Episode 7: Meeting Internal Objections II
Welcome to your purpose-centered life on the personal life media network. My name is Eric Maisel and I’d like to invite you to spend some time with me today exploring the vital subject of meaning. I want to teach you how to fill your life with meaning and how to avoid meaning crises and the problems that flow from them, like chronic anxiety and depression. Each week we’ll explore an important aspect of this territory.
We start each week from the following vantage point, that you can take charge of the meaning in your life. You can decide where you want to make your meaning investments. You can decide what values you want to uphold. You can decide how you want to manifest your potential. All of this is within your grasp. On this program you’ll learn how to lead the life you’ve always intended leading.
Today’s show is the seventh in a series called “The Art of Meaning Making,” a series that introduces the idea that meaning is not something to seek or something to find but rather something to make. Today’s show is the second of two shows on the theme of meeting your internal objections to meaning-making. Let’s begin!
Last week we looked at five reasons why you might not want to don the mantle of meaning-maker. This week we look at five more, beginning with the objection that meaning-making involves too much darn choosing.
It is a simple human truth, though a not very well understood one, that choosing provokes anxiety. It can make us anxious choosing which new car to buy, whether to accept or reject a new suitor, and even whether to go for the cereal that tastes good or the cereal that is good for us. To deal with all of this choosing and the anxiety that it provokes, we skip choosing, we endlessly debate with ourselves, or we make snap decisions.
Given this dynamic, that choosing provokes anxiety, it is natural that we don’t really want to don the mantle of meaning-maker, as making meaning is the equivalent of having to make one choice after another until the end of time. If it is hard enough choosing which cereal to buy, how much harder it will be choosing where to invest your meaning minute after minute and day after day! Better anything than such a mountain of choosing!
This is entirely understandable. But it isn’t authentic. Freedom equals choosing. There is no intellectual freedom, no personal freedom, no human freedom without a commitment to lifelong choosing. When a value that means something to you is involved, you must make a choice—or fail yourself by not choosing. When work that means something to you is at stake, you must choose to do it—or fail yourself by not choosing to do it. It is far better that we accept that we have endless choices to make rather than trying to deny that reality so as to spare ourselves some anxious feelings.
The next possible objection is similar to last one: that meaning-making increases our core anxiety. Isn’t our goal in life to reduce our experience of anxiety, not increase it? If dark tunnels make us anxious, can’t we just avoid them? How you answer these questions determine how you will live your life. If you decide that reducing your experience of anxiety is your paramount goal and that avoiding experiences that might provoke anxiety is the wise course, then you have made one sort of decision—but not one in the direction of authenticity.
Our goal is not to reduce our experience of anxiety: our goal is to live authentically. In order to live authentically, we must consciously embrace anxiety. We must invite anxiety. Our nervous system says that this is irrational but our heart knows that it is exactly right. If we intend to make meaning by writing a great novel, we can’t also hope to flee from the experience of anxiety. If we intend to hunt down a life-saving herb in a mosquito-infested jungle, we can’t also hope to flee from the experience of anxiety. If we intend to stand up for a principle that our whole town rejects, we can’t also hope to flee from the experience of anxiety. In order to accomplish these meaning-making tasks, we are obliged to say, “Okay, anxiety. Bring it on!”
Another common objection to donning the mantle of meaning-maker is that meaning-making is an invitation to make big mistakes. Nothing is a mistake to a believer—not banding with bigots, not turning his child over to a guru, not chanting things that he does not believe—because such sins gets washed away in the warm water of innocence in which believers fancy themselves bathing. A meaning-maker is not so innocent. He knows that the thing he is about to embark on may prove a mistake: he owns up to that possibility. Because he takes responsibility for his actions, he also admits to mistakes.
It is not only all right to invite in the possibility of making mistakes, it is the honorable thing to do. Fearing mistakes is a sure road to smallness. To not make a large meaning investment in fighting some injustice because you fear that your time may be wasted or that others may turn on you or that it may prove some other sort of “mistake,” is to end up not fighting that injustice. You avoided the “mistake”—but at what cost? Better to accept that life comes with countless missteps, wrong turns, dead ends, and pratfalls.
Another objection is that meaning-making guarantees that the question of meaning will never be settled. As a meaning-maker, our meanings are bound to change as we decide to invest meaning here, remove meaning there, and carefully monitor our meaning investments. How unsettling to be for a war one day and against it the next, as our subjective sense of the war’s meaning changes. We know that these are among the worst sorts of feelings, having our world turned completely upside down overnight. We do not want this experience—which is why most people adopt simple positions, like always being for their country’s war or always being against their country’s war. If you fear that meaning will never be settled if you agree to don the mantle of meaning-maker, you are exactly right. But what you lose in safety, you gain in righteousness.
It is really much better to accept that meaning will never be settled, that meaning is always at risk, that meaning is a problem and a challenge and not a foregone conclusion. Agreeing to this is like agreeing to live in a place like Los Angeles or San Francisco, where small earthquakes occur regularly and the big one is a real threat. It is to agree to earthquakes. There is no reason why you should do this with a smile and no reason why you feel sanguine about surviving all this tumult. It is simply the right course, as to settle meaning for all time is to kill the self.
The last objection to donning the mantle of meaning-maker is that meaning-making is as artificial and subjective an idea as any other idea about meaning. This is true enough.
Meaning-making is just an idea and no more verifiable than other ways of construing life. Maybe there are seventy-five gods, all squabbling, and our best bet is to try to appease them. Maybe greed, ambition, and satisfaction are the goals of life. There is no lack of constructions: in fact, there are billions, one for each person. That is exactly the point.
To say that meaning-making is artificial and subjective is only to say that whatever you choose to believe has the built-in flaw of not being “the absolute truth.” You can’t get around this problem, except by asserting that there is absolute truth. Therefore it is no greater risk to nominate yourself as the sole arbiter of meaning than to take any other position with respect to meaning. That meaning-making is an arbitrary way of naming your life’s path amounts to no objection at all and is entirely met in the following way, by you saying, “Yes, that’s absolutely right.”
If you want to don the mantle of meaning-maker but feel reluctant to do so, one or more of these objections are likely at play—and maybe all ten of them. These are worrisome objections and it is perfectly understandable that you might find yourself unwilling to set off on a course of constant choosing, earthquake meaning shifts, unmitigated personal responsibility, and soon. Still, you know your own truth. Isn’t this the path you have always envisioned for yourself, despite all of these possible objections?
That concludes today’s show. I invite you to come back next week for the eighth show in the series, when we look at why believers must also be meaning-makers.
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Thank you for listening!