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.
This page is outdated. The text below is from the first, 2007 draft of Meaningness. My understanding of the material has changed since then, and the style I write in too. Someday I would like to rewrite this; but I hope the 2007 version may be adequate for now.
A good question… Or is it?
If you look for answers—in books, on the web, from supposed experts—everyone will agree:
Mistaken ideas about meaningness inhibit creativity, constrict your life, and make you miserable. This book is meant as a practical manual for overcoming these confused stances, liberating you from their negative effects. It offers specific antidotes for particular confusions.
A “stance” is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting. Each of the three reinforces the others two, and helps maintain the stance.
Most methods in this book introduce conceptual understandings that change thinking. However, I’ll make some suggestions about working with feelings and actions too.
The main method is to become familiar with the thoughts, feelings, and patterns of activity characteristic of each confused stance, so that you notice them as they occur; and then choose to think, feel, and act differently. Simply remembering that there is a better alternative—a complete stance—is often most of the battle. However, it’s also necessary to understand how and why this alternative is better, and that can take some work. If the complete stances were obviously better, no one would adopt the confused ones.
This book is about meaningness. “Meaningness” is a word I invented, referring to the quality of being meaningful and/or meaningless.
The word “meaning” has two quite different meanings in English. It can refer to the meaning of symbols, such as words and road signs. This book is not about that kind of meaning.
People also speak of “the meaning of life.” That is the sort of meaningness this book is about. So I apply “meaningness” only to the sorts of things one could describe as “deeply meaningful” or “pretty meaningless.” The book is about matters such as purpose, ethics, and selfhood.
Meaningness is a quality, not a thing. I don’t think there is a definite meaning of life. Meaningness is always nebulous: indefinite, uncertain, ambiguous.
The suffix -ness constantly reminds one of this nebulosity. I mostly avoid the word “meaning,” because it builds in the assumption that something meaningful has one specific meaning. Often, that is wrong.
Two years ago, well into a mainly happy marriage, you began a secret affair.
The attraction was overwhelming. The sex was scalding. You loved with a passion you had never felt before.
Your lover—also married—understood parts of you that your spouse did not. You were able to be a different person. You explored aspects of your personality that you had never been able to express before. You made different sorts of jokes. You went on adventurous dates, trying things your spouse—who you knew was sweet but a bit dull when you got married—would never have agreed to do.
After a year and a bit, the passion waned. Your secret meetings began to feel slightly repetitive. You found that your personalities would not be compatible in the long term. You wanted quite different things out of life.
It began to seem you were going through the motions. You had one meaningless fight about nothing. Then you discussed the future, and agreed to end the affair on good terms.
I feel a great disturbance in the Force, as if tens of millions of people suddenly started spouting nonsense. I fear something terrible has happened.
I could be wrong. I have no statistics. But in the past few years, suddenly I hear seemingly sensible people going about saying “ultimately, it’s all one, isn’t it?” and “when you find your true self, you find the whole universe,” and “all religions teach the same truth.”
Some think they are Christians, and seem unaware that these ideas directly contradict core principles of Christianity. Some think they are Buddhists, and believe these are Buddhist principles. They get indignant when I tell them that Buddhism says the opposite. Most are “spiritual but not religious,” or choose not to put themselves into any category.
Both these stances are wrong, factually. They are also unworkable, in their implications for living.
However, almost everyone falls into them at times, triggered by particular contexts. Each stance is based on genuine insights, and a powerful, emotionally appealing pattern of thinking. They also can seem to be the only possible alternatives, so we are forced into one by the repulsive qualities of the other.
Understanding the logic of eternalism and nihilism, and the resolution of the fundamental problem they address, is key to unlocking the material covered in this book. Because they are simple and extreme, the logic of these two stances is particularly clear. The other confused stances arise mainly as failing attempts to find some compromise between them.