When the promises of eternalism are revealed as lies, when the harm it does becomes impossible to overlook—you exit.
Exit is rarely dramatic. Eternalism is so wrong that you drop it frequently, in the moment—but adopt it again a minute later. Stances are extremely unstable, and hard to maintain for long. Even if you are committed to an eternalistic system (a religion, for example), you ignore its claims about meaning many times a day, when they contradict practical reality.
If you are committed to a particular confused stance, growing understanding of its defects may lead eventually to a dramatic “deconversion experience”—of leaving a religious or non-religious eternalist system, for example. This book is not about that (although see “Vaster than ideology” for suggestions about how best to let go). It’s about the unnoticed moment-to-moment movements of meaningness.
Exiting eternalism implies adopting an alternative stance toward meaningness.1 The specific way eternalism breaks down in a particular situation guides you into another stance, which seems to offer a solution.
This book advocates moving from confused stances (such as eternalism) to the complete stance. The complete stance is relatively inaccessible, so this is difficult at first. Generally one is tossed from one confused stance to another, without even noticing, much less understanding. A first step toward accomplishing the complete stance is noticing the transitions between other stances. Becoming aware of movements among stances, and what triggers them, helps you understand the emotional dynamics of each. Learning to recognize the promises a stance makes, and reflecting on its repeated failure to deliver, kills the allure for you—and then you can escape its grip.
Where you may go next
Because eternalism is the simplest, most basic confused stance, you may transition from it to almost any other. Exiting one of the more specific stances, discussed later in the book, typically can lead to only a few others. I’ll discuss likely exit moves for each stance in the chapter about it. (The schematic overview of stances also lists the most likely next stances adopted when exiting each.)
From eternalism, there are three groups of stances you might move to: quasi-eternalistic stances, nihilism and quasi-nihilistic stances, and the complete stance.
The most closely allied stances are “circumscribed eternalisms.” These admit that some things are not meaningful, but insist on fixed meanings for others. For example, mission says that “mundane” purposes are meaningless, really, but insists that “eternal” purposes are ultimately meaningful. Such stances preserve much of the feeling-tone of eternalism. They are attractive when eternalism’s promises still seem generally plausible, but when its absolutism is obviously unworkable in a particular situation.
When a betrayal by eternalism leaves you feeling sick, nihilism or one of its allied stances may look more attractive. Outright nihilism is nearly impossible to maintain, but you can adopt it transiently. In the longer term, you might commit to some kind of Nihilism Lite, like materialism. Materialism (as I use the word in this book) is the stance that higher purposes are meaningless, but mundane, material ones are real.
With practice, you can learn to avoid both these possibilities. Instead, when you notice you are in the eternalist stance—when you find yourself insisting on a fixed meaning—you can use that as a reminder to move to the complete stance.
Learning skillful exits
This book aims to provide methods for deliberately moving out of wrong, dysfunctional stances into accurate, functional ones. Mostly, people seem unaware of the dynamics I describe, and so get pushed around helplessly, from one confused stance to the next, when difficulties arise. Instead, you can use moments of breakdown as openings to move on deliberately—ideally, to the complete stance. Troubles with meaning are valuable if you are prepared to transition and know where best to head. That requires understanding how all the stances work: what makes the confused ones attractive, how they inevitably fail, and why the complete stance is better. This takes intellectual understanding, thorough emotional familiarity, and then skill developed through repetitive practice.
Overall, the method could be described as destabilizing confused stances and stabilizing the complete stance.
- Eternalism consists of denying nebulosity, so learning to recognize nebulosity is the general method for destabilizing the stance.
- Since eternalism’s appeal is the promise of certainty, understanding, and control, realizing that it cannot deliver those destabilizes it.2
- In the eternalist ploys section, I have also suggested antidotes for many more specific patterns of eternalist thinking, feeling, and action.
- Just exiting eternalism is insufficient, though, if that simply drops you into another confused stance. Each needs its own antidotes—discussed later in the book.
- The complete stance consists of acknowledging both nebulosity and pattern, so stabilizing it involves learning to appreciate mixtures of the two. That too must wait for later.
- 1.Could one take no stance at all? In some sense, the complete stance is that no-stance, because it does not limit meaningness in any way. That is what makes it “complete.” It allows meanings to be however they are, without metaphysical pre-commitment to their being one way or another.
- 2.Conversely, an antidote to nihilism is realizing that partial knowledge, understanding, and control are possible.