Meaning is a Verb

A Life Worth Living?

children playing- smaller

Amid the swirl of thoughts that reverberate throughout life experience, once in a while an interesting idea settles onto Quora, a question and answer website (registration required).  As often as not, users post answers which are more interesting than the questions themselves.  A few weeks ago, just such a response appeared in reply to the question ‘What makes life worth living?’

Many of us ponder this or similar questions, most often with little expectation of receiving a reasonable answer.  In this instance, a responder we will simply call “Jimmy”, a self-defined entrepreneur and ”a Wall Street investor” stated the following:

“Nothing makes life worth living. The fact that this is even a question underlines the lack of life itself to provide a natural answer.”

The phrase “the lack of life” presents a curiously pointed accusation—an accusation directed at reality itself. Jimmy seems to think life owes us something, that life is somehow deficient, leaving us to pick up the pieces so to speak. He continues “Most of life is a sentence [did he mean “sequence”?] of failures and pains, punctuated with only the briefest of moments of happiness.”  What’s wrong with this picture? 

We Choose

ChoicesjpgHearkening back to a previous post (sG: “Perspective I), we suggested that EveryDayLife represents a series of choices.  We choose.  Even Jimmy’s rather pessimistic response (and there is much more to this person’s comments which reinforce the same negative attitude) betrays his own realization that life experiences appear as a result of choices we make.  Although Jimmy agrees that we choose, he frames his choices—within the domains of “freedom, competence and relationships” —as if they are required in spite of life rather than expressed as a reply to and in accordance with life.

To live in spite of reality itself paints a rather bleak and sad picture of our time on earth. But then, such “artistry” also expresses choice. At all times and in all circumstances, we always retain the ability to choose how we are going to relate to life experience.  Just such a perspective was that of Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor whose audacity to express his own meaning in the face of such a horrible circumstance turns Jimmy’s view of life on its head. Reflecting on his life in two different Nazi-run camps, Mr. Frankl wrote:

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily”  ~ Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Why should “life” bear the responsibility to account for itself? We have been granted an amazing opportunity to participate in Life—and not simply as innocent (or guilty) bystanders.  Separating himself from life, assuming that life is in some manner failing to be what he seems to think it should be, Jimmy has chosen to go his own way, to set his own goals in accordance with his own desires.  So far, that sounds reasonable, even admirable from a certain perspective (sG: Perspective II”).  However, Jimmy proposes this kind of behavior apart from any consideration at all that life might represent considerably more than he imagines or perhaps more than he is willing to allow.  He attempts to ignore what life and its meaning might—moment to moment—present to us on its own terms.  Rather than more humbly expressing his personal lack of use for any transcendent meaning in his life, instead Jimmy denies that life has any value at all.  (Sounds a bit like a fish denying the value or significance of water).

A Bus Packed with Bozos

VerdictjpgIt would be easy to take the statements of this man, this Wall Street investor, poke fun at him then walk on down the road.  But a phrase from an old Fire Sign Theater recording comes to mind: “We’re all bozos on this bus.”   We all know that Jimmy is not alone in his attitudes.  If we are honest, from time to time we all shake our fists in defiance at our parents, at the government, at some notion of “god”, at authority, or at the very sequence of events we call life or reality. Separating ourselves from life in this manner, we tend to take the license to separate ourselves from other people just as readily.  However, trumping his list of life choice categories, Jimmy concludes that “perhaps with freedom I can either make more money or lower my expectations. Both of those buy me more freedom.”  Freedom to make more money to make more freedom to make more money to….  With such a closed-loop perspective on EveryDayLife, on Jimmy’s own life experience, is it any wonder his view of life, like so many others like him, is so pessimistic?  Where are you in this equation? How do your attitudes compare?

A Threshold of Mutuality

All of us view EveryDayLife from very different perspectives.  We like to think our chosen set of notions about life are “correct”.  Most often, if we have at least managed to choose a view of life and its meaning(s) that briefly appears to be “correct” for ourselves, we are doing well.  But perhaps being “correct” or “right”—a concept which too often takes on the connotation of competition and a desire to “win”—is not the most appropriate metric.  Perhaps our personal opinions are not the most useful means of measuring a mutual (that is, ontologic) idea about the “meaning of life”.
threshold of mutuality
This blog previously referenced two sets of ideas about choice, perspective and assessment of life meaning. These idea sets originate with Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind) and George Lakoff (Moral Politics).  Mr. Layoff’s “parental models” (expressed as the “strict father” and “nurturing parent” models) depict polar orientations to the idea of morality as it plays out in the sociopolitical arena.  Adding slightly more structural detail to the dichotomy, Mr. Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) describes five categories of morality (caring, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity—see diagram).  We routinely these specific categories to determine how well we are doing in this life thing.  Both Mr. Lakoff’s and Mr. Haidt’s ideas, once understand, can easily instill in each of us an uneasy moment of self-recognition. The construct presented by MFT presents some particularly interesting implications for all of us (including Jimmy the Wall Street guy).

As Mr. Haidt’s research discovered, caring and sometimes fairness are considered the most important moral categories the world over, regardless of region, race or ethnicity (see the diagram at the end of this article).  However, the other categories reveal a decided separation between what we usually refer to as “liberal” and “conservative” views.  (In general, the research suggests that more so-called conservative folks think the bottom categories are much more important than do more so-called liberal folks). So it appears from the MFT research, caring/fairness on the one hand over against loyalty/authority/sanctity form what we might call a threshold of mutuality.  On the first set of categories, most of us agree and define both caring and fairness as highly important categories of “Good” (even more so than the other categories).  The second set, however, begins to cause the idea of mutuality—that we are all in this together and that we should work together—to fray at the edges.

[You might want to refer to a post from last year (sG: Death of Democracy III)  which presents a more thorough, contextual description of the MFT categories.  Better still, click over to the MFT website for a first hand description.  (On that site, you will notice a more recent addition of a sixth category: liberty/oppression).]

Apparently, more “conservative” folks derive much comfort from upholding ideas about loyalty (to an in-group ideal), authority (to an idea of a “country” or government, for instance), and sanctity (of a religion or race, etc.).  In general, the same folks tend to revere the expression of caring and fairness more highly than the other categories, but less highly than do more left leaning people (i.e., the five categories are rated more closely together for people at the more conservative end of the spectrum—see graph).

Haidt Moral DimensionsThe bottom three categories, by their very nature, express an attitude of separation.  Each presents an idea that something or someone is better, higher or more desirable in some manner than something or someone else (i.e., hierarchy; According the George Lakoff’s model, a standard conservative position not only seeks hierarchy but attempts to preserve the sanctity of hierarchy as the status quo).  Such hierarchical notions can (although need not) lead to a fracturing of the idea of wholeness, togetherness or mutuality for all people (perhaps the most extreme of which is represented by white supremacy, xenophobia or religious persecution or ostracization). Standing alone, the top two categories present universal “goods” shared by most people. Caring and fairness appear to present no inherent sense of separation, no need to pick and choose, exclude or ban.  Fairness is fairness, regardless who is involved unless you are a hyper-conservative American, including Canadians (see charts at the end of this article).  On the other hand, the mutuality inherent in the two top categories too often becomes automatically fractured when we begin to think about loyalty or authority or especially sanctity (purity). This does not have to happen, but most often, it does. We could consider loyalty to the human race (although a somewhat strange idea) as something we should expect from ourselves.  Such loyalty would maintain the idea of mutuality (although other species of life are left out in the cold).  We could consider “the authority of common good” (towards all others) as a naturally anticipated end goal of most people we encounter. (Although when prominent “authority” figures—like a president of a country—usurp this naturalistic authority in favor of advocating the definition of others as “different” from the manner in which we define ourselves, such an counterfeit authority trumps the need or desire to care for other people). Finally, we could expect that upholding the sanctity of human life and wellbeing—which should apply to everyone—to maintain a high position on our list of moral aspirations (the sticky issue of abortion creates an interesting wrinkle in this regard).  We could expect such sanctity of ourselves.  Do we?


ksetting expectations wide

Jimmy proposes a twofold strategy for achieving the freedom he seeks.  One of those strategies, of course, is to buy it, to make more money so he can insulate himself from self-defined unpleasantness and limitation.  The second part of his plan for self-liberation, clearly described in his own words, is to lower his expectations as a means of “purchasing” his freedom. In such an instance, the so-called freedom he seeks becomes a commodity rather than a characteristic of himself and his own life.

What does a person like this want to achieve?  Having spit in the face of “life” and the inherent meaning therein, what can Jimmy or anyone hope to achieve given this kind of life plan?  And when the mechanisms such people have chosen fail—and eventually they will—what remains of their (our) world? Jimmy’s world?  Jimmy’s “life”?

A Fox and Grapes Paradigm

Fox and Grapes transformThere are times when wanting less might be a good thing, but being less certainly is not such a situation.  We need to expect more from ourselves as individuals; we need to expect more as a collective.  This expectation manifests in meanings we effectively express toward one another and maintain toward ourselves.

This lowering of expectations regarding how we treat one another constitutes a compromise of our ideals of morality. While we would like to reap the benefits of such morality, at the same time, we appear willing to deny others those same benefits.  Other people become the sacrificial lambs offered for our so-called freedom. (Such appears to be the structure of conservative American notions of “fairness”).

Life becomes worth living when we make it so (in his own way, Jimmy actually agrees with this)—when we celebrate ourselves and each other rather than cower in acquiescence in the face of experience.  Life becomes worth living when our purpose guides us to a place beyond who we, on the surface, appear to be and toward the persons we are becoming.

Meaning as a Measure of Good

We all seek some notion of Good.  We define this “Good” very differently, but we all desire the presence of that general concept in our lives. The greater the number of people involved in the Good we manage to mean, the more profoundly we are likely to experience that Good in EveryDayLife.  This is true not only because of the return we are likely to receive but also due to the mere fact that when we help, we establish a self-identification as a helping individual.

We mean thru our actions toward one anotherWe can measure the Good we ignite in the world in many ways.  The MFT categories represent an interestingly useful metric. As such, when our measure of Good becomes skewed, when our meanings begin to drift from the top of the MFT categories toward exclusivity (such as when our notions of purity override our desire to care) our lives turn away from a life of mutuality, of balanced concern for each other.  When this happens, many other people “get lost” within our idiosyncratic and collective means of assessing value for our in-group. We begin to sacrifice others for the sake of the so-called “good” we seek for ourselves and our in-groups.

Does life, as Jimmy suggests, actually fail “to provide a natural answer” to its meaning?  Perhaps instead, the failure lies in our lack of hearing.  For many of us, we are that meaning.  Those who fail to hear it are most likely not listening, failing to take full responsibility for the answer or, in a much deeper philo-spiritual sense, failing to mean in the most active verbal sense.

Many of us do not think of life as presenting its own meaning, requiring no external reference. Such an idea is beyond the typical manner of thinking or of defining reality for most people.  Most of us need those references, those relatively static nouns to which we can attach signifiers of our possession of this or that.  We need our symbols, flags that remind us what we “mean”. They remind us what we “have”, what we think we possess, what we think we “own” and therefore, can control. Too many us, like Jimmy, need to turn our most valuable life categories into commodities if only to ameliorate the faith required in the dynamic persistence of a sustained effort to care.  We can “bank” these newly contrived static meanings—hung on monetary, racial, religious or ideological anchors—in order to mask our failure to continually reach beyond who we are.

mesuring humanitWe want simple, clear answers.  Life means ”this” or life means “that”, deluding ourselves into believing such answers can solve any of our problems.  We too often strive for such clarity, but we know those things in which we want to believe are not the answer. Jimmy knows the money game he plays will not truly bring him “happiness” (he said as much). He has chosen to lower his standards, taking the form of making money rather than aspiring for more transcendent meaning.

Life Means Itself

Life means itself; it is its own meaning, needing no external reference.  Too simple?  How about this.  We are the meaning of life.  Any failure on the part of life to express its own meaning falls squarely in our collective lap.  Our lack of hearing and understanding that meaning through our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors strips significance from our individual and collective life experience.  Too cryptic?  How about this charming third try: we are the meaning of each other’s lives.  Failure to understand and express the natural mutuality of existence is to destroy the meaning of life.

Turning from the self-evident presence of life meaning, we move further from an understanding of our own purpose within it.  The further we move from life itself, the further we move from a direct, experience that demands expression of that life through our acceptance of our own responsibility toward life, toward others and toward ourselves. In many cases, living expressively, as mutually responsible individuals expresses the meaning of life far too clearly, too poignantly. Realizing such a lifestyle as a natural imperative feels too accusatory toward us—convicting us of repeated failure. Our knees buckle at the thought of such personal responsibility.  Once we take up the mantle of such responsibility, we feel the natural obligation to care, to reach out, to offer assistance to the world beyond our own self interests.

Einstein - Life worth living

We mean through our actions toward one another–when our lives express active participation in the wellbeing of other people, when the value we would like to think applies to ourselves is habitually anticipated as the desire of everyone we meet along the way—anticipated such that we continually stand at the ready, ever eager to lend a hand.

Relevant blog postings

Left and Right Perspectives on Morality according to MFT Research

MFT graphs.PNG