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  • Writer's pictureCrone


My odd post the other day, the one about creating the self? I wrote it and then I listened to another interview with Scott Barry Kaufman which got me thinking more about this subject. It also relates to yesterday's post on Easter blessings.

Firstly, I wanted to address the criticism that the desire to have meaning in life could seem elitist. I don’t think that’s a fair judgment on empirical terms. Let’s start with the pertinent example of Kaufman. He had auditory learning difficulties as a kid and was in a special education programme. He’s now a humanistic psychologist with a doctorate, who has just written his fourth book, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, and who is dedicated to an exploration of creativity and human potentiality. He’s not alone in scaling impressive heights from not entirely promising origins. Baruch Spinoza ran an imported goods store before training to be a lens grinder. David Hume came from a modest family – and, as his father died when he was very young, money was tight. Immanuel Kant’s father was a harness maker. Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, was originally a slave. Christ, who had even greater influence on Western thought, was a carpenter by trade while J.K. Rowling was unemployed.

Sure, if you have to spend every waking hour on survival matters, you won’t have the chance to think a great deal about the meaning of life of the meaning of your life, but, thanks in part to those who did think about the meaning of life, global poverty at that subsistence level has dramatically reduced. Thinkers like Marx (whose theories have inspired positive action as well as the failed projects of communism) and Engels, Bentham and Mill, Payne and Singer have made a practical difference. Gandhi and Martin Luther King both developed political theories on which to base their activism. They thought about things.

So, seeking out what matters in one’s own life does not rely on class or fortune; and the search for meaning in one’s own life may well correlate with the investigation of what makes life meaningful for generally, thus encouraging action in a benevolent domain. It may not lead to political activism, of course, but then, how many people who don’t question meaning affect society for the better? One has to understand the basis on which one is offering a critique to have a concept of amelioration. Of course, one could just imbibe the ideas of others and act as directed, but it seems to me likely that the investment in belief offered by thinking about something a) increases the chances of taking right action, rather than accepting dogma without having considered counter-arguments, and b) increases the chances of action when not effectively seduced by a charismatic force.

It is also not an egoistical process. It's not about saying, 'This is all about me!' It can, in fact, most often be about trying to be a better parent, partner and citizen; a better scientist, theorist or politician; a better teacher, builder or engineer; a better artist, inventor or thinker. Only if we achieve our potential can we do the best we can in the world and for the world.

Nor is it about an overweening sense of personal value. On the contrary, it is the recognition that right now one is not good enough. The denial of a will to improve and develop suggests as much a complacent satisfaction in the current state of one's knowledge and ability as it does a lack of confidence in one's potential. No one can be certain that their project will be a success: indeed, in all cases the finitude of life and the imperfectibility of living beings means that no one can ever attain some kind of idealised state. But that does not mean it is not worth striving to grow. The reverse is true: the striving is what matters. It is an act of secular faith fueled by the desire not to waste whatever modest abilities one has.

Finally, nor does meaning imply grandiose ambitions. Meaning can come through supporting artisan cheese producers by marketing their wares. It can come through making your village clean and tidy by organising litter pick ups and mowing the green. It can come through inspiring children to read by putting up cool displays in the library. It can come through making sure that every fleeting interaction you have recognises the human dignity of the other person you're interacting with. It can come through being the person who puts away their iPhone when speaking to someone else, and giving them your undivided attention and respect. It can come through supporting the development of juniors in your workplace. It can be about buying only ethically produced items and foodstuffs. It can come through treating everyone as an individual moral being, not as a generality. It can come through a tapestry of various different acts and beliefs, ordinary virtues, woven into your own pattern.

Anyway, so, I like an image that Kaufman brought up: thinking of your life as a boat. The hull is made up on the needs you have to realise to survive in a reasonable state - food and water, shelter and safety, social connections and health. But the sail is what gives your life meaning and inspiration. Learning and creativity, peace of mind and openness, peak experiences and self-improving. Without the sail, you are going nowhere - just surviving, just existing. If you don't have a purpose, you can't do anything useful. You are just reacting, floating around on the whim of the tides and the prevailing wind of public opinion and social norms.

One of the aspects of the sail he pinpointed was 'love' - not the kind of personal love and belonging that marks social connections and intimate relationships, but an attitude of love. One does not need to approve of what others do or not find fault in their actions, but one does develop a respect for the humanity of others and an ability to see them as flawed beings like ourselves rather than villains to be held in contempt and condemned.

Later I listened to an interview Sam Harris did with Laurie Santos (a psychology professor at Yale who studies the science of happiness). They had to start out by defining happiness. She came up with a good recipe for what we're after: happiness in your life (moments of pleasure and joy) and happiness with your life (the sense that you are leading a good life that you are satisfied with.) She made an interesting observation that when you are doing work that is meaningful, while you're doing it, it may be hard and you may be making sacrifices and it may not be at all pleasurable in the moment (you'd rather be drinking a glass of wine and watching The Good Fight, for example) - BUT this project makes you happier with your life and it is therefore well worth it.

If you have no projects that are meaningful, then all the happiness in your life is dependent on momentary pleasures, which is a hard ask as life isn't a circus. If you have no moments of fleeting happiness, but your life is worthwhile, you might not be all that cheerful. Both matter.

It's also worth noting that people enjoy different things. I do not enjoy musicals, but I do enjoy Ibsen plays - even though they may be heart-wrenching and painful. Nonetheless, I enjoy them - I enjoy being drawn into the drama and the dilemmas and the complexity. That is what I like. I do not like browsing social media, but I do like reading complex literary fiction, with beautiful writing and profound ideas. I get many of my momentary pleasures from things that challenge me. That said, I also get pleasure from a glass of wine and The Good Fight. But the point I am making is that much of what makes me happy involves ideas, emotions and experiences that might be difficult. That's what makes me tick. That is, ironically, what lightens my heart and my mood.

I appreciate that I may be a little odd in hating chit-chat and comedy-dramas and pure relaxation, but for my part I think that people who are not interested in deep thought and profound emotions are a bit strange too.

Maybe this drive toward challenge is what makes the quest for meaning so important to me. I need to feel that I am investing effort, not just being a witness. I need to feel I am learning and progressing, not just sitting back and enjoying. Or sitting back and criticising. In fact, as I have gone on about in previous posts (here and here), I feel that an act of condemnation and the attitude of contempt leads to closed door thinking. It inhibits nuance, understanding and investigation. It seems to be rather pleasurable to shame and condemn others, but it is sterile ground. Right action does not come from hitting someone over the head with the hammer of one's righteousness, but in understanding where they are, finding some areas of commonality and engaging in an act of persuasion. All of which demands both knowledge and empathy. The satisfaction of condemnation appears to come from the feeling of contempt and of being 'better than' rather than in the seeking to make sense of what went wrong. But it is understanding that allows for conversation, collaboration, innovation and improvement

I really don't want to judge things; I want to understand them. Unless I feel that I can inhabit another person's world, I feel that though I can disagree and even disapprove, I cannot damn. And thus I feel that I can never damn another individual, because it is so hard to inhabit their world, though I should be strong enough to attempt to persuade them to see an alternative course of thought and action. If I am not willing to make the attempt to suggest an alternative practice, then my condemnation is just about 'me feeling right' and that is morally hollow. I can't just state, 'You are wrong and I am right.' I have to be sure of the facts and able to communicate them. The screaming of judgmental opinions and tribal flag-waving entrench polarization and prohibit communal progress.

To transcend that, I believe, takes epistemic humility and compassion, not name-calling.

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