Episode 6: Meeting Internal Objections I
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 sixth 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 called “Meeting Internal Objections to Meaning-Making.” Let’s begin!
For several shows I’ve been chatting about the idea that meaning is ours to make and not to find. Today and next week I want to chat about why people find it so hard to actually don the mantle of meaning-maker. It turns out that it isn’t at all easy to say, “I am a meaning-maker.” First, it sounds a little pompous. Who am I to make meaning? How self-important that sounds! Second, it flies in the face of tradition. Most traditions ask you to blend in, serve, and bow to the common will. Third, it isn’t transparently clear what the phrase means or what you might be agreeing to. For these and other reasons, ten of them in all and each of them significant, you are likely to stop on the threshold of announcing that you are a meaning-maker and take an involuntary step backward. So let me try to meet these objections one by one. We’ll look at five these week and five next week—and by the end of our chat I hope you’ll have a clearer picture of what gets in the way.
The first objection is that donning the mantle of meaning-maker is somehow an arrogant, pompous, self-important thing to do. At the heart of this objection is a misunderstanding of the difference between standing up for your own cherished beliefs and principles, which you know is not an arrogant thing to do, and acting like you are better than other people, a position you are right to condemn. “I am living by my principles” is not the same thing as “I am better than you are.” In fact, that’s a grounded, humble, sincere, and honorable position to take.
But still it may feel arrogant. We have so many injunctions against saying “This is what I believe and I wish you wouldn’t try to bully me with your beliefs” that, instead of speaking bravely and sincerely from a place of personal conviction, we retreat to a familiar place of common agreement. Since we’re accustomed to that place and feel safe in that place, taking even a small step into the territory of personal belief can feel arrogant and scary. But it is not arrogant to speak your truth—it is only very difficult. Making your own meaning is not arrogant but heroic.
A second objection is that to make personal meaning is to break with tradition. Most traditions point a finger at anyone who announces that he knows what he knows and believes what he believes and so you must indeed break with that part of your tradition. Even in a tradition like Zen Buddhism, the very hierarchy that produces Zen Masters supports the unspoken idea that some people are on top and that everyone else should defer to them. So you will need to choose what parts of your tradition you can accept and what parts you must reject.
We tend not to like to fly in the face of tradition—the very phrase makes us a little squeamish. Tradition is what we know and what we may feel is the glue holding a fragile world together. We say to ourselves, “Yes, it is just a tradition, but no doubt it serves some purpose, so although I don’t really believe in it, I can live with it.” But the smarter, braver part of you knows that a tradition is only of value if it is of value and if it meets your standards for authenticity. It may be your group’s tradition to abort girl fetuses or to damn homosexuals. As an honest person, you know that those are horrible traditions and should not be tolerated. And you know that more innocent-seeming traditions like eating fish on Friday, keeping kosher, or praying five times a day are just human dogma put on a pedestal.
Part of you may feel that there is something deeply valuable about your tradition and part of you knows that any given tradition ought to be honored only if it ought to be honored. If you want to stay in your tradition, look for the existential threads in it that support your right to make your own meaning. If you must reject the whole of it, because you no longer accept its central tenets, bravely do exactly that. Your tradition must not be allowed to trump your own authenticity.
A third common objection to donning the mantle of meaning-maker is that the whole idea is obscure or unfathomable. It is easy to throw up your hands and cry, “I don’t get the idea of meaning-making. How can you make meaning? Either there is meaning or there isn’t. You can’t just make meaning like you can make a car or a violin. No, I don’t get it—so I think I’ll pass!” This objection is at once reasonable and also rather disingenuous. It is disingenuous because each of us knows in our bones what the phrase “making meaning” signifies. We know perfectly well that it is comprised of ideas like responsibility, courage and engagement. It is much more that we don’t want to do the work than that we don’t understand the idea.
What we are really objecting to is not the obscurity of the phrase but the nature of the universe that the phrase posits. We object to a universe where meaning has to be made. We object to a universe that is meaningless until we force it to mean. We object to nature pulling this dirty trick on us and making us a partner to it, giving us exactly two choices: to not look this reality square in the eye or to see what is required of us and live as an absurd hero. It is not the obscurity of the phrase “making meaning” that disturbs us but what it says about life.
It is hard to meet the objection that we would like life to be other than it is. The way we meet this objection is with a certain maturity of being, by asking ourselves to face this central reality, that meaning must be made, and all the peripheral realities, that meaning can be lost in the blink of an eye, that meanings change, and all the rest. We understand what this maturity of being feels like and we understand that it is available to us. All we need to do is embrace it.
A fourth objection is that meaning-making demands just too darn much personal responsibility. How can you smoke two packs of cigarettes a day and still claim to be in charge of the meaning of your life? How can you watch television four hours every night when your pet project remains untouched and claim to be making meaning? You can’t—and you know it. To protect all those places where we want to abdicate personal responsibility, we create a world view where personal responsibility is minimized. We invoke fate, consult our chart, or submit to God’s will. In a host of ways we let ourselves off the hook. This is natural—but it does not make us feel proud.
We would love to take that responsibility but we just aren’t sure that we’re equal to the task. We’ve drifted off too many diets, left too many books unwritten, and squandered too many hours. You can leave it at that and remain disappointed or you can take a deep breath, locate that place inside of yourself that relishes real effort and that takes pride and joy in trying, and cast aside this objection. You can say, “I accept responsibility”—because that is exactly what you’ve always intended to do.
A fifth objection, closely related to the fourth, is that meaning-making is just too much work. You want to get the items on your to-do list checked off and then be done with work—you don’t want to have to work around the clock. You don’t want everything you do to come with this added task, of judging its meaningfulness. You don’t want every second to come with this added demand, that you must invest it with some meaning. Yikes! It makes a person exhausted just thinking about it.
Fair enough—and yet each of us knows better. We know that continually working on the project of our life is the way we justify ourselves, create ourselves, and make ourselves proud. Meaning-making is indeed work, but it is the loving work of self-creation. It is only and exactly the loving work we choose to do in order to make our life as meaningful as we can possibly make it. I hope that our chat today has helped you meet any objections you might have been harboring to the idea of personal meaning-making. Next week we’ll continue this discussion and look at—and hopefully meet—five more common internal objections.
That concludes today’s show. I invite you to come back next week for the seventh show in the series, when we continue to look at how to meet internal objections to making meaning.
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Thank you for listening!