[This post is the eighth 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!]
Meaning—or, more precisely, the feeling of meaning—is one of nature’s motivational tools.
We do lots of things even if they don’t feel particularly meaningful—that is, even if doing them doesn’t provide us with that certain feeling. But we do things more easily, with more discipline, in a more devoted way, and in an altogether better frame of mind, if doing those things produces the feeling of meaning. Nature needs us to motivate ourselves if we are to survive, and the feeling of meaning is one of her tools.
She has many, many such tools. We might be motivated by lust, by hunger, by duty, by jealousy, by curiosity, by love, by hatred. Meaning is just one of her tools. But we understand that there is something special about meaning being present. It feels like more than extra motivation—it feels like different motivation, as if the motivation were coming from “a different place.” It isn’t—it is coming from exactly the same place that everything human comes, from the repertoire of things human—but it feels as if it is coming from a place of authority, depth, and richness that is unmatched by any other feeling.
Isn’t nature clever in this regard, to provide us with one feeling that feels different from all other feelings? It is as if nature thought the matter through and held the following conversation with herself: “Well, I’ve created this creature that isn’t going to function like an amoeba or an oak tree. For it to stay alive and exist, it is going to have to think that it ought to stay alive and exist, and do things that maybe its own ‘selfish genes’ would never do, like sacrifice itself for its children or for the group. How can we make a creature that wants prime rib and an easy chair and stimulation and relaxation ever serve the group? Hm. Maybe it needs one extra feeling, different from all of its other feelings, that seems to come from ‘a different place,’ a place of ‘real authority.’ Hm. Yes, that seems like a good idea. Let’s call that different feeling … meaning. How clever of me!”
This is not nature being moral. This is nature being clever. But not clever enough.
“Ah,” nature would have to continue, thinking the matter through, “because I’ve opted to give this creature consciousness, which is one unparalleled apparatus, many of this species will see right through my ‘meaning’ tactic and will recognize that it doesn’t really come from some different place or some amazing higher authority, that it is just what it is, a feeling, and one my arsenal of motivational tools. As such, it won’t really work or be believed. One of my creatures might, for instance, feel that working on his novel is a meaningful pursuit, and at the same time see right through this motivational gambit, and maybe keep working but in a bereft sort of way. There’s nothing I can do about that: given the nature of consciousness, with its pretty amazing powers, the most robust powers I can dream up, quite a few folks will see through my meaning gambit and not be very happy.”
Let’s give nature a pal with whom she chats.
“But,” says nature’s pal, “This creature, even as it sees through your meaning gambit, can come out the other side and say to himself or herself, ‘I see what meaning is, it’s just another feeling. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t craft a life that makes sense to me, that feels rich to me, and that reflects my principles and values. I can do that, even if meaning is just a feeling.’ And so, while you will have maybe lost one of your motivational tools, your creature will still feel motivated—self-motivated, let us say, though of course we know the folly of that idea—and may even be more motivated than the next person.”
After they have stopped giggling a little at the image of man believing in self-motivation, they might well agree that meaning is still a pretty decent gambit, especially with regard to those people who regularly experience that feeling easily. Those people will be extra motivated by virtue of experiencing that feeling; and those who see through that feeling can still arrive at the same place as their peers, having reasons to live, and maybe an even more solid place than their peers, having their own self-identified and self-articulated reasons to live. Nature and her pal nod, in agreement that keeping meaning as a motivational tool is, on balance, a pretty decent idea.
What this means for you is the following. If you are having “trouble with meaning,” that may because you are in limbo, between craving that thing “meaning,” which you maybe don’t yet understand is just a certain sort of feeling, one of nature gambits to keep you motivated and alive, and moving to a new footing, on your own two feet, as it were, where you shrug about meaning and simply go about living your life purposes, purposes you’ve named and decided to stand behind.
You give nature a nod and say, “I appreciate your efforts to motivate me and to keep me alive, and I understand why you’re using meaning as a tactic. But, you know, I don’t need it. I’m out the other side of my ‘need for meaning.’ But thank you anyway. I’m glad you’re thinking about the species and its motivational needs! But you can put that tool back in your toolbox. I’m just going to live, fully motivated by my own sense of purpose.” And on you go, living your life purposes.
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
This Post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: iStock