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  Lesson 1 - The Meaning Key

Welcome to this class! In each lesson I’ll present you with an important key along with a teaching tale that illustrates and illuminates the lesson. The 12 tales feature a precocious middle-school girl named Phoebe and use naturalist elements like animal muses. I hope you’ll enjoy them! Those of you who have taken my dailyom class Overcoming Creative Anxiety will remember Phoebe from that class.

In this lesson we are looking at the “meaning key.” Meaning is a modern problem, one not faced by any prehistoric potter or painter, and manifests in the following way. In a corner of consciousness your current creative project—writing your novel, say--seems as meaningless a pursuit as all other pursuits. Yes, it feels important to write your novel, but only in a certain context, in the context that your life matters. If you are not convinced that your efforts matter, if you have serious doubts about the ‘real point’ of anything, you will pull the rug out from under your desire to write. Internally this sounds like “Yes, I want to write my novel!” followed immediately by, “But who really gives a damn?’—and that day is shot.

If you do have trouble getting to your novel, I am betting that it is not a lack of ideas, a lack of talent, a lack of character, a lack of discipline, or anything of that sort that is keeping you from writing your novel. Rather, it is something ‘off’ at the level of meaning. And here is what you need to do. You need to realize that meaning must be made: that it does not exist anywhere separate from you and that for it to exist at all you must create it. THAT is the answer. When you “get this,” you will work more deeply and more regularly at your art.

We are on the threshold of really understanding a shining idea: that each individual life can have meaning, even if the universe has none. Each of us comes with appetites, genetic predispositions, and everything else that “human being” connotes, and still we are free to choose what meaning we intend to make. This nature has granted us. I get to decide what will make me feel righteous and happy and you get to decide what will make you feel righteous and happy. You can turn the meaning that was waiting to be made into the meaning of your life.

You and you alone are the sole arbiter of the meaning in your life. The second you turn to someone else and say, “What does life mean?” or “What should my life mean?” you have slipped into a way of thinking that courts inauthenticity and depression. The second you agree with someone simply because of his position or reputation, whether that someone is a guru, author, cleric, parent, politician, general, or elder, you fall from the path of personal meaning-maker.

You and you alone get to decide. That is the awesome proposition facing every modern person. The revolutionary idea that I’m proposing is that as limited as we are in a biological and psychological sense, we are exactly that free in an existential sense. If we do not live that way, honoring that existential freedom, we get sad and depressed. If we do not live that way, we find ourselves wishing that we had opted for authenticity and had decided to matter.

I understand completely the extent to which people are burdened by the feeling that they and their efforts do not matter. It isn’t that people don’t work hard or try hard. They do. But two thoughts, that they are disposable throwaways in a meaningless universe and that nothing they do can possibly alter that painful truth, play havoc beneath the surface, draining them of motivational energy and fitting them for a depression. These doubts must be met in the following way. You announce that meaning does not exist until you make it and then you don the mantle of meaning-maker. The split second you do this, all previous belief systems, both those that told you what to believe and those that told you that there was nothing to believe, vanish.

You let go of wondering what the universe wants of you, you let go of the fear that nothing matters, and you announce that you will make life mean exactly what you intend it to mean. This is an amazing, glorious, and triumphant announcement. The instant that you realize that meaning is not provided (as traditional belief systems teach) and that it is not absent (as nihilists feel), a new world of potential opens up for you.

You suddenly have the opportunity to pursue personally relevant activities and the philosophical and psychological pillars to support those pursuits. You break free of tradition, with its restrictions, demands, and narcissistic bent, and set out to make your life a thing of value. You haven’t made it that thing yet, simply by announcing your intention, but you have aimed yourself in a brilliant direction: in the direction of your own creation.

***

TEACHING TALE

Phoebe and the Lost Boy

During fourth period, her free period, Phoebe attended a meeting of Lincoln Middle School's Free Thinkers' Club. The meeting ended early and no one was about as she headed to lunch. The long, empty corridor stretched in front of her and she hurried down it, a little spooked by the echoes of her own footsteps in the cavernous silence.

As she passed a stairwell she saw a boy--an older boy, an eighth grader, she supposed--sitting on the stairs. She would have passed him by but the boy looked so lost--not sad, sullen, upset, or anything else you might name, but lost--that Phoebe felt compelled to stop.

"Hello," Phoebe said.

The boy nodded absently.

Phoebe wasn't sure what to say or do. You couldn't just ask an eighth grader, "Are you lost?", as an eighth grader might ask an entering sixth grader new to Lincoln Middle School. Plus, the boy didn't look lost in that sense. No doubt he knew his way to classes, the cafeteria, and the bathroom. He looked lost in a larger sense: cosmically lost, as it were.

"Well," said Phoebe. "I'm off to lunch."

The boy nodded again. Then he said, "I'm down on religion."

Phoebe edged closer. "Yes?"

"And philosophy."

She came forward another step. "Yes?"

"No writers speak to me. Not Nietzsche. Not Kierkegaard. Not Buber. No one seems to know anything."

"Is that so?" Phoebe said. "How painful for you."

"Next year I'll be going to Presidio"--the special high school in the capital that Phoebe had designs on--"and apparently my sophomore and junior grades there will determine the course of my life. So I need some answers, because if nothing makes sense, philosophically-speaking, why should I bother to work hard in high school?"

"Yes," Phoebe said. "Of course."

"I might become an ethnomusicologist," the boy continued in a dreamy way. "But I'm not sure what they do. Or what they earn. Or how they spend their days. I'd hate to be a poor, bored, misguided ethnomusicologist."

"Indeed!" Phoebe agreed, appalled at the prospect.

"I might become an art historian, but I wonder about that. You love a painting, it moves you, you stare at it. Then you're obliged to write an article about it. What would you say? 'I was very happy in front of that painting.' I don't think I would advance very far in that field."

"No," Phoebe agreed. "Probably not."

"I could become the world's billionth English major. Then what? Go to Paris, write techno-poetry, and contract TB? How long would that be fun?"

"Not very long."

"No. So ... I could become a physicist, I suppose, and wrangle about string theory. 'I believe that 11 strings make up the universe.' 'Well, I believe that 13 strings make up the universe.' '11!' '13!' '11!' '13!' Yuck."

"How small that sounds."

"Exactly. So ... there's always lawyering. I could become a lawyer. But that makes me want to cry."

"Yes."

"Or a doctor. 'I'm afraid we can't run that test as it is too expensive and we prefer that you die.'"

"Terrible."

"Or a man of action. Maybe a mercenary! I could kill Flabites in the pay of Blabites, then kill Blabites for Flabites. That would be quite a life."

"No." Phoebe agreed. "Perhaps ... perhaps the best plan is to not worry yet, considering that you aren't even out of middle school?"

The lost boy bolted upright. "Not to worry yet! I have to make choices as an entering freshman that virtually seal my fate! Should I study French or Japanese? Should I enter the fast math track or leave room for art? Should I take a computer class, which might lead me directly, though kicking and screaming, into the world of technology, or woodworking, which might turn me into an unemployed carpenter? As if I can't worry!"

"No," Phoebe agreed. "I see your predicament." She sat down next to the lost boy. "But aren't you only looking at the gloomy side of these walks of life? I mean, doctors do more than not run expensive tests. Physicists ... well, they must have their own sort of fun. Ethnomusicologists ... well, I can't say for sure, but they probably listen to a lot of music they love."

"Maybe. I know what you're saying. You're saying, 'the glass may be half-full.' You believe that I'm saying, 'the glass is probably half-empty.' But what if, objectively speaking, the glass is only ten percent full in each and every case? What if every walk of life is ninety percent nothingness? What then?"

Phoebe had no answer. They fell silent.

"Well," Phoebe resumed after a moment, "would it help if you named the things that you love? Maybe that's the way to an answer."

The boy shook his head. "There are countless things that I love. I love the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. I love the paintings of Otto Dix. I love to invent new ways of proving theorems in geometry, like my cool proof for the old saw that parallel lines never meet. I love some science fiction, but only some. I love some of the novels of Balzac, but only some. None of that makes for a life! If you could put together the things that I love into a coherent life, I'd give you half my lunch!"

"No," Phoebe agreed. "You couldn't proceed by simple addition, trying to add up your various loves."

"No. I'm glad that you see that."

"Nor could you choose one love and exclude the others, as each love has its own problems and leaving out the others would be its own kind of problem."

"Exactly."

"There could be another way."

"What's that?" the lost boy said indifferently.

The bell rang. Instant commotion commenced as students began pouring out of class. The lost boy shook his head.

"Thanks," he said. "Sometimes things just make no sense."

"I mentioned another way," Phoebe reminded him.

"Yes. What's that?"

"Maybe you could force life to mean what you would like it to mean."

The lost boy stared at Phoebe. "That has a nice ring to it. What do you mean?"

"It's Herman Hesse's phrase. 'Forcing life to mean.' Do you like his novels?"

"I do. Although I also have my doubts about them."

"Me, too. At any rate, he said that if we stop thinking of life as a cosmic joke and take ourselves simultaneously less seriously and more seriously, we could force a meaning on life and, as a result, arrive at personal meaning."

The lost boy's eyes opened wider. "That's quite a mouthful. I'll have to think about that. If--"

"Yes?"

"If I understand it properly."

"I'm not sure I understand it either," Phoebe admitted.

The lost boy nodded and extended his hand. "I'm Adam. Who are you?"

Phoebe smiled. "I'm Phoebe. I'm only a sixth grader--"

Adam waved that away. "You make more sense than the people I've been reading. Lately I've been reading the French postmodern deconstructionists, mainly Baudrillard. That hasn't helped."

"No. Postmodernists don't try to help."

The corridor filled up completely. Phoebe and Adam picked up their backpacks.

"Which way are you heading?" Phoebe asked.

"To lunch."

"Me, too."

"So," Adam murmured as they navigated through the crowd. "We might force life to mean. Somehow."

"For example," Phoebe said, "you see a rose and it has exactly the meaning you decide it has. You cry out, 'That rose has meaning for me! But not as it is!' You abstract it and you become Mondrian."

"Interesting," Adam agreed. "Say that I'm an ethnomusicologist. I recognize that ethnic music has no special intrinsic meaning but I elevate it into something meaningful by announcing, 'Hey, isn't this Algerian folk music really excellent?' Might that work? I mean, it's pretty goofy, just announcing that this, that, or the other thing has meaning."

"I'm not sure."

"Me neither. It might be a VERY flawed idea."

They heard suppressed chuckling and looked up to see muses lined up on top of the lockers. Some had their legs dangling over. Some, like Melanie Caterpillar, had many legs dangling over. Some, like Monica Butterfly, were fluttering just above the lockers, kicking up dust.

"Muses," Phoebe said bitterly. "Apparently they find our ideas hilarious."

"I don't," Adam said quietly. "I think we are trying very hard to make sense of our predicament."

They strolled on, leaving the parade of muses behind. At the far corner they turned left into the cafeteria.

"Can we have lunch together?" Adam said.

"Provided that we can force lunch to mean!" Phoebe replied.

They laughed and went in. As Phoebe entered the cafeteria she found herself thinking, "Now, can an anorexic force a meal to mean?" This question so addled her brain that she plopped down at the very first table, not stopping to give her seat even a cursory gum check.

***

Moral: Do not seek meaning. Force life to mean.

***

MAINTAINING MEANING

The art of making meaning is a genuine art form that requires daily attention and lifelong apprenticeship. There is a never a moment when you become a complete master of meaning or when meaning becomes settled for all time. Just when you think that you have learned all the intricacies of meaning a new meaning development arises or a new meaning crisis occurs that makes you wonder if you’ve mastered anything at all. Your mate gets very sick, or you suddenly lose all interest in your life’s work, or a cloud passes across the sun and for no reason that you can name the meaning of your life changes. These staggering blows can and will occur. You can’t gain the sort of mastery that guarantees that you can deal with every meaning event with equanimity—but you can come as close as a human being can come.

A vital part of the process is coming to your own thoughtful, considered understanding of the distinction between making meaning and maintaining meaning. What distinguishes one from the other? You decide to make meaning by writing a novel and then you make meaning by actually beginning to write it. You maintain meaning on those days when you fear that your novel is awful, when the writing won’t come, when you have to attend to other duties and responsibilities, when your in-laws visit and take over the week, when you doubt your writing abilities or your chances in the marketplace: that is, all those times when you aren’t in the trance of working and aren’t actually writing your novel.

Here is how Adam, a writer, articulated the difference: “When I'm looking to start another writing project I am many things: excited, passionate, and also anxious and sometimes frantic to get a fix on the idea and to get going on it. I long to be doing whatever it is, and I can't wait to start the adventure. Actually deciding on the work and beginning it relieves some of the pent-up energy and I feel great moving into the ‘doing’ phase. I feel myself always searching and discarding potential new ideas for projects even when I have several projects underway in various stages. It’s as if I'm always trying to make meaning ahead of time by keeping a mental project to-do list as well as folders for developing ideas. Making meaning feels as if it requires more physical effort on my part: it is mental activity, physical action, and so on.

“Maintaining meaning is more of a long-term emotional effort; there must be a well of discipline and confidence available in order to see the project to completion. Maintaining meaning also requires that I nurture myself with positive self-talk when I can’t make it to the page for days or weeks at a time. When I’m maintaining, I’m reminding myself that it’s okay to keep trying, okay to move forward slowly, okay to keep returning when I can. It's very important for me not to beat myself up during this stage or I hit a meaning crisis, where the lack of doing or the inability to move forward flips me into doubt about the project.”

Another aspect of this distinction is the following one. Let’s say that you maintain a morning creativity practice and get to your painting first thing every day. You paint for two hours and then you go off to your day job. By having painted for those two hours, you not only have made meaning but you have also built up sufficient meaning capital that the rest of the day can feel half-meaningless and you won’t feel overly disturbed. If you do feel disturbed mid-afternoon by your nineteenth meaningless task in a row, you remind yourself that in a mere fourteen hours you get to actively make meaning again in your studio. During your studio time, you make meaning; at your day job, when you begin to feel that meaning is draining away, you actively maintain meaning by getting a grip on your mind and reminding yourself that another meaning opportunity is just around the corner.

Laura explained: “Meaning-making is the activity I engage in so that my life has meaning and purpose. Maintaining meaning refers to all the rest of the time when I'm not actively doing something ‘meaningful.’ It’s the many ways that I manage to maintain a sense of meaningfulness even though nothing meaningful per se is happening. Twenty-something years ago I became a social worker because I felt that I had to do some kind of meaningful work while trying to be a writer. Doing menial work to support myself just seemed like a waste of too much time. It turned out to be a good decision because it feels meaningful to help people and it also feels meaningful to write. As long as I spend some time each day doing something meaningful, whether it’s working with clients, writing, being with my family, or any of the others things that I value, I seem to be able to endure the meaninglessness of those parts of the day that just can’t seem to be imbued with any meaning.”

Audrey construed the distinction this way: “I see meaning making as the physical process of writing a grant proposal: the time that I am actually getting the words on the page. I see meaning maintenance as the preparation of a contextual reality that allows, nurtures, and encourages the active process. When I am making meaning, I am actively in the process of going deep and coming back with a way to support our foundation. I am not researching, not doing any pondering, not solving a major day-to-day foundation problem. Some work is deeper and more intense than other work; that’s where it feels like the meaning gets made. Some work drains the energy reserves more than other work and that’s when I consciously have to maintain meaning. I think that part of my maturity and existential awareness is the ability to notice this split and to pay attention to both states, to the state when the meaning gets made (and to try to maximize that) and to all the other times when meaning must be maintained and everyday things must get done.”

Ralph, a lawyer, explained: “Parts of my lawyer life feel meaningful to me and others don’t. I can make additional meaning by the attitudes I adopt: if I stand in relationship to my clients one way, I feel more present, grounded, and authentic, and those encounters feel meaningful, but when I treat my clients as ciphers then meeting with clients becomes a real chore and a meaning drain. So there are really three states, as I see it: those times that feel meaningful without any work on my part (when I’m in court, which I love); those times that I can make more meaningful by the attitudes I adopt and the intentions I hold; and those times (far too many of them) when I am doing routine work that I can’t hand off to someone else or when I’m dealing with bureaucracies, which seem to exist to drain the meaning right out of you. Those times I have to consciously maintain meaning, because I am quick to get depressed and if I don’t watch it—even for a day—I can start to sink far and fast. So I tell myself, ‘This too shall pass,’ and try to remember that my life is really quite full of meaning—except for several stupid hours every day.”

Leslie, a poet, put it this way: “Poetry is a primary meaning-making effort of mine. But I struggle with whether to write free or formal verse and whether to write from assumed personae or in a more autobiographical way. I struggle with whether to write about my childhood or whether to write about Celtic myths and the characters that people them. Where my efforts to maintain meaning come in are when I have to talk myself out of believing that I cannot solve the above list of contradictions, that I cannot, for example, write both formal and free verse in the same poetry collection. I maintain meaning by showing up to write every morning first thing. I maintain meaning by carrying the poem I am working on with me at all times, so that I can steal minutes from my work day to engage with it and even work on it over lunch. And I maintain meaning primarily by persistence. Persistence is the key: the tortoise always wins the race, in this case, the meaning race.”

If too little of your day can be made to feel meaningful, because your job refuses to serve your meaning needs, because too many competing duties, demands and responsibilities eat up your day, because you’ve boxed yourself into a dependent corner where your time and your life are not your own, or for any combination of reasons, you must change your life and, by changing your life, increase your meaning options. If you are in an untenable situation, you make meaning by changing the situation. To be sure, a master at detachment and mindfulness might be able to turn any sow’s ear of a situation into a silk purse of meaning. That may even be the existential ideal. But for most of us, reality matters.

If you are lucky, you will not have to overthrow your current life and completely reinvent yourself. Let us hope that you can make sufficient meaning right now, in the context and contours of your present life, by identifying your cherished values, coming to new meaning conclusions, and taking action on those conclusions. But if more is needed, then that is the more you must do. You can bite you lip and say, “Just twenty more years in this boring job and then I’ll retire and finally get to make some meaning” or “Just twenty more years in this awful marriage, then the children will be on their own and I can get a divorce and finally make some meaning.” That is your choice. But be prepared for twenty years of existential depression.

Once you have constructed a life where meaning is a possibility, you make as much of it as you can, remembering that not every hour has to be devoted to active meaning making in order for you to feel happy and well. Make some meaning; take a nap; watch a television show; make some more meaning: that will work. You make meaning by turning your value-based choices into actions; you maintain meaning by reminding yourself of your intentions even as the sky turns gray or you feel compelled to take a very long bath. It is up to you to learn how much meaning is enough meaning; how to make that exact amount; and how to keep the whole enterprise afloat, even on boring days and on days that blow in an ill wind. Isn’t this quite a beautiful art?

***

KEY EXERCISE

Take some time and describe for yourself how you will keep your eye on our first key, the meaning key, and what strategies you will employ to make meaning and to maintain meaning.