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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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Myth and the Matrix of Meaning

Homo mythicus – I know it’s not a word, but perhaps it should be. Human beings are myth-makers.

We create meaning by telling stories. Personal anecdotes and nursery rhymes, factual reports and fairy tales, thin excuses and passionate confessions, epic histories and heroic adventures, religious creeds and scientific theories – these are just a few of the types of stories we tell. Identity itself (ego), that prize and protected treasure of contemporary individualism, is constructed out of countless storylines.

The meaning of life is what we make of it. Your personal myth is based on some very early stories your family told you, stories that carry assumptions about the way things are, where you belong, and what’s important in life. Such core beliefs are sown into the very fabric of your sense of self. You no longer question them – if you ever did – simply because they condition and qualify your grasp on reality at the subconscious level.

Matrix_1But our stories don’t simply arise spontaneously out of the creative imagination. It’s not like we got bored one day ten thousand years ago and decided to pass time spinning yarns by the campfire.

In other words, humans don’t tell stories because we have nothing else to do. Stories are how we orient ourselves in the world, and are what our worlds are made of. They carry the rhythms of our bodies and brains into the rhymes and reasons that make life meaningful.

In this blog post I want to offer up the idea that meaning itself is constructed upon a matrix of primary human concerns. If our stories are to mean something, they must take into account and work out an interpretation of life with respect to these primary concerns – and just these four.

Security. Human newborns are defenseless, vulnerable and dependent. One way that evolution accommodated our species was to get us delivered “prematurely” and prolong our development over the course of twenty years or so. During this time the operating system and local applications of our culture get downloaded into our brains. In varying degrees depending on our circumstances and early parenting, each of us emerges from childhood with a sense of security – that there is enough of what we need to live and grow.

Suffering. It’s also a fact of our existence that we don’t always get what we need to live and grow. Reality is not perfectly safe, and no security arrangement in life is permanent. This was the Buddha’s insight: Life is suffering. In the end you will lose your life, and you will lose much else along the way. Hanging on and gripping down only sets you up for anxiety, frustration and disappointment – in a word, for more suffering. The reality of suffering – chronic pain, sudden loss, heartbreak and loneliness – is something we cannot escape, though we do our best to medicate, minimize or distract ourselves from it.

Freedom. Another primary concern of humans is a function of our ability to take control (to a limited extent) of our bodies and the natural environment. The acquisition of skills and invention of various technologies has opened the scope of our freedom at an accelerating pace over the millenniums. Mastery at one level creates opportunities higher up – such is the calculus of human progress. Dependency at an early age gives way to autonomy as we grow up, taking more of life into our own control and putting more options at our disposal. A meaningful life is one you must choose – now more than ever before.

Fate. But there are limits, and every choice has its consequences. Whereas much about our world is made up and open to revision, the reality of life places constraints around our talents, strengths and possibilities. Genetic temperament deals us the cards and personal character plays them out, over time reducing the different combinations and alternate endings we might choose. And then there’s the fact that no one gets out of here alive. Probably much more than we know or can admit, the denial, avoidance and postponement of death drives much of what we do.

As the above diagram suggests, these four primary human concerns stand in relationships of paradox and tension. Specifically, security and suffering are really the polar opposites of a shared continuum, while freedom and fate are similarly related. None of the concerns can be properly understood and appreciated in any absolute sense. At this very moment, as you compose your personal myth of meaning, you are somewhere between security and suffering, freedom and fate. The patterns you weave are anchored on these four primary human concerns.

Matrix_2The matrix of meaning also includes what I’ll call four universal motifs, which show up everywhere in the stories we tell. A motif is a narrative theme; we might think of them as the major storylines that we weave together into our worlds. They also stand as pairs in creative tension.

Play. The meaning of your life is produced out of wonder, spontaneity, imagination and make-believe. Reality, very simply, is; but a world is something you put on – as in “putting on” a play. When you were a young child, role-play and pretending, dress-up and games were how you began to experiment with meaning-making. And of course, the costumes and toys you played with were also “propaganda devices” in your early socialization, by means of which gender instruction and class values were installed in your psyche.

Work. Eventually you needed to learn the importance of effort, determination and sacrifice in pursuit of certain outcomes and extrinsic rewards. This second motif shares the continuum with play, allowing for the possibility that your work might also be something in which you find creative enjoyment. It isn’t always the case, however. For many of us, work is simply what’s required to pay the utilities and put food on the table. Perhaps the most obvious difference between work and play is that play without purpose is infinitely entertaining, while work without purpose is one of the deepest hells we can know.

Love. Sex, intimacy, companionship and care – what would life be without these vibrant frequencies of human connection? Your earliest experience of love was likely in a nursing embrace, which may be why we have a difficult time distinguishing between feeling loved and feeling full, and why some of us eat when we’re lonely or feel unloved. The relative position of this motif to freedom and suffering in the matrix confirms what we eventually find out on our own: While love requires freedom, it moves us into attachments that eventually bring suffering.

War. You won’t find a culture anywhere on earth that doesn’t tell stories of adversarial relationships, interpersonal conflict, tribal conquest and political revolution. “Love and War” are certainly two motifs that play well together in the movies, probably with roots in our animal prehistory when males fought for sexual access to females. (What prehistory? you will ask.) As long as the primary concern of security is wrapped up in territory, resources and possessions, the borderland menace of invaders and thieves will keep the war motif strong in our minds. There’s also something about adversity that, as we say, builds character.

Matrix_3That’s the matrix of meaning: Four primary human concerns and four perennial narrative motifs are the “stuff” of which all stories are made. As the temperament, life circumstances, and developmental career of each person is unique, the pattern of meaning that we can call one’s personal myth (along with its corresponding world) will be individualized to that extent.

The matrix reminds us that our stories and the meaning we construct out of them are serious business. They are not supposed to distract us from the responsibility of making our lives count for something, and they shouldn’t divert our thoughtful reflection away from the challenges we face. The stories we tell at the individual, interpersonal, tribal and cultural levels will be meaningful in the degree that they assist us in spinning webs we can live in, webs that connect us in relevant ways to each other and to our home planet.

Above all else, our stories, worlds, and webs of meaning need to lift us out and provide a way back into the present mystery of reality.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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The Responsibility of Thinking Well

Anderson: “The best way to keep an audience from seeing the weakness in any plot is to step up the sense of menace; the maxim of hack screenwriters is that when things get slow you put a bear on the beach.”

There is a narrow bandwidth of intelligence where an individual is able to think critically, skeptically and rationally. While this capacity for reason is a natural endowment of human beings, the skills that are necessary to develop it must be learned and practiced in a social context. Optimal learning occurs somewhere between urgency and boredom.

This bandwidth of reason is narrow, but it can be widened with training and discipline. The individual needs to learn how to be “reasonable” even in emergent and high-risk situations, when the stress-response would otherwise kick in and take over. This natural reaction in the body has evolved for the purpose of survival and has millions of years of “practice” behind it. When it kicks in, the energy flowing up to the light bulb in the attic gets shunted to the boiler room in the basement.

It’s not time to think. Pausing to consider your options or take in a larger perspective could forfeit your opportunity for getting out alive. Stress hormones activate a complex syndrome of physiological events in your body, and you just react. Your nervous system locks into a channel that diverts energy away from longer-term projects of digestion, cell repair, and immunity, directing it instead to your visceral organs and exercising muscles to enable a successful escape.

That’s the upper extreme.

At the lower extreme of this bandwidth of intelligence called reason is boredom, and ultimately dormancy – sleep. While situations of urgency will interfere with your ability to think critically, skeptically and rationally, situations of boredom can prevent the kind of concentration of mental focus that reason requires. If the topic lacks sex appeal or real-life relevance, this focus quickly dissolves and the mind falls to a baseline of daydreaming reverie.

Human beings are meaning-makers, and the primary way we make meaning is by telling stories or listening to others tell them. As constructs of language, stories are like gymnasiums where we learn how to swing, tumble and vault through the thought-ways of our culture. Fairy tales, folk legends, heroic epics and the great archetypal myths form a nested hierarchy of narratives that shape consciousness and open the mind to larger, more inclusive realms of human concern.

Reason is trained and strengthened in this gymnasium of cultural mythology. Over time, it graduates from fairy tales to more abstract and sophisticated stories (theories) in its orientation to reality. Graduating doesn’t necessarily entail that you suddenly become intolerant of stories about talking animals and faraway fantasy lands. But once your reasoning intelligence is active, these earlier engagements must be seen in a new light and from a different angle.

The three attributes of reason mentioned above are that it is critical, skeptical and rational. Critical thinking involves being able to tell the difference (kritikos, to discern) between the meat and potatoes of story, between its argument or main point and the style of its presentation. When we are very young and reason is still getting its grip on the monkey-bars of language, the proportion of potatoes to meat must be carefully arranged so as not to overwhelm the plot or main point with too much secondary material (adjectives, references, details and digressions).

As critical thinking continues to develop, we gain an ability to separate not only substance and style in the story itself, but to distinguish between the story as an artistic expression and its author as artist. Who wrote this? What type of story is this, and what was the likely occasion for the writing? Who is the intended audience, and where does the author intend to take the reader/listener? Obviously this kind of discernment involves leaving behind the initial enchantment of the story, in the way it caught us up and carried us along when we first read or heard it.

Reason is also skeptical (from the Greek, meaning to examine or look closely). Just because it’s there in the story doesn’t make it reliable information about the nature of reality. The “looking closely” of skepticism reinforces the point that the ultimate criterion for judging the reliability of story is one’s own experience. If the story was authored by someone who lived a long time ago, critical thinking will seek to determine the type of story it is. If it’s purported to be some kind of factual reporting or eye-witness account of events, then skeptical thinking will evaluate its claims against the (sensory) evidence available to us. In the absence of such evidence, we are left with the question of the author’s grasp on reality and the trustworthiness of his or her supposed testimony.

A skeptical attitude doesn’t require that we dismiss as untrue everything that may have happened in the past or to other people. But outside of our direct experience we are left with only degrees of probability. Even if the piece of historical writing contains its own fail-safe claims to divine revelation or doctrinal inerrancy, as is commonly the case in the holy scriptures of religion, reason will assign only a relative value of reliability. Reasonable certainty must not be confused with emotional conviction, where it must be true if only because we need it to be so and believe with all our heart.

Finally, reason is rational. Ratios and rations have to do with relationships and portions, which makes rationality about putting things together and making the patterns that support higher meaning. Something is rational when it is logically coherent, holds together, and makes sense. A story about supernatural beings or magical creatures may not pass the bar of skeptical judgment, but it still can be completely rational in the way it offers an internally consistent and logical portrayal of narrative events.

Now, back to the first point, about the narrow bandwidth and cultural dependency of reason. Without a clear and persistent commitment to reasoning and to being reasonable in our orientation to reality, popular culture must find ways of keeping us interested and engaged. It does this by putting “a bear on the beach,” which keeps our attention riveted on the stressor as it distracts us from our need for longer plots and larger patterns. Global security threats and end-time prophecies put us just on the edge of panic (upper extreme), as the glossy photos and celebrity gossip keep us from falling asleep (lower extreme).

It’s not too late for reason. Even faith needs to be clear-sighted and sensible to avoid being hijacked by fear or rendered irrelevant. Good people of faith must be good thinkers as well.

 

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Reality Choices

Anderson: “We have to make choices from a range of different stories – stories about what the universe is like, about who the good guys and the bad guys are, about who we are – and also have to make choices about how to make choices. The only thing we lack is the option of not having to make choices – although many of us try hard, and with some success, to conceal that from ourselves.”

Another of my favorite authors from seminary days is the sociologist Peter Berger, whose book The Heretical Imperative explores this postmodern necessity of choosing the worlds we live in. The word heresy – which conjures up images of papal excommunications, the famous Scopes trial over evolutionary science in the school curriculum, and my own experience inside a Calvinist-Reformed denomination – simply means “having to choose.”

A heretic is someone who acknowledges the reality of options, along with the consequent need to choose between or among them. From the vantage point of orthodoxy, the heretic is dangerous not just because s/he makes the wrong choice, but because s/he might encourage others to think that they have options, too.

My own denominational background would never acknowledge post-theism as a theological option for true believers. There’s too much history, too much mystique around sacred sources (e.g., the Bible and the Standards of Faith) to permit even the consideration that our personification of god might be more about us than about the real presence of mystery. The good people in the pews on Sunday mornings must be reinforced in their dogmatism. All other ways of representing the mystery – or the choice of not representing it at all – must be condemned as wrong.

But as Anderson points out, we can’t get by anymore without having to make choices. And it’s not the choice between The Right Way and all possible wrong ways. Many of the optional paths lead into very perceptive, coherent and responsible lifestyles and worldviews.

Our postmodern predicament is having outdated worldviews “behind” us, as it were, in the traditions that have shaped our history and identity as tribal members, while “ahead” of us are all these different (contrasting and incompatible) worldviews competing for the emotional currency of our belief.

Behind us is singleness of vision – the “correct thinking” of orthodoxy – while in front of us is this marketplace of rival “software” vendors peddling their exotic thought-forms. There’s at least the illusion of freedom ahead, but for many the security in a one way/right way mentality is too valuable to give up.

We don’t want to admit that we have a choice, because if we do we might be asked to justify our selection. Frankly, most people don’t want to think that much – especially about spiritual things, which really means metaphysical things like god and the soul. Besides, according to the Tradition we must rely on revelation when it comes to such matters, and who do you think holds the keys to that? Long ago god left us with the Bible, and thankfully we now have the scholars and preachers to tell us what it means.

But what scholars and preachers? You have only to step out of one church and into another – of the same denomination even – to realize that options are inescapable and the “obligation” to choose ever-present. Of course, you can bury your head in the sand of one tradition, but even there you will be confronted with a story of differences, dialogue, compromise or dissension. Very human choices, all along the way.

For a long time – we’re talking many hundreds of years – the custodians of cultural orthodoxy were successful in convincing tribal members that the way they saw things was the way things really were. This was easy to do since the custodians themselves (scholars, priests, lawyers and magistrates) were under the same spell. Looking out on reality, why wouldn’t you assume that how things seem to you is the way things really are?

The trance remains strong and widespread even today.

We are coming to understand, however, that worldviews are stories about reality, and that every story is told from a very particular vantage-point. Each possible vantage-point offers only a limited perspective on reality, and whoever steps into that space brings with him or her a dense filter of personal assumptions, ego ambitions, and intellectual commitments.

Every time you change your position in reality – just stepping out the door and into the street, for instance – you are making a choice whether or not to believe the story you have been telling yourself up to that point. Actually, if you had the vision for it you would see a complex web of stories connecting and crisscrossing in such fine detail as to comprise a veil between your mind and reality.

Perhaps this veil is itself your mind, who can say?

If reality is a mystery, then maybe every vantage-point is at base just a few very simple questions: What is IT? How does IT feel? What does IT mean? Our efforts at answering these questions are the stories we tell, and the worlds we inhabit are made up of countless such stories. Yes, our worlds are made up. This discovery is what inspired the postmodern movement.

For more about IT, see my blog at http://braintracts.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/it/

Once you realize that you have no choice but to make choices, that you make choices by telling stories, and that your view of reality (your world) is nothing but a dense web of stories, what comes next is the doubt whether it’s all worthwhile. If there’s a good chance that IT is not exactly as you think IT is, then what can you count on?

Well, I hate to say it, but it’s up to you. You will have to decide. Choose wisely.

 

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