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Posts Tagged ‘meaning’

“Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

I have been re-reading bits of Letters to a Young Poet and then I found this cool site called zenpencils.com that illustrates quotations and poems in a comic-like style, and they recently did this Rilke quotation, and it seemed timely. So here we are. (The latest one they did is a Lang Leav one, which I also highly recommend, especially because I love Lang Leav’s poetry.)

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It’s nice to think about living into an answer, but I think we are always living our questions. And the answers simply lead to more questions. Sometimes life seems to me to be one giant experiment. You can follow blueprints left by other people, some of which are more detailed than others. Or you can strike off on your own and see what happens. But it’s all about questions, starting with the simple “What will happen next?”

I ran into a friend at a party some time ago, and he said he reads the blog from time to time, and he told me how idyllic it seemed, that I got to sit around and ponder the big questions. And I do. That’s exactly what I do. I spend a lot of time sitting around and thinking. So here’s another question for you: Why? Why do I sit around and ponder the big questions? And why do I get to do this? And does it have any outward effect whatsoever?

I’m reading a book about playwriting, and I have learned that the “action” of the play is what the characters want. This idea will be familiar to anyone who has studied any kind of storytelling for more than a few months. (Weeks? I don’t remember, I just remember it is foundational.) So then some of the other questions we live are “What do we want?” and “Are we going to get it?” and “Are we going to keep it?” and “Is it going to change?”

I spent several hours on the phone this past weekend with a friend who is going through a break-up after spending more than twenty years not being single. “Friends aren’t the same,” this person told me. “I feel so alone.” And I felt a jolt of surprise that this was a revelation, even though after twenty years, of course it was. Yes, being single means being alone in a different way. How do we become okay with this? How did I come to this almost benign acceptance of yes, that is really how it is? And then another question: who am I when I’m alone? Who am I when I’m not fulfilling a role that is at least partially defined by my relationship to someone else?

These are questions that have been occupying my spare moments lately. Who am I when I strip everything away? When I put aside relationships to friends, family, a lover? When I subtract job and career and calling? When I suspend my hobbies, my interests? When I forget about my past? When I am no longer concerned with status, power, wealth, influence, and ego? Who am I then?

Who am I then? I am living that question. Maybe nothing, maybe everything. I am present. I am living into answers that will give me more questions, and my curiosity will be my fuel.

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Success in our culture is associated with MORE.

  • More money, fancier car, fancier house, more things to put in the fancier house.
  • More sales, more critical acclaim, more award nominations, more award wins, more clout.
  • More bonuses, more stock, more seniority, more autonomy, larger teams, more prestige, more press.
  • Better, prettier, sexier, thinner, busier, richer, smarter, better read, better informed, more talented, more hard-working, more visionary, more original, more popular.

I’ve known some pretty successful people, and even right after a big achievement, it is not uncommon for them to still worry, to still feel insecure, to still want more. 

Won one award? Well, why haven’t I won more?

Made a million bucks? Well, I won’t truly be safe until I have [plug in larger number here.]

Got a promotion? Well, when am I going to be another level up?

And to a certain extent, I admire the striving. It is exhilarating to be pushing ourselves, to be ambitious, to be trying to improve, to do wonderful things.

But at some point I wonder, when is it enough?

Which is followed soon thereafter by its cousin, will it ever be enough?

And I think as long as we are measuring success by external factors, it may never be enough. Not unless the internal factors have been addressed as well.

Photo Credit: jacilluch via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: jacilluch via Compfight cc

When we internalize rejection, when we take failure as a reflection on our intrinsic value as a person, when we struggle with unacknowledged shame, when we replay messages that tell us we are somehow bad or wrong for things outside of our control, when we relive past traumas through the present day, when we measure success only from the outside and not from the inside…

no success will ever be enough.

Happiness doesn’t come from the outside in. But this is hard to believe. If you just get that job or make a certain amount of money or find the perfect partner or have the right number of well-behaved children, happiness will surely follow. Won’t it?

And it is true, all of those things can contribute substantially to happiness. (And if you don’t have certain basic things, of course, all bets are off.) But if you are not prepared for happiness on the inside, none of them will be enough. Because nothing is perfect. Nothing remains unchanged. Important things–families, relationships, friendships, careers–take a lot of work. And there will be parts that are unpleasant. And there will be setbacks. And there will be losses.

So then, lasting happiness comes not only from external factors but from a wellspring deep inside.

And in order to find this, we might need to re-examine our definitions of success. We might need to let go of having MORE and instead focus on what we have and where we are right now.

We might need to consider that we are already enough, and that we always were.

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“To live meaningfully is to be at perpetual risk.” — Robert McKee, Story

“Life is all about not knowing, and then doing something anyway.” — Mark Manson

When I was reading Frankl’s idea that the meaningful thing to do when confronted with avoidable suffering is to avoid it, my first thought was, oh, does this make decision-making simpler? Avoid suffering! Got it.

But the dilemma of leaving behind unnecessary suffering is actually at the crux of many difficult decisions. Because sometimes it is not at all clear which path will lead to less suffering. We are sometimes confronted with decisions in which there is no great answer, no win-win-win that Michael Scott (The Office) championed, no choice that effectively avoids all suffering. At which point it is a determination as to which is the lesser evil, and the answer to that question is sometimes not at all obvious.

What we are left to navigate, then, is a map of decision points. Our choices shape our lives and give them meaning, and they also determine what stories we set down now that change into our pasts with the passing of time. Those stories, which can be re-told, re-interpreted, and even subverted, in turn play their part in forming our identities.

And sometimes we do not know. And sometimes, not knowing, we take large risks. And sometimes those risks do not pay off the way we wish they would.

Photo Credit: Bryan Davidson via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Bryan Davidson via Compfight cc

But a life with no risk–besides being impossible, since walking out your door is a risk, as is choosing to stay home–becomes a life of less meaning. Moments matter more because they are impermanent and cannot last. Meaning is created from change, from development, from action and experience. We cannot know and yet we act, and from that action we illustrate who we are. Sometimes we even create who we are. And this is the case regardless of outcome.

I’ve spoken before about the importance of actions, of how I’ve been training myself to pay more attention to people’s actions and less attention to their words (particularly when the two don’t match up). Recently I’ve been thinking not only of how actions define others, but how my actions define me, and more particularly, the relationship between actions and emotions.

For a long time I was baffled by the common wisdom that we get to choose how to react to any given situation. “What was the choice?” I wondered. If someone did something and I felt angry or hurt or sad about it, well then, I was angry or hurt or sad. I couldn’t magically choose not to feel those things.

But what I realize now is that yes, of course I will feel whatever emotions might be present inside me. And it is difficult to choose what those might be in specific situations (although there are ways to foster more compassionate and/or positive outlooks in general). Sometimes emotions just happen. But emotions do not have to define me in the same way that my actions do.

Indeed, in many cases my actions will result in changing my emotions. And my emotions can be valuable indicators of when action might be needed and sometimes even of the types of actions I need to consider. Using my emotions as a kind of barometer to help determine action leads to them defining me less than they did previously, when they just sat there, an inert lump in my stomach.

But for this to work, risk is still necessary. Uncertainty is still present. I don’t always know the right thing to do.

Sometimes there is no right thing to do.

And I think part of what Robert McKee and Mark Manson are saying is that this state of uncertainty is okay. Because the uncertainty makes our decisions matter.

And then these decisions imbue our lives with the meaning we crave.

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I finished reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning today.

First of all, if you haven’t read it, I very highly recommend it, particularly if you are interested in philosophy, psychology, or the triumph of the human spirit. About two-thirds of it is a first person account of Dr. Frankl’s experiences in concentration camps during World War II. It is difficult and grim reading, of course, but also deeply inspirational and very well written. This is followed by a section detailing his doctrine of logotherapy and a postscript: “The Case for a Tragic Optimism.”

I’ve written about some of Frankl’s thoughts before, but after reading this book, I would like to revisit his philosophy.

Meaning, Frankl tells us, is both paramount and personal. He repeatedly quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” And each person must embark upon a quest for meaning for themselves; one person’s meaning will not necessarily be the same as someone else’s. Therefore, the ultimate existential question becomes not “What is the meaning of life,” but rather “What is my meaning in life?”

While no two paths to meaning may look exactly alike, Frankl believed we could discover the meaning in our lives through three different avenues:

  1. Creating a work or doing a deed. In other words, we can find meaning through achievement and accomplishment.
  2. Experiencing something or encountering someone. This includes experiences of art and culture, of travel, and of nature. It also includes the social experiences of feeling love and being part of a community.
  3. The attitude we choose when we face unavoidable suffering.

It is this third method towards meaning that is a primary focus of Frankl’s account of his time in the concentration camps, perhaps because it is both the hardest to grasp and the hardest to implement.

Frankl firmly believed suffering was an opportunity: “Most important…is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.”

(It is also worth noting Frankl didn’t believe suffering is inherently necessary to discover meaning and explicitly stated the meaningful thing to do when suffering is avoidable is to remove its cause rather than continue suffering for suffering’s sake.)

When I think of what I know of unavoidable suffering, I think of when I was young, still a child, and surrounded by suffering. I could not escape it; it was truly unavoidable. There was little if anything I could do to affect the situation in which I found myself. So I watched the tragedies of those around me, and I did my best to learn from them, and I told myself, with a fierceness that has not lessened in the intervening years: “This will not be me. I will not let my own suffering overcome me. I. Will. Not.”

The indomitable human spirit. Or something. :)

The indomitable human spirit. Or something. 🙂

And that is when I learned that even when faced with suffering we cannot change, we get to decide who we are. We can choose to continue to search for meaning, even when the world around us is dark and full of terrors. We can cultivate a “tragic optimism;” that is, an optimism that does not shy away from suffering and other difficult truths but lives on regardless, saying, “Yes, yes, there is suffering, and yes, it is challenging and awful. But even so, here I am and I will make what I can from the circumstances in which I find myself.”

This ability, this tragic optimism, is one of the abiding lights of humanity. We all suffer, yes, but we are also all granted the privilege of transforming our suffering into meaning.

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It has been a grim few weeks.

This morning I painted my nails purple and sparkly to commemorate a little girl who died of cancer on her sixth birthday and to support my close friend who is grieving her loss.

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When I first thought of painting my nails, I almost decided not to do it. I thought, do I really want to think of something so sad whenever I look down at my hands? As if the last week and a half hasn’t been hard enough?

And then I thought, of course I want to do it. This is what it is to love, and this is what it is to be human.

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I first met Jay Lake when he’d already been fighting cancer for some time. I’d heard tons of stories about him, and I’d passed him in convention hallways. I put off reading his blog because I knew it was all about cancer, and my mom died of cancer, so I thought it might be too much for me.

But then I finally got the chance to spend some real time with him at my first ConFusion. And I began reading his blog. And we became friends. And at the time I thought, do I really want to open myself up to becoming friends with someone who is this sick? Do I really want to allow the possibility of the pain of losing someone I’ve come to care about?

And then I thought, of course I want to do it. It is worth it to me to have the chance to know this incredible person.

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I’ve been falling down a lot lately. Part of that is because I’m still learning, and part of it is because I’m practicing and practicing requires a fair amount of failure. Part of it is simple fatigue.

And part of it is because this is what happens when I don’t wall myself off from the rest of the world. This is part of what it means to care. So I fall down, and then I get up, and then I fall down, and I get up again. And then I fall down, and I fall down again before I’ve had a chance to get up in between, which is a special brand of awful.

And then I get up.

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There is a part of me that thinks the best thing ever would be if everything about my life was just easier. That this should be my supreme goal for my life. That if everything were easier, then I’d be very happy and I could stop trying all that hard and enjoy a nice coast through the next decade or two.

I think I want everything to be easy.

But when I look at the choices I make, it is obvious that this isn’t actually what I want at all. I don’t pick the easy choices. I’ve never made a habit of picking the easy choices. I majored in music, I moved to another country, I started my own business, I started writing seriously, I’ve changed huge swathes of my life.

I became friends with Jay Lake. And I painted my fingernails purple for a little girl I never got to meet.

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This is what it is to create meaning. This is what it is to be human.

This is what it is to love.

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A few months ago, Robert Jackson Bennett, Ferrett Steinmetz, and I wrote a series of blog posts that Ferrett called a “death-triptych.” I read Robert’s, then I wrote my own, but I didn’t read Ferrett’s. Well, I read the first sentence, and then I stopped because I knew it would hurt me to read it. So it’s been sitting in an open tab ever since, waiting for me to be ready.

Well, a few days ago, I was finally ready.

And this is the part of that post I want to talk about. Ferrett says:

“And I think: Gini is not a guarantee.  There is literally nothing in my life that is a guarantee now.  And I think: You were foolish to think that it ever was.”

This thought, that nothing is a guarantee, is not about death per say. It’s about life, and it’s about the human condition. It’s about how we experience life after we’ve been through trauma.

Or, as Myke Cole says:

“PTSD is what happens when all that is stripped away. It is the curtain pulled back, the deep and thematic realization that life is fungible, that death is capricious and sudden. That anyone’s life can be snuffed out or worse, ruined, in the space of a few seconds. It is the shaking realization that love cannot protect you, and even worse, that you cannot protect those you love.”

So the question becomes how do you go on living, once you have this knowledge? Once you know how fragile everything in your life is? Once you know how quickly you can lose what you value most? Once you know that sometimes nothing you can do will be enough?

My answer is that it is really, really hard. Sometimes you try to construct meaning into your life, like Myke talks about. Sometimes you question why you’re doing anything at all even while you continue to go through the motions, like Ferrett talks about. Sometimes you bend over backwards to create something, anything, that might be different, that might be a sure thing, that allows you to enfold yourself in the comforting fiction that you have some control over the vagaries of life.

And then there's always ice cream, which makes many things at least slightly better.

And then there’s always ice cream, which makes many things at least slightly better.

Sometimes you live your life with an intensity that other people cannot understand. Your emotions are heightened because in some way, you’ve entered into the cliché of living life like today is your last day: like right now is the last time you’ll have with a loved one, like every decision could have a lasting and significant impact, like any small sign could be your only warning of impending doom.

Instead of fear of the unknown, you have fear because you’re intimately aware of just how bad things can get.

And sometimes you become very adept at finding a nice, comforting rhythm with which to end essays like this, like the kind that Ferrett wished he could find but couldn’t. And the thing is, those uplifting positive statements are true. I believe in them with all my heart. I believe in making the most of the time you have, and I believe in keeping the heart as open as you can stand, and I believe that people can be good and noble and beautiful. I even believe that people can change. And I believe that making a difference in somebody’s life–even a small one–really matters.

But the truth is complex. And just because I can see the meaning, the stuff that makes life worthwhile, the positive outlook, that doesn’t mean I can’t also see the dark monster skulking under the bed. Life is freaking terrifying. It sometimes leaves us with too little to hang onto.

In the face of this reality, all I can do is put one foot after another and try my best to be the person I want to be, because of the rich tapestry of my life or in spite of it. It’s not much, but it’s what I’ve got.

(Oh, look. I found a nice, comforting rhythm with which to end this essay too. What a shock.)

 

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I was talking to an old friend this weekend about the meaning of life. You know, the way you do. It wasn’t even ridiculously late at night, and we didn’t take the morbid side path that’s usually an option in such conversations. The next day I happened to read Theodora Goss’s “Feeling Alive,” and so here we are, delving back into one of my favorite topics.

One of Dora’s main points is that there is the Frankl theory about meaning (projects, connections with people, and attitude) and then there is the Campbell theory that it’s more important to have the feeling of being alive than to know the meaning of life. (Does this make anyone else think of Sondheim’s song “Being Alive?”)

While there is an overlap between these two, many of the little things in life that I appreciate so much fall into the “Feeling Alive” category. Feeling alive can be a very physical experience, even hedonistic, whether we’re talking about having an amazing foodie experience or jumping out of an airplane or traveling around the world. Waking up after a good night’s sleep, sitting in the sun, hiking in the hills: all of these experiences remind me that I’m alive.

Photo Credit: Spencer Finnley via Compfight cc

And then there’s art, which in my experience falls squarely into both categories. Because art makes me feel more alive AND it is often through art (both creating and appreciating) that I find my own meaning. And I think those things that do fall into both categories have particular resonance for many of us.

What I don’t think is that every category like this is going to have the same resonance for everyone. And I also reject the notion that there is only way to find meaning for all of us. Finding meaning through art isn’t going to be right for everyone. Finding meaning through having kids and raising a family isn’t going to be right for everyone. Finding meaning through saving lives isn’t going to be right for everyone. (For example, I am sadly way too squeamish to ever have made it through medical school.)

But when we find something (whatever that something is) that works concurrently to make us discover our meaning and feel more alive in the process, then we’re onto something important.

I feel lucky because from a young age I realized art and meaning were intimately connected for me. For a long time I envied other people who had practical aspirations and knew what career they were going to pursue, especially when the career in question had a relatively straightforward path to success. Art isn’t like that. Art isn’t usually straightforward, and art is never a sure thing. But art has always been my personal pathway to fulfillment, and now I realize how precious that really is.

I’m saying art instead of writing because I was a musician before I started writing seriously, and my connection to my music felt much the same. I had a short period of time in my 20s in which I wasn’t engaged in any art whatsoever, and even though I’ve lived through much harder times, that period of time stands out in my memory for its relative bleakness. I realize now that is because that has been the only time I’ve been without much connection to meaning. I just kind of did things to do them, with most of the passion leached from them. Without my meaning, I also felt less alive overall. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and one I’m not eager to repeat.

What did I learn from it? That art makes me happy to wake up in the morning. Art inspires me and challenges me and keeps me from getting bored. As long as my relationship with art continues, I have meaning built into my life. It is a very intimate experience, one that both encompasses outside influences and all the people I’ve met and one that excludes them because the art goes on with or without them.

Which do you think is more important: finding meaning in life or feeling alive? Or are they linked, as they are for me?

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