Wrong ideas about meaningness show up as pairs of polarized, opposite stances. These appear to be extreme views. Surely the truth can be found somewhere between?
Unfortunately, no. The error underlying all confused stances is their refusal to allow nebulosity. Even if some middle ground could be found, it too would reject nebulosity, and so would also be unworkable.
In fact, it’s usually impossible to find a “middle” position anyway. In each pair of confused stances, one categorically denies what the other fixates.
For instance, the stance of true self holds that there is a mysterious essence of the person; the stance of selflessness holds that there is none. The reality of selfness might be described as “between” these extremes, once it is found. But “in the middle” is not a helpful hint for where to look. What is halfway between existence and non-existence?1
To resolve confusions about meaningness, the helpful instruction is to head in the direction of nebulosity. Since both true self and selflessness are evasions of nebulosity, that direction is at right angles to the line between them.
Some confused stances do arise as attempts at compromise, or at balancing or synthesizing two extremes. I call these “muddled middles.”
Here’s an example.
- The stance of mission holds that only “eternal” purposes are really meaningful. Its emotional payoff is that you get to feel morally superior and special for pursuing only lofty goals. Its cost is a failure to engage with the mundane aspects of life. Those aspects can be highly satisfying, and can become messy problems for yourself and others if neglected.
- The mirror-image stance, materialism, holds that only “mundane” purposes are really meaningful. Its emotional payoff is the simplicity and directness of pursuing your own pleasures. Its cost is losing the benefits of eternal purposes, for oneself and others.
- The muddled middle mingles materialism and mission, and fixates both of them. It is the attempt to satisfy both eternal and mundane purposes simultaneously. For example, you might pursue fame leading a media campaign to save starving Africans, or pursue groupies and a lucrative recording contract as an “alternative” “rebellious” musician.
In fact, most motivations are mixed. When pursuing eternal purposes, one usually hopes for some mundane reward, even if it is only a casual compliment from a friend. This is often sleazy and covert. Authentic compassion and creativity are possible; but there is generally a self-aggrandizing tendency operating at the same time.
This muddled middle preserves both the self-righteous justification of mission and the self-indulgent, self-protective grasping of materialism. So it combines the emotional payoffs of its parent stances. But it also combines their costs. It tends to lose the uncomplicated enjoyment-value of animal satisfaction (because you have to pretend that is not what you seek), and also the unselfconscious compassionate joy of accomplishing eternal purposes (because you have subordinated those to a materialist agenda).
The complete stance that resolves the mission-materialism polarity also recognizes both eternal and mundane purposes. However, it allows both to be nebulous. It strips both sorts of purposes of their selfish emotional payoffs, and also avoids the unnecessary emotional costs of both mission and materialism.
- 1. Buddhism often speaks of a “middle way” between extremes, including the extremes of existence and non-existence. Although this can be useful when understood in specific Buddhist contexts, it seems unhelpful and potentially confusing elsewhere. For instance, in Western thought, based in Christianity and Ancient Greek philosophy, moderation in all things is often recommended. I am not a great fan of moderation; that is not the resolution I recommend in this book. The “complete stance” I advocate accepts and incorporates extremes. In this, my approach is more similar to those of Nietzsche and Vajrayana Buddhism than to the Western or Buddhist mainstreams.