[This post is the tenth 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!]
Without using my language, which may be entirely unfamiliar to them, people nevertheless regularly know that they are doing x, y, or z because they are holding it as a meaning opportunity: that is, as something that they think may or will provide them with the feeling of meaning. But they may do x, y, or z in a big way or a small way—and if they do it in a big way, then they are risking much more in the realm of meaning. To decide to do something for a day or a lifetime are very different sorts of investments.
Take stewardship, which is one of our species’ golden meaning opportunities. It is completely reasonable for us to focus on our own survival needs, appetites, and desires: evolution has built that primacy right into us. But nature has also provided us with a sense of right and wrong and an understanding of ideas like responsibility, mutuality, and shared humanity. Since those ideas are built right into us, ignoring them does not make us feel proud or honorable. So, many people want to help save the world or their corner of the world by, for example, becoming an environmental activist. This sort of activity I’m calling stewardship.
We tend to feel better if we point our moral compass in the direction of stewardship: in the direction of care for and attention to the world in which we live, the creatures of this world, and the ideas and institutions that maintain civilization at its best. We can aim to steward our children, civil rights, democratic institutions, the environment, or anything small or large that we think is worth our concern. It could be the oceans; it could be the stream at the edge of town; it could be freedom of speech; it could be the freedom of one person to speak.
We are not in control of any of this and therefore our lack of success or even our lack of moderate influence can frustrate us. Still, stewardship can meet our ethical and psychological needs and stands as one of our golden meaning opportunities. If you pick something to steward—a person, an ideal, a resource—your life will likely feel more meaningful: that is, your stewardship is likely to come with “that certain feeling” of meaning.
But there are several big but’s here. If a person makes a big commitment to stewardship, and then is confronted by the realities of the world, she may intellectually understand why she is doing what she is doing, because it matches her values, principles, and life purposes, but she may nevertheless hate what she is doing, because, for instance, her nonprofit is such a political place, because so little change occurs “out there” in the real world, and because, despite her hopes, she is not actually getting those feelings of meaning from her efforts.
She might opt for stewardship, choose a career in environmental protection, achieve some very limited successes, some near-successes, and many failures, and not be gifted with the experience of meaningfulness from her efforts. She made a big investment—this is her life’s work. And it is not proving meaningful. She can argue herself into continuing, because she knows that she on the side of the angels—but for how long will those arguments hold sway? Isn’t burnout coming?
One day she realizes that the failures have ended up counting for more than the successes. Her life is providing her with too few experiences of meaning, causing her to evaluate her life negatively and coloring all of her feelings. Maybe she is even conflicted about whether or not she actually values stewardship. The low pay, the long hours, and all of the other frustrations are meaning drains that prevent her from finding her stewardship meaningful or enjoyable. She took the opportunity with her eyes wide open—now she must keep them open as she analyzes what’s transpired. As likely as not, she may discover that she must get out.
By contrast, a person who has made a relatively small meaning investment may also find herself not acquiring feelings of meaning, but at a much lower cost. Say that she is part of a group trying to save the local creek. Maybe this involves her in nothing more than email exchanges, meetings, protests, and creek clean-ups, maybe to the tune of a couple of days a month. Like our full-time environmentalist, she too may experience many frustrations, the sense that her efforts are not making a bit of difference, and the awareness that what she is doing is not feeling meaningful. But her investment is so small that she probably will not find herself in crisis. Maybe she will continue; maybe she will walk away; but likely no giant meaning catastrophe has occurred.
These contrasting situations point us to a headline: the greater the investment, the larger the potential meaning crisis. The conclusion to reach is certainly not to make only small meaning investments, so as to safeguard against large crises. But care is definitely needed. Nor, it should be added, is there a necessary link between the size of the investment and the size of a payoff. A life of full-time environmental activism, as righteous and valuable as those efforts might be, might ultimately produce fewer moments of meaning than might saving that poor creek.
To return to the full-time activist: she is better off for understanding this updated appreciation of the nature of meaning than is someone who doesn’t get that meaning is a feeling. This knowledge gives her a great advantage over someone who holds to the less accurate view of meaning as a reward for correct alignment with the universe. That person is repeatedly pained and surprised when some effort that he supposed would prove meaningful doesn’t. Our activist, by contrast, is not surprised when something she thought ought to provoke the experience meaning didn’t. She knew there were no guarantees—and there haven’t been.
She is not surprised and therefore she doesn’t have to doubt her methods, precipitate a meaning crisis, announce that life is a cheat, or fret that she has no recourse. She has clear and ample recourse: to begin to seize new meaning opportunities. She can say to herself, “I see. I had hoped for one result and I got another. All right. This completely meshes with my idea of what meaning is; and, ironically enough, seeing my ideas about meaning reinforced this way amounts to a kind of meaning boost. I wish I could ‘make meaning’ in a more straightforward way, but I know what to do with that idle wish—just table it!”
To briefly summarize: stewardship is one of our species’ golden opportunities and also a vexing one, because of the way that the real world works and because it is so hard to have real successes. One answer may be to make small meaning investments, so as to test the waters. A second answer may be to go “all in,” because you cherish the world and want to devote yourself to protecting it. If that “all in” gambit not only does some good but also provides you with feelings of meaning, wouldn’t that be an amazing win-win?
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
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