue for a critical distinction. Significance refers out into a larger field of knowledge and concerns, as importance brings just one or a few of those concerns into the course of our personal life.

A fair amount of our general anxiety and depression today may be due to an inability – amounting to a lack of skills, priorities, and filters – to discern what really deserves to be taken in (imported or downloaded) out of the information explosion going on around us. Many of us are simply overwhelmed by the data noise and can’t tell what’s truly important.

Necessity

A third facet of meaning has to do with its connection to the basic requirements of survival, health, and wellbeing. Meaning is necessary when it speaks to and satisfies our genuine needs as human beings, persons, partners, and citizens.

This is where much of the problem lies with respect to fundamentalism, whether in religion, some other cultural domain, or our individual lives: the outdated worldview and mindset no longer addresses our current needs or offers guidance through today’s social landscape. Characteristically it will deny or ignore our real needs as it works to coerce compliance with a belief system from another time and place.

But because every belief system is anchored in a mythology and every mythology assumes the framework of a cosmology (theory of the cosmos) behind it, importing such beliefs requires the rejection of modern science and what we now know about the universe.

Benefit

Meaning in life, and a more general meaning of life, must not only speak to our real needs; it should also support and promote what is wholesome, helpful, favorable, salutary, and useful – in a word, what is beneficial. The root bene- means ‘good’ (deed) or ‘well’ (done). A truth is more meaningful to the degree that it enriches our lives and adds to the general good.

The rise of individualism – but even more consequentially, of egoism – has eroded much of our premodern interest in the common good, in what will benefit not ourselves only, but our neighbor, future generations, and even the larger web of life on which our health and destiny depend. One problem with egoism is in how it has caused this understanding of interdependence to collapse into a near obsession with “What’s in it for me?”

Relevance

The final facet in our Gem of Truth that commonly gets confused with significance and importance asks to what extent something is relevant. There is a critical distinction here as well, which must not get lost in translation. Relevance is more situational than these other facets of meaning. If something is significant in the way it refers us out into a larger field of knowledge and concerns; and if its importance is in the way it affects or impacts us more personally; then we can say that something is relevant insofar as it “bears upon or connects to the matter in hand” (taken from the dictionary).

Many things once significant and important are no longer relevant – or at least not to our present situation. The question “So what?” is typically seeking the meaningful application of truth in the context of our time, this place, to the challenge I’m facing now. Education fails most miserably when it leaves this question of relevance unanswered – or, worse still, when it dismisses the question itself as irrelevant!


As we step self-consciously into our creative authority as meaning-makers, we need to know what makes life truly meaningful. No longer can we ride passively inside the worldview of someone else, or from another age. Neither can we afford waiting around for everything to fall back into place – because it won’t.

Hunkering down defensively behind the bulwarks of denial or conviction will only intensify our anxiety and deepen our depression.

It’s time to start the conversation and lift a new world into being.

 

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Change Your Lens, Change Your World

phoropterMost of us have had the experience of getting our vision diagnosed by an optician. A fancy instrument, called a phoropter, is maneuvered in front of our face and positioned on the bridge of our nose. As the technician clicks various lenses over each eye and we try to read some letters or view a scene, we are asked to judge which of two clicks makes the picture more distinct. Eventually we arrive at the specific power of refraction that will compensate for the weakness and astigmatism of our unaided eyesight.

If we think of the phoropter as a metaphor for culture and the way it clicks various lenses between our minds and reality, we have a useful illustration of constructivism. The basic idea is that our minds do not merely look for and find meaning in reality, but instead they make meaning by constructing a model of reality and using this model as a frame for draping the stories, theories, judgments and expectations that constitute our personal worlds. I’m using ‘worlds’ in the plural because each of us manages a world unique to us (so we all have one), and we also progress through a variety of distinct worlds (or worldviews) over the course of our lifetime.

In a recent discussion with others in the wisdom circle I attend, we were reflecting on the different worlds of the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States, and the profound differences between our Western world and the worlds of other cultures and nations. From the ancient Greeks we inherited our accent on the individual as a separate and irreducible center of identity, dignity, sentiment, and agency. Perhaps as an effect of the fact that the Greco-Roman culture overarched a wide region of numerous indigenous societies, the detached and self-standing individual became the locus of supreme value. After the ‘dark age’ of medieval Europe, this priority of the individual reasserted itself with the Renaissance ideal of the hero-artist.

lensesOther cultures, both ancient and contemporary, view reality through a different lens from that of Western individualism. Instead of looking at the collective through a preference for the individual, they define an individual through the lens of community. It’s not that the individual is unimportant; rather, the individual only makes sense as a function of the whole. Self-sacrifice on behalf of one’s community takes precedence over competition among individuals for self-advancement.

Not only might competition of this sort be discouraged in community-oriented cultures, such a mentality and behavior will likely be condemned, even punished by banishment from the group. A Western individual is apt to condemn this attitude in turn as both repressive and ignorant, since a community exists for the sake of individuals and not the other way around.

Not all Westerners are individualists, and we could surely find many individualists within the more community-oriented cultures of our day. The point is not to draw a geographical or even a cultural boundary between the two types, but to reflect for ourselves as to which lens holds priority for us. As we view reality and construct our worlds, which lens is in front of the other? Our first lens (the one in front) will automatically filter and qualify the other, as the core beliefs by which we construct our worlds and live our lives.

The answer is probably more complicated than my question leads us to think.

When the individual is before (i.e., in front of the lens of the) community, typically the rights of the individual will take precedence over his or her responsibilities to the community. In my recent post The Great American Divide I suggested that capitalism, as one of the seedbed traditions beneath the American world(view), is based on a philosophical preference for the individual over the community. According to this view, a community is essentially a collective of individuals seeking economic opportunities that will support and promote their personal ambitions. This is not to say that capitalism necessarily breeds selfishness in its devotees, but Adam Smith did affirm ‘rational self-interest’ as one of its driving forces (competition being the other).

A preference for the individual over community keeps the tether of moral values firmly staked to a concern for the benefits and risks to the self. If altruism plays any part, then it’s in the form of what the communitarian philosopher Philip Selznick calls ‘bounded altruism’ (The Moral Commonwealth, 1994). Here the outreach of individuals extends to familiars and fellow members, but not to strangers or outsiders. The reciprocal turnaround of value back to the individual needs to be fairly short in order to justify one’s investment, charity, or sacrifice on behalf of others. Generally speaking, commitments of this kind to strangers or outsiders do not bring reciprocal value to the benefactor – a liability for which American capitalism offers compensation in its provision of tax write-offs for donations.

On the other hand, when community is before (i.e., in front of the lens of) the individual, a responsibility to the greater good sets constraints around individual rights. This doesn’t mean that individuals can be arbitrarily stripped of property and freedoms whenever it serves the collective interest, which is how individualists often paint the problem. Granted, when the collective is really little more than an aggregate of individuals under the control of a dictator or special-interest bureaucracy, the individual – particularly those at the bottom or outside the circle of power – is, we might say, perfectly expendable. History has shown this time and again.

So obviously we need to be more careful in the way we define ‘community’. It is decidedly not merely a synonym for the collective, that essentially disconnected aggregate of individuals mentioned above. A community (literally “together as one”) represents a qualitative shift in consciousness where the self-other reciprocity and competition of capitalism is transcended (included and surpassed) in the experience of empathy, advocacy, and communion. The individual is not subtracted or subordinated, but rather honored and lifted into this higher consciousness of community life.

Again, in my post The Great American Divide I made a case that democracy, as the second seedbed tradition beneath our American worldview, is based on a philosophical preference for the community over the individual. For Jefferson and other framers of the US Constitution, this order of priority meant that individuals are not essentially competing units of self-interest; rather they are self-transcending agents in the synergy of ‘a more perfect union’. With its emphasis on our individual responsibilities to the community, this tradition of American liberal democracy insists that our rights as individual citizens are only defensible within a larger culture where individuals work together for the common good.

So what I earlier called the ‘great American divide’ turns out to be a fundamental dilemma posed to each of us. As we step into our creative authority, it is up to us to decide which of these lenses has priority to the other. Each commitment provides some counterbalance to the other, and in their tension is where we must construct a life of meaning.

 

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The Inner Voice

Kierkegaard: “In eternity, conscience is the only voice that is heard. It must be heard by the individual, for the individual has become the eternal echo of this voice. It must be heard. There is no place to flee from it.”

The sixteenth-century Reformation in Christianity began in Luther’s discovery of the individual conscience and his belief that this inner voice is the very voice of god. Up to that point, institutional religion had successfully spun the delusion of the individual’s separation from god, and of our collective need for intervention that only the institution can provide. Any insight or guidance or judgment you might inwardly discern was not to be trusted.

So when Luther decided to regard his inner voice as the voice of god, this single decision severed the chain of external control.

Of course, there had been others before Luther’s time who valued individual authority over compliance with “the system” (call it institution, society, fashion, or empire). They were revolutionaries, if their visions and ways of life caught on with others; or saints, if it took some time for them to be respected and appreciated; or maybe just misfits and odd-balls, if no one else really “got it.”

But Luther made his declaration on the cusp of a dawning new age – modernity, with its growing obsession with individuality and the individual’s experience.

Inside this discovery and its more widespread acceptance throughout western European culture, we can also detect the seed of what is now called “postmodernism.” While perspectivism had been developing in painting for a couple centuries already, Luther applied it to faith and morality. If this is how I feel, then maybe this feeling is a divine prompting. This is how things seem from where I stand.

At trial for all the commotion and cultural upset that he had caused, Luther announced the new maxim of perspectivism: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.” I am compelled by the force and authority of my own experience. Kaboom.

In effort to justify its dominance of the individual, tribal orthodoxy does two things: (1) It claims for itself a divinely ordained authority, sustained by a sacred tradition reaching back to supernatural events (revelations, miracles) where this transfer of truth and power was made; and (2) it weakens the creative spirit of the individual with a doctrine of depravity, guilt, and shame (in short, a doctrine of sin).

Your corrupt nature, inherent selfishness, and fundamental inability to save yourself makes you utterly dependent on (the external, metaphysical) god for salvation. Thankfully (and you’d better be thankful), a way has been provided. Long ago we (the tribe) were given the secret, which we have guarded over many centuries. Listen up, join us, believe this, sit here. The devil – counterpart to our god – is still loose and at large in the world, so be vigilant! His most seductive temptation is to encourage your self-consciousness.

Luther was still too much entranced with this orthodox instruction to take full responsibility for his life or look too deeply into his own human nature. The doctrine of sin persisted – one might even say it was amplified in the emerging traditions of Protestant Christianity. Now that the institutional middleman is out of the way, it’s just you standing naked before god. Egad.

So what does this have to do with Kierkegaard and the future rise of postmodernism? Whereas Luther had been an unabashed theist, believing that his inner voice was nothing less than the directive of a god who existed outside of himself, Kierkegaard followed the root system of this interior experience, into the very ground of his own existence. For this reason, he is rightfully honored as an early proponent of Existentialism.

Existentialism is a philosophy of life. Whereas other philosophical traditions had involved rather abstract speculations on metaphysical realities (god, soul, mind), Existentialism dedicated its focus to the time-bound, flesh-and-blood individual who is working out the meaning of life along the meandering course of daily experience.

At this early stage we don’t yet have recognition of the fact that the individual is constructing this meaning as a world-creator and not simply finding it “out there” ready-made. But it’s coming. A necessary step in this direction was Kierkegaard’s replacement of Luther’s conscience as a voice of revelation from elsewhere (the external god) with the notion of conscience as the voice of inner guidance, available to the perceptive and internally grounded individual.

Isn’t all of this just a set-up for rampant individualism? When we start listening in on the universal wisdom as it resounds up from the depths of our own human nature; as we tune into this inner voice of spiritual grounding and guidance; when we begin taking responsibility for our choices and the worlds we create and destroy with them; finally, as we come to appreciate ourselves and acknowledge each other as present (and passing) incarnations of the One Mystery – after all of this, won’t the world come apart and the devil win?

Seriously?

Of course, there is a risk. Not everyone will join the revolution. Tribal orthodoxy works hard to keep you compliant. There will be hell to pay by anyone who dares to question the sacred trust of its holy tradition, supernatural revelations, ordained authorities and inerrant Bible. Too many of us value emotional security over spiritual fulfillment to put so much on the line.

After all, it’s working, isn’t it? It hasn’t all come crashing down yet, thanks to the true believers who are keeping the faith. Get in here and hang on with us!

There, there. Shhhhh. Close your eyes and go back to sleep.

 

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