Episode 8: Advice for Believers
Today&’s show is the eighth in a series called "The Art of Making Meaning," 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 "Advice for Believers" and focuses on the idea that believers have ample reasons for deciding to make their own meaning and that meaning-making is the truest demonstration of a believer&’s desire to take his or her religion seriously.
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 fourth 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 “Advice for Believers.” Let’s begin!
Throughout human history, a majority of people have believed in some sort of divine presence or supernatural force. Many people today still ardently believe in a concept of the divine. If you are one of these people and don’t want to abandon your religious or spiritual beliefs, there is still ample reason for you to decide to create your own meaning. Teachers in each of great traditions have argued that personal meaning-making is the truest demonstration of a believer’s genuine, heartfelt desire to be involved in the world and to take God and life’s mysteries seriously.
In the Catholic tradition, Saint Augustine asked believers to don the mantle of meaning-maker in the following passage:
Pray as though everything depended on God.
Work as though everything depended on you.
St. Augustine demanded that a Catholic actively participate in his life as a dedicated meaning-maker. Not only must you do the work of life and not shirk doing that work, you must figure out what that work is. Even if God has a plan for you, you are not privy to that plan, so you must operate for all intents and purposes as if you and you alone are constructing the plan of your life, in the hope and belief that God’s hand is guiding your personal meaning-making.
If you wait for whispers and signs, you may be getting them from below and not above. Isn’t it better to think through where you want to be good, productive, and righteous and invest your meaning there, trusting that God has placed his hand on your shoulder as you make your own choices? If you do not embrace this command, that you take responsibility for your beliefs, your decisions, and your moral direction and act like a leader rather than a follower, you make the world that much safer for everyone whose argument begins with “My god demands this from you” and who hides his self-interest behind his piety.
In the Islamic tradition, it is written in the Koran:
God does not compel a soul
To do what is beyond its capacity:
It gets what it has earned,
And is responsible for what it deserves.
This excerpt reiterates in no uncertain terms that you must take responsibility for your actions. You cannot use a divine presence as an excuse or a scapegoat: you must earn your righteousness and you must think through, and then take responsibility for, your meaning choices. This passage also addresses the objection that meaning-making is too much work. The Koran articulates great faith in the individual, assuring each one of the faithful he is capable of doing the work that his meaning intentions demand. When you refuse to take responsibility and fail to earn your righteousness, you are not permitted to turn around and say, “Well, I followed someone I thought was a holy man.” You are not permitted the tactic of refusing to take personality responsibility for thinking through what is right, proper, and humane to do.
In the Hindu tradition, widely held to be the most pluralistic of the major world religions, the Hindu Saint Ramakrishna explained, “Let each man follow his own path. If he sincerely and ardently wishes to know God, peace be unto him! He will surely reach Him.” Ramakrishna, a teacher believed to have attained Enlightenment, announced with no hedging that there is no external power who is making decisions for you about what the “right thing” is that you ought to do and no single way to make meaning. Any activity can become meaningful when you decide that it is—and any meaning investment you make can take you in the direction you hope to go, that of righteousness.
In answer to the question always posed to existentialists, “Well, what if I decide to invest meaning in kicking puppies?” or “What if I decide that there is absolutely nothing higher than making money?”, Ramakrishna is again clear: all will be well “if you sincerely and ardently wish to know God.” That is, all will be well if you sincerely and ardently aim for the positive and the high, if you put into play your best principles and your moral sense. When you actively make meaning, you are tuning in to that moral sense. You do not have to worry that personal meaning-making will lead to your immorality, unless you fear that you are immoral or can’t tell a right thing from a wrong thing. If you can conceptualize the difference between right and wrong, then even if you fear that you are inclined to do the wrong thing you have the opportunity to change your direction—that is your obligation and your choice.
In the Buddhist tradition, the following passage from the Buddha is telling:
“Yes, Kalamas, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look you Kalamas, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay…. But when you know for yourself that certain things are unwholesome and wrong, and bad, then give them up... and when you know for yourself that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them.”
The Buddha puts it simply and clearly: You must decide for yourself what you ought to believe and where you want to invest meaning; and then you must commit to what you have chosen. The work you choose will not be beyond you; according to the Koran, you have been given the capacity to sufficiently choose and commit. Nor should you be afraid of taking a wrong step; as Ramakrishna put it, any path has the potential to be the right path. Yes, you will be uncertain at times. Yes, there will come moments when you need to reevaluate your meaning investments. But the existential thread in each of the world’s traditions argue that you must have faith that what you choose for yourself is right for you and that you have the ability to accomplish the arduous work of personal meaning-making.
I do not believe in gods, religions, or easy answers to real mysteries. But if you are a believer and also an honest person, you too must conclude that your task is exactly the one that I’ve been describing in this series, the task of personal meaning-making. Isn’t your agenda what you would want any righteous person’s to be: to stand for value and not belief?
That concludes today’s show. I invite you to come back next week for the ninth and last show in the series, a show entitled “Existential Magic.”
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Thank you for listening!