[This post is the eighteenth in a multi-part series called Everything You Thought You Knew About Meaning is Wrong. To be in touch about it, you can always reach me at [email protected] or visit me at https://ericmaisel.com/. Please enjoy the series!]
So far, I’ve been describing meaning opportunities as separate things. However, they can also go together beautifully. Career, excellence, and self-actualization can all be pursued at the same time. Service, compassion, and presence can reinforce one another. Meaning opportunities can and do naturally go together. A great example is the way that activism and creativity, when pursued together, can prove its own special golden meaning opportunity.
You can be an activist and you can be creative and you might keep those pursuits separate. Many creatives do. But you could also marry them. Here’s one example from the countless I could mention.
In 1832, Angelina Grimké, the daughter of an aristocratic, slave-holding Southern family, became, as a matter of conscience, an abolitionist. Publicly championing the unpopular abolitionist cause constituted an act of engagement and an example of conscience in action. In 1835, Angelina converted her older sister Sarah to the abolitionist cause and together they became the first women to speak in public for the black slave and, later, for women’s rights. They became founding activists in a pair of life-affirming movements.
As activists, they persuaded their mother to give them the slaves who constituted their share of the family estate, whom they immediately freed. In part as a testament to their Quaker faith, they began speaking and lecturing in New York and New England against slavery, speaking engagements that included Angelina’s three effective appearances before the Massachusetts legislative committee on antislavery petitions in 1838.
In addition, Sarah wrote, among other nonfiction pieces, An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States (1836), urging abolition, and Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman (1838). Angelina wrote An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1836). Standing up for abolition constituted engagement; speaking out made them activists; and quietly sitting and dealing with the challenges that attend to writing an effective nonfiction piece made them activist artists. Creating something that could move a listener by virtue of its rhetorical strength constituted an act of engaged creativity.
Isn’t that a beautiful marrying of two meaning opportunities? And don’t we suppose that these two brave sisters experienced moments of meaning from their efforts?
A musician, when he attends a rally, is engaged. If he helps organize the rally, he is an activist. When he composes a song for the cause and then plays it at the rally, both the composing and the playing are acts of engaged creativity. They are acts that require that he make use of his talents, skills, mind, heart, hands, and personal presence in ways that are different from—not better than or more courageous than, but different from—the way he uses himself when he signs a petition, writes a check to a cause, or builds a barricade.
In exactly the same sense, a physician who travels to Africa without pay to provide medical services for the indigent poor is engaged and an activist. But if, upon arriving, he discovers that he must invent new procedures because of conditions on the ground, that need demands that he engage the creative part of his nature, the part that innovates and dreams up new combinations. Both the protest song and the new medical procedure are acts of engaged creativity: that is, creative effort in ethical service.
The phrase “art and activism” is the common term used to convey these ideas. “Art and activism” refers to activities as diverse as the following: the socio-political street theater of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the activities of the Guerrilla Girls in support of female visual artists, a Bolivian community-based theater publicizing the issue of the privatization of water, the performance art of Suzanne Lacy tackling issues like rape and aging, the initiative of the Museum of the African Diaspora to collect, publish and archive narratives about people of African descent, the storytelling project about the criminal-justice system called Thousand Kites, and countless other initiatives and projects in the fields of dance, music, media arts, literature, public art, theater, performance, and the visual arts.
Many questions naturally arise in a creative’s mind as soon as he begins to think about whether, and to what extent, he is willing to become an engaged creator. These questions include:
+ “Why should I bother, given the magnitude of the world’s problems and my essential powerlessness?”
+ “Which are the right causes and how can I choose among so many righteous causes?”
+ “Should I care about results or are gestures enough?”
+ “When in human history did conscience ever pay the bills?”
+ “Do I have to be engaged all the time or is it okay to be engaged just once in a while?”
+ “What if I don’t want to get emotionally worked up about the mess the world is in?”
These questions require answers. Why would you want to opt for engaged creativity if it isn’t apt to feed or clothe you, if it likely will make little difference in the world, and if it may further estrange you from your neighbors and your society? One answer, in addition to that effort being the right thing to do, is that it is a top-notch meaning opportunity. And that counts for a lot!
Creative people who opt to make use of their creativity in the service of their ethics sometimes actually do make a difference. They produce a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin that has an effect on the war against slavery. They write 1984 and alert tens of millions of readers to the ways of totalitarianism. They paint as Goya painted and make the world look firing squads in the eye. They etch as Kathe Kollwitz etched and turn the vagueness of a world war into the clear reality of one horrified mother. Are these results too small? On a human-sized scale, they surely are not.
Consider marrying creativity and activism. Each is a golden meaning opportunity in its own right. Together, they can amount to something truly special.
This Post is republished on Medium.
READ PART ONE HERE: Everything You Thought You Knew About Meaning Is Wrong: The Even Harder Problem
READ PART TWO: On Craving the Feeling of Meaning
READ PART THREE: Why ‘Is Life Meaningful?’ Is the Wrong Question
READ PART FOUR: Meaning Has Its Reasons
READ PART FIVE: The Cost of Meaning
READ PART SIX: Meaning Has Its Rhythms
READ PART SEVEN: Robbed of Purpose
READ PART EIGHT: Meaning as Nature’s Motivational Tool
READ PART NINE: Your Golden Meaning Opportunities
READ PART TEN: One Golden Meaning Opportunity: Stewardship
READ PART ELEVEN: One Golden Meaning Opportunity: Experimentation
Read Part Twelve: One Golden Meaning Opportunity: Self-Actualization
Read Part Thirteen: One Golden Meaning Opportunity: Appreciation
Read Part Fourteen: Two Golden Meaning Opportunities: Achievement and Excellence
Read Part Fifteen: Three Golden Meaning Opportunities: Service, Good Works, and Ethical Action
Read Part Sixteen: Two Golden Meaning Opportunities: Pleasure and Contentment
Read Part Seventeen: Love, Relationships, Creativity and Career
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