Recent posts have been primarily focused on the topic of “Making Meaning” and/or “Working Deeply”. This post is the first of a series of three articles on this very relevant topic for artists by writer and creativity coach, Eric Maisel. The series was originally published in his Creativity Newsletter. This one was published December 1, 2005 in Creativity Newsletter # 119.
Some human beings are born with a wide-angle lens that forces them to include the moon, the stars, and the meaning of life in their sphere of vision. Maybe all human beings are born this way and the majority develops cataracts; that question we will leave for another day. Some people, at least, are born this way. For them, life becomes a constant struggle to live authentically; that is, a constant struggle to live in a way that honors their wide-angle vision.
Let’s call this wide-angle vision existential awareness. Included in this awareness are all of the following: a wry understanding of human nature, including the individual’s own; a love of certain high-minded principles, among them freedom, justice, and personal responsibility; a hatred of tyranny and corruption; an appreciation for truth, beauty, and goodness; and a grudging acceptance of the human condition.
People with existential awareness recognize that their prime challenges are to live life in a certain way and to experience life in a certain way. For the sake of simplicity we will call the former the challenge of doing and the latter the challenge of being. These are interrelated but distinct challenges. The former is the challenge to land on meaningful work and to keep busy in ways that we will call active meaning-making. The latter is the challenge to feel well even when you are prevented from making meaning or not inclined to make meaning. This we will call meaning maintenance, the ability to maintain existential health even if a specific moment is meaning neutral or meaning negative.
You make meaning by writing a novel. You maintain meaning on days when you fear that your novel is turning out poorly. You make meaning by organizing a protest meeting. You maintain meaning when, on the evening of the meeting, no one shows up. You make meaning by sharing your convictions with your son and your daughter. You maintain meaning on days when you fear for their path and know better than to try to influence them. You make meaning by choosing a job with some existential richness. You maintain meaning during the job’s tedious hours and internecine warfare.
Connected to these two challenges, of making sufficient meaning and of adequately maintaining meaning, are several others. One is the challenge of knowing what meaning to make and to maintain. Say that you love freedom of speech and hate tyrants. Do you fight for the right of a certain tyrant to speak or do you assassinate him? What if you see yourself investing your capital with equal passion and equal purpose in the meaning domains of painting, writing, composing, acting and activism. Do you invest your capital in each separately, do you integrate all five into one, performing your one-woman text-and-song protest piece on a stage you design and decorate, or do you focus on two of them, because you have a special talent for one and because the second guarantees you an income? We will call this the challenge of existential analysis: the challenge of determining what meaning to make and to maintain.
A fourth challenge drops us squarely into the domain of psychology and personality. You decide to make meaning in a certain way, say by composing and playing music. What if you have performance anxiety? What if you have little internal permission to make the occasional mistake? In short, what if your psychological make-up does not aid you in your meaning-making efforts? We will call this the challenge of personality readiness, that is, the challenge to be the sort of person who can accurately choose and actually make the meaning he or she intends to make.
The fifth challenge is that of acquiring the right everyday attitude, one that is a seamless blend of engagement and detachment. On the engaged side, you bring a passionate, pragmatic and serious turn of mind into the world. On the detached side, you bring a wry, phlegmatic, philosophical turn of mind. Between the two, you stand ready for intense meaning-making encounters and subtle existential analysis. One without the other leaves you at an unfortunate extreme, not passionate but merely busy or not phlegmatic but functionally depressed.
A sixth challenge is that of dealing with meaninglessness. It is one thing to wonder how to make meaning; that is, to wonder what actions and activities amount to authentic living. It is another to wonder why to make meaning at all; that is, to wonder if life is worth living and if meaning is just a chimera and a joke. This is a special variation of our need to maintain meaning, qualitatively different from fearing that the meaning has leaked out of our novel-writing or our activism. It is the difference between a meaning crisis and a meaning disaster.
The seventh challenge is especially provocative and poignant. It turns out that the effort to make meaning and maintain meaning produce dramatic consequences, many of them unwanted and unintended. You decide to invest meaning in a home business. Its details begin to consume you, you find yourself obsessed with it in a positive way, and one day you discover that mice have taken over your kitchen because you stopped cleaning it, your mate has run away with the UPS man because you stopped speaking to her, and your passionate energy has changed its complexion and now feels like uncontrolled mania. While you made meaning over there, your life and your mind fell apart over here. We will call this the challenge of dealing effectively with the practical, interpersonal, and psychological consequences of investing meaning.
Here are the seven challenges incorporated into a single sentence: I engage in existential analysis, personality readiness, and attitude regulation in a constant way, so that I can actively make meaning, maintain meaning, dispute meaninglessness, and manage the consequences that arise from my meaning-making efforts. For a person with existential awareness, this is a recipe for mental health and authentic living.
1. How would you describe the distinction between making meaning and maintaining meaning?
2. What are some of your meaning-making efforts? What are some of your meaning-maintenance efforts?
3. How many minutes or hours of active meaning-making do you need in a day for that day to feel existentially satisfactory? Does it partially depend on how successful your meaning-making efforts were? Does it partially depend on how rich or meaningless the other hours were? What else does it depend on?
4. Can you articulate how you decide where to invest meaning? What criteria do you use to judge if something is or isn’t worth an investment of meaning? If your method is intuitive and can’t really be analyzed, does that produce its own meaning problems on days when you aren’t sure where to invest meaning?
5. Can you identify aspects of your personality that make it harder for you to make meaning and harder for you to maintain meaning? Are there things you can “do” about these personality pieces? Does the fact that they negatively influence your ability to effectively make and maintain meaning lead you to believe that they really should be addressed?
6. I am arguing that a certain attitude is required for existential health, one of simultaneous engagement and detachment. Can you sense what this attitude looks and feels like? If you can, does it reflect your everyday attitude? If it doesn’t reflect your everyday attitude, is it an attitude you would want to cultivate?
7. Would you say that meaninglessness is or isn’t a separate, special challenge? Is it perhaps more like the consequence of not successfully maintaining meaning and therefore really that challenge repeated and restated?
8. To your mind, what are some of the unintended and unfortunate consequences of energetically engaging in meaning-making? Can you identify some of these in your own life?
Yes, that’s a lot! Any help would be appreciated. So if you would like to tackle just one of these questions, that would be great. And, of course, if you would like to tackle several …
Send your responses to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
© Eric Maisel, 2005. All rights reserved.
You can subscribe to Eric Maisel’s Creativity Newsletter and learn about his creativity coaching trainings and workshops sessions on his website: http://www.ericmaisel.com/
Eric Maisel is also the author of many books on creativity. Information about them is available: http://www.ericmaisel.com/store/index.html
A listing of creativity books by other authors recommended by Eric Maisel is available: