Jan 6, 2015


The Problem with Meaning, is a piece from the New York Times op-ed online edition by David Brooks.  The link to the original piece and all comments is at the bottom of this post. 

Whether you agree or disagree, whether the topic is of interest to you or not, this is certainly a challenging subject to write about. I've was able to find a online copy to the original 1991 John W. Gardner speech, I will post tomorrow. 

One of the many aspects I love about posting to this blog, is how I come to what is shared. Sometimes I get emails with ideas, links, etc. like the post today, sometimes it's memories: crayons, coconut rice, swimming with Grandma Chichi, and many times, the topics are accounts of what I'm doing, where I'm traveling, Maddie & Morgan, discoveries, photographs, realizations, and overall LIFE 101.   

To all who send notes, emails, texts regarding the posts, I thank you so much for your encouragement. Thanks for taking the time to let me know that something I posted made you consider an idea, a memory, a moment of enjoyment or reflection.  Thanks Thanks Thanks ! 

Not long ago, a friend sent me a speech that the great civic leader John Gardner gave to the Stanford Alumni Association 61 years after he graduated from that college. The speech is chock-full of practical wisdom. I especially liked this passage: 
“The things you learn in maturity aren’t simple things such as acquiring information and skills. You learn not to engage in self-destructive behavior. You learn not to burn up energy in anxiety. You discover how to manage your tensions. You learn that self-pity and resentment are among the most toxic of drugs. You find that the world loves talent but pays off on character.
“You come to understand that most people are neither for you nor against you; they are thinking about themselves. You learn that no matter how hard you try to please, some people in this world are not going to love you, a lesson that is at first troubling and then really quite relaxing.” 
Gardner goes on in this wise way. And then, at the end, he goes into a peroration about leading a meaningful life. “Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you. ... You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life.” 
Gardner puts “meaning” at the apogee of human existence. His speech reminded me how often we’ve heard that word over the past decades. As my Times colleague April Lawson puts it, “meaning” has become the stand-in concept for everything the soul yearns for and seeks. It is one of the few phrases acceptable in modern parlance to describe a fundamentally spiritual need.
Yet what do we mean when we use the word meaning? 
The first thing we mean is that life should be about more than material success. The person leading a meaningful life has found some way of serving others that leads to a feeling of significance. 
Second, a meaningful life is more satisfying than a merely happy life. Happiness is about enjoying the present; meaning is about dedicating oneself to the future. Happiness is about receiving; meaningfulness is about giving. Happiness is about upbeat moods and nice experiences. People leading meaningful lives experience a deeper sense of satisfaction.
In this way, meaning is an uplifting state of consciousness. It’s what you feel when you’re serving things beyond self. 
Yet it has to be said, as commonly used today, the word is flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life.
Let me put it this way: If we look at the people in history who achieved great things — like Nelson Mandela or Albert Schweitzer or Abraham Lincoln — it wasn’t because they wanted to bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness. They had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice. They were indignant when those eternal standards were violated. They subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time. 
Meaningfulness tries to replace structures, standards and disciplines with self-regarding emotion. The ultimate authority of meaningful is the warm tingling we get when we feel significant and meaningful. Meaningfulness tries to replace moral systems with the emotional corona that surrounds acts of charity.
It’s a paltry substitute. Because meaningfulness is built solely on an emotion, it is contentless and irreducible. Because it is built solely on emotion, it’s subjective and relativistic. You get meaning one way. I get meaning another way. Who is any of us to judge another’s emotion?Because it’s based solely on sentiment, it is useless. There are no criteria to determine what kind of meaningfulness is higher. There’s no practical manual that would help guide each of us as we move from shallower forms of service to deeper ones. There is no hierarchy of values that would help us select, from among all the things we might do, that activity which is highest and best to do. 
Because it’s based solely on emotion, it’s fleeting. When the sensations of meaningful go away then the cause that once aroused them gets dropped, too. Ennui floods in. Personal crisis follows. There’s no reliable ground. 
The philosophy of meaningfulness emerges in a culture in which there is no common moral vocabulary or framework. It emerges amid radical pluralism, when people don’t want to judge each other. Meaningfulness emerges when the fundamental question is, do we feel good? 
Real moral systems are based on a balance of intellectual rigor and aroused moral sentiments. Meaningfulness is pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life.

A few responses to the op-ed piece. You can read hundreds and hundreds of comments via the link.  The topic certainly is "meaningful" to many. 

Lewis Schiff

 New York CIty 28 minutes ago

Generally sober with a clearly identifiable point of view, Mr. Brooks hostility or malaise bursts through this time. I find myself in the thrust of my own search for meaning these days. For the past year, I have de-coupled or re-examined the most important relationships in my life, to my family, my work and my own identity. I've found plenty to redeem but also, in the fourth decade of my life, plenty to reconsider. It's been difficult but extremely rewarding. And I'm not through yet.

I strongly disagree with Mr. Brooks that this process is vacuous, relativistic or purely emotional. It's hard work! In fact, a quote from his 9/18/2014 column is tacked right above my monitor as I type this: "Everyone is born with a mind...but it is only through introspection, observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose that you build a unique individual self."

Five years ago I began working closely with a group of entrepreneurs and discovered a sense of meaningfulness I had never seen before. Now I understand that people who are motivated to succeed on their own terms can lead the most meaningful lives. Their work can impact dozens or thousands of people and create products or services that can change the world. When I look at a list that includes Mandela and Lincoln, two amazing leaders, I can't separate their desire to succeed on their own terms from their ultimate legacy. That's the meaningfulness I seek.



 Nagoya, Japan 3 hours ago

When I can impart a skill to a young person, and see them smile when they realize they can do it, or when I can ride my bicycle over a mountain on one of my normal Sunday "century" rides, at my age (62), When I can complete a manuscript of a novel or a screenplay, or even create a new character, or find a new story line, or just write one good scene, such things are full of meaning for me. When I could overcome depression by accomplishing something important to me, overcome social anxiety by taking a job in sales that forced me to speak with 100 people a day, or overcome acrophobia by getting on a vertical rockface and climbing it to the top -- all these things are meaningful to me, and they don't require a structure, a doctrine, a system, or any of the things you say are needed for a deeper experience of meaning. What was required was finding the means within myself to undertake them, and the discipline to follow through to the end.

I have come to the conclusion that there are questions that simply don't have answers no matter how hard I may seek them, and anyone who claims that they do is either a fool or a charlatan. So whenenever I come across someone whose system. doctrine, ideology or structure gives them a satisfactory answer, I run the other way. The last person I want to discuss things with is the one who has answers rather than questions. It takes all the joy and meaning out of the pursuit.


Richard Luettgen

 New Jersey 7 hours ago

So saith the religious man, seeking to convey the importance of an absolute, uncontestable truth whose basis transcends us. The problem isn't with meaning, but with some who can't abide the squishiness of relativity; and so reject its hold on much of consciousness.

But for the countless not religious, meaningfulness, for all its relativity, serves as an adequate purpose to life, something that at once militates to benign action, often very productive and valuable action; and keeps us off the streets, as well.

David's is an argument for a basic need for fence posts; and it's true that many need them and don't function well without them. But, then, others don't suffer from this particular phobia and are quite comfortable with the fact that different minds define meaningfulness differently. It only really matters that they do if their definition isn't benign, or if there really is a God who is offended by His creatures persisting in missing the point. But the former can be tested, and the latter is begging the question.
So satisfy your needs for hard verities, those of you who need them; 
and leave the rest of us alone to lead our relativistically defined meaningful lives.