Complete stances resolve problems of meaningness: nihilistic depression, harms of blind faith, the anguish of ethical dilemmas, bafflement about what you should do with your life…
Misunderstanding meaningness makes many miserable. Overall, the book Meaningness aims to give you tools to shift from confused stances that cause unnecessary suffering into complete stances. Those are accurate understandings that engender enjoyment of the ways meaningness works in everyday life.
This chapter is the heart of the book: it explains how to find your way to complete stances, what you may find there, and why they might be attractive enough to commit to them. The chapter is somewhat abstract, so the following ones explain how to apply this understanding in specific sorts of situations.
The appeal of complete stances is dual:
- They eliminate the particular patterns of dysfunctional thinking, feeling, and acting caused by confused stances, and the suffering that results. Below I’ll say a little about how complete stances resolve problems of meaningness in general. We’ve mostly already covered that for eternalism and nihilism, though; the chapters on those stances explain the antidotes.
- Complete stances promote ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that are not just accurate, but enjoyable and effective. The rest of this chapter is about this intrinsic appeal. Explaining that is a bit awkward, though…
Confused stances result from rejecting the nebulosity of meaningness. Either they try to force meaningness into fixed patterns (like eternalism), or they deny its existence or significance (like nihilism). That sets up a confused metaphysical binary, and we mistakenly assume we must choose one side of or the other.
This chapter is about “the” complete stance, which simply consists of allowing nebulosity together with pattern. Then you have no need for fixation or denial. It is the most general and abstract of all stances. It is complete just by declining to use any general rule for discarding possibilities of meaning or meaninglessness. Accordingly, it’s a bit difficult to say much about it—although the chapter does its best.
The rest of the book is about “complete stances” plural. Those consist of accepting the nebulosity of particular dimensions of meaningness, such as ethics, purpose, sacredness, and so on. They resolve confused stances that fixate or deny these dimensions, or issues within them. These complete stances are more specific, so I can describe them in greater detail.
If we were imaginary ideal philosophers, our confusions about meaningness would have begun by considering the possibility that all meanings must either be eternally unchanging and perfectly definite, or else non-existent. And then we would have decided that yes, this is correct. In an academic, abstract sense, that conclusion is the root of eternalism and nihilism. But no one actually begins that way, and hardly anyone has such a thought. Instead, we absorb confused stances from our culture as myriad patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting. Starting in childhood, we imitate other people who have adopted them, and they become habitual. The metaphysical errors are implicit. No philosophical reflection is required, and usually little is involved.
Coming to a correct conceptual understanding of meaningness is helpful for dissolving fixations, and for accepting what confused stances deny. Unfortunately, that is not sufficient, or even most of the work. The confusions are deeply ingrained in our cultures and societies, and in each of our own ways of being. Agreeing that a metaphysical error is mistaken doesn’t (by itself) eliminate its harms. There is some intellectual satisfaction in understanding the complete stance, but that is minor compared to its benefits for your life. (Which is why this book is not philosophy.)
Escaping confusion into a complete stance consists mainly of un-doing specific, habitual patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting, and replacing them with better ones. You resolve confusions by noticing, over and over, different ways you pretend not to see icky nebulosity; act as if it weren’t there; and are shocked when it screws up your plans. Having noticed, you find ways to allow yourself to see and accept it, and to think, feel, and act accordingly. This takes years.
Gradually you get more comfortable in the complete stance, and less willing to suffer in confused ones. You develop skill in applying the antidotes, and skill in feeling out how pattern and nebulosity intertwine in specific situations. On that basis, you understand better, experience positive emotions more often, and act increasingly effectively. Most of this chapter is methods for that.
Most confusions, and most problems, do not result from rejecting nebulosity. The methods of Meaningness apply only to ones that do. It is “not a general dialectic,” nor an all-purpose fix for everything wrong with your life.
However, wrong ideas about meaningness often cause unrealistic, failing attempts to solve even purely practical problems. We’ll see many specific examples later in the book. A brief, funny but sad one is the story of Fifi’s business plan, which seemed to make sense only because she was in the grip of the confused stance of mission.
With confused stances resolved, you are more likely to take accurate, effective, realistic action in situations where considerations of meaning play some role in the difficulties. This leads to level-headedness, confidence, spontaneity, and good humor—all characteristics of the complete stance.
Talking about completeness
I said that explaining the intrinsic appeal of the complete stance is “a bit awkward.” In this chapter, I cannot avoid words like wonder, awe, play, elation, and joy. You may have conflicted feelings about such terms. (I do!)
However, strong reactions, positive or negative, could obscure the message:
- These words may be inspiring—in an unhelpful way. They may make the complete stance sound like “Enlightenment,” something very fancy. Then it will remain remote, abstract, theoretical, rather than useful in everyday kitchen-sink life.
- They may sound kitschy and fake. They remind me of sentimental idealizations of childhood; dumbed-down New Age and Christian evangelizing; and “nice” versions of psychotherapy-ism. Yuck.
- The words may seem to invoke something special you lost, or never had. That could trigger a sense of hopeless longing.
- Or they may induce unrealistic urges to recover the specialness through extreme effort or esoteric endeavors.
- When the unrealism is obvious, the words may provoke cynicism: these are mere fantasies, probably employed to part fools from cash.
- Or derision: anyone who believes in “wonder” must be pretending to have some sort of superior “humanistic values,” but is actually a naive fool.
- Or dismissal: “wonder” is a thing, but it’s trivial kid stuff; responsible adults don’t have time to waste on it.1
- Or anger: it’s important, but unavailable because our society and culture are oppressive and dysfunctional.
- Or resentment, if you hear this as “you should feel wonder, instead of watching TV.” Who are you to tell me what I ought to feel?
- Or ridicule: attempts to inspire can easily veer into cringeyness.
All these emotional responses are natural and justified, I think. However, they obstruct my using the words in ways I hope you will come to find reasonable.
The reactions are manifestations of eternalism (the positive ones) or nihilism (the negative ones). For that very reason we can appropriate them to gain a clear understanding! That is: each of these is a correct reaction to some unhelpful way of interpreting the terms. Coming to understandings of “wonder” and the rest which do not provoke any of these responses—because they are neither eternalistic nor nihilistic—is an aim of this chapter.
The main part of this chapter describes textures of the complete stance. These are “what it is like”s; ways it can show up in different circumstances. They are intrinsically appealing, and this is where I have to use awkward words. All the ones above, plus for example:
- passionate involvement
- playfulness without trivialization
- an absurdist sense of humor; laughing in the face of adversity
- enjoyment of ambiguous circumstances that might otherwise cause anxiety
Looking ahead to more specific complete stances, they offer, for example:
- meaningful purpose without compulsion
- ethical ease
- humorous affection for one’s foibles
- light-hearted, effortless accomplishment
- benefits of religion without dysfunctional dogma
- heroism and nobility
- experience of flow, dancing with reality
I suggest open-minded skepticism toward such promises. Cynically dismissing them as advertising hype risks missing out on good things. Accepting them uncritically risks committing to yet another superficially attractive ideological system that can’t deliver. If they seem somewhat too good to be true, but not obviously nonsense, you can investigate by trying out the methods of this chapter. Curiosity implies suspending both faith and cynicism.
- 1.Wonder, play, joy, and the rest are typically more accessible for children than adults. Why, and what to do about it, are fascinating and important topics, but out of scope for this book.