[This post is the ninth 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!]
Once you understand that meaning is just a feeling—a special one, an important one, but just a feeling—you immediately come to understand the following: that it is on your shoulders to identify your specific menu of meaning opportunities, that is, those activities or states of being that you think are likely to give you the feeling you crave.
A meaning opportunity is anything that you guess might generate that certain feeling. You are making a guess, you aren’t presuming that a given opportunity is going to come with a guarantee. It must only be a guess, because what gave us that feeling once before may not give it to us again. Maybe you love novels set in Edwardian England—reading them gives you that feeling. But that doesn’t mean that reading the next one will still give you that feeling. It may; that may even be likely; but who knows?
We regularly experience all of the following as rich meaning opportunities: love and relationships; service and stewardship; good works and ethical action; excellence, achievement and career; experimentation, excitement and adventure; creativity and self-actualization; sensory stimulation and pleasure; states of being like contentment and appreciation; and more. If we’ve gotten that feeling of meaning from these activities or states before, there is a good chance we might get it again. These are genuine opportunities. To repeat, they are not guarantees; but they are real opportunities.
Think about it. What’s worked for you in the past to generate or provoke that feeling of meaning? You may be surprised to learn what your investigations reveal. You may be surprised to learn that you rarely experienced your year at that ashram as meaningful; but those visits with your feisty aunt, visits that you thought of as a chore and a duty, were always potently meaningful. The ashram did not speak to you; your aunt’s reminiscences about life on the Lower East Side did. Isn’t that good to know?
Once you engage in this sort of analysis, you can begin to have new, breathtaking conversations with yourself, conversations that put meaning in its place, inoculate you against meaning crises, and paint you a picture of the range and pecking order of your meaning opportunities. Such a personal analysis might sound like the following:
“Okay, I’m most likely to experience meaning by writing the books I want to write, spending time with Jane, romping with the kids, and responding to the growing fascist threats all around me by supporting that democratic veterans’ group that I belong to. I also get a pretty sizeable hit of meaning just from keeping to a regular schedule—taking a daily walk, planning smart meals, things like that. I don’t know why those routine, unexciting things feel meaningful, but they do. Maybe it’s because all of these different things align with my values and my principles—that may be the key or the secret. But whatever the secret, I’m aware that these are all meaning opportunities and worth repeating!”
You create this menu; at the same time, you stand ready to seize new meaning opportunities that arise in the course of living. Say that you work for a nonprofit and you’ve been craving more meaningful duties. You are wanting different tasks that you hope might provide you with that feeling you crave. Today you learn that a new office is opening in Peru and that it needs to be staffed. Your first thoughts might be, “What would that experience really be like—let me not romanticize it,” “Does going there align with my values, principles, and life purposes, given that I have my family to consider?” and finally, “Might that prove a meaning opportunity?”
You might decide to seize it or you might decide to decline it. But recognizing it as a possible meaning opportunity—recognizing all such out-of-the-blue occurrences as potential meaning opportunities—gives you the chance to add experiences of meaning to your life. In this way, you do not let anxiety, doubt, or some other interferer stop you from giving an opportunity the attention that it deserves. Because you’ve now trained yourself to seize meaning opportunities on the fly, you give yourself the chance to think through whether a move to Peru makes sense or not, rather than either impulsively grabbing it or anxiously rejecting it.
Take the following example. Say that you regularly get the feeling of meaning from having adventures. But those adventures have always come with significant risks. Right at this moment, you don’t feel like taking a big risk; but you’re experiencing life as deadly dull and you really want an adventure, some thrills and that certain feeling. Well, this might be a moment to entertain the idea of a “calculated meaning opportunity”: an adventure that is not too risky but that is adventurous enough to get you that feeling. This might sound like: “I know that adventure is a meaning opportunity for me—now, what is the right adventure for this particular moment? Maybe not skydiving or rock climbing, but what about … a pilgrimage? I’ve always wanted to do that famous Spanish pilgrimage … ”
If you decide to do so, you can view your life as a series of meaning opportunities. You know that these opportunities do not come with guarantees. You might write a novel and get it published and nevertheless not experience that certain feeling, maybe because the completed novel failed to match your vision for it, maybe because it sold poorly, maybe because you had counted on it too much, or for all sorts of reasons—or for no reason that you can name. It was simply one of those meaning opportunities that, sad to say, didn’t quite pan out. But you can nevertheless shout it to the rooftops that you lived one of your life purposes, that you showed up to life, that you seized what you thought might prove a meaning opportunity, and that all is well. Maybe you didn’t “get that feeling”—but you lived on purpose, exactly as you had intended.
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
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