[[This is an experiment. Generally I write and edit and write and edit and edit some more and then publish. I’m working on this in public; parts will probably only be comprehensible to me while that’s happening..]]
I’ve been sporadically preoccupied with the big Why Bother questions since high school: What’s worth doing? Why bother to act? What justifies itself in the face of the imminent heat death of the universe. (Well, maybe not always the latter.)
This has lead through the decades to a slow motion analysis of the meaning of meaning.
My initial thoughts were shaped by three books I found in the paperback rack in my father’s drug store when I was a high school freshman: Alan Watt’s Psychotherapy East and West, RD Laing’s Politics of Experience, and Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections.
It should be obvious from what follows which one of the three had the biggest influence.
I will still argue that Jung is inappropriately dismissed as unscientific. His basic mechanism of the Self, particularly as elaborated by his collaborator Erich Neumann, is an auto-regulatory system, an explicitly compensatory mechanism, that kicks in when the personality becomes lopsided and fore-grounds and integrates needed but excluded and/or under-developed aspects of the person.
Life is not a matter of holding good cards but of playing a poor hand well. – Robert Lewis Stevenson
Paragraph form: You are a bag of parts; much assembly required. That’s it. Human beings are a genetically randomized collection of traits. There is no guarantee that the bag of parts you received is optimized to fit together or even optimized to work at all. We have a cognitive bias to assume we’re a unity. (It is very likely that there’s a strong ‘instinctual’ force that seeks to bind us together. Unfortunately, that task is not guaranteed to be easy.)
Outline form: Starting set: Identity
Human beings are a genetically randomized collection of traits. You are a bag of part.
The upside, there is no one else exactly like you. Human beings are genetically unique even without elements of culture and personal biography.
Probably. Estimates on the number of the human genotypes range from near 1 trillion to 70+ trillion unique possibilities. If you exclude non-viable combinations, I suspect that this number would drop singificantly. But, of course, the impact of culture, experience including birth order, etc, pump uniqueness back up.
There is no guarantee this set of traits will work well for you; it essentially presents you with your unique bag of parts and assembly is left as an exercise. The more an organism is open to learning and culture, the looser the knit.
We have a cognitive and emotional bias to assume we’re a unity. This may not be superficial but, particularly in the emotional component, may itself be an evolutionary mechanism aiming at knitting it all together.
Paragraph form: Meaning is a human activity. We act as if it is a discovery and, although it presents itself as found, it is built not found. Meaning is fundamentally a social construct and, if all goes smoothly, it provides reasonably stress free guidance to the individual. If that fails, the individual is forced back upon whatever resources they have or can discover.
Outline form: Starting Set: Meaning.
Meaning is a human activity; not a property of the ‘external’ world.
There are both individual and social components to meaning construction. There is not necessarily a single system.
Meaning is most easily constellated by the ‘tribe.’ This can be authentically in the individual’s best interest…we are fundamentally tribal animals…but it is also the mechanism where our energy is re-purposed for other interest’s projects.
In a narrow contexts (a company, a battle) connection and progress constellate out in a way that easily can provide direction.
(From a certain perspective all meaning might fit this description.)
Corporations succeed by harnessing this tribal energy.
Games provide a parallel with simple goals and clear conditions for their achievement. Every game can be considered an experiment in social engineering.
‘Individual’ meaning is a different process and is frequently driven by the failure of social meaning.
Social meaning as a determining force for individuals can break down either through cultural collapse or shift or through a strong mismatch between the individual and the surrounding culture.
Paragraph form: Apparently clashing values are a problem only if they lead to contradictory impulses to action. There are often schisms through our belief systems. Some derive from personal biography, some from our culture, some from the nature of our species or any embodied being in a context of forward moving time and physical space. It is only when we find ourselves actively on both sides of a schism, that we are challenged. It is only then that we are given the opportunity to seek/forge deeper meaning. There is, of course, no guarantee that our solutions will be totally successful.
Outline form: Contradiction:
Our individual and cultural value systems are frequently riddled with apparently conflicting values.
An apparent conflict between parts is not necessarily a conflict.
Take two ideas as an example. ‘The King is generous’ and ‘The King is cruel’, considered as being in opposition are no particular problem unless the impulse “Kill the King” is added to the mix. Now one belief supports and one opposes the action. Until a contradiction is activated, it is not necessarily a contradiction at all.
In my experience, our belief systems are riddled with similar contradictions.
Some of those could be considered personal, some cultural, some existential.
The personal contradictions imposed by the demands of job, family, etc, tend to need resolution first with the cultural following similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Contradictions might be unresolvable.
They might be based on accurate observations of a complex phenomena
The world might not only be stranger than we understand but stranger than we can understand. Our contradictory descriptions, no matter how rigorously developed, might be the best we can do with an limited tool set. Modern physics might be an example of this problem.
There is a tendency to retreat from the painful context that might force a search for individually-driven meaning generation into cheap social meaning, e.g. games, work, spectator sports, etc.
Given the context of “some assembly required” and likely contradiction and internal conflict, it is reasonable to hypothesize a system that works to knit together and harmonize the components of human personality.
Jung hypothesized this specifically and called it the archetype of Self.
Jung’s Self had the power to channel conflicting components towards synthesized whole. His interest in the mandala reflects an interest in systems that put many components into a patterned whole.
Confronting our contradictions, we generally work from the personal ‘down’ into the collective. Unless your culture is in the midst of a open crisis, the demands of our personal biography trump cultural schisms. Once the personal is reconciled, however, the cultural issues come to the fore.
The downward movement is what Jung called Building Soul and he defines the Soul as a organ of the psyche that gives depth by connecting the individual to deeper collective currents.
The division between personal and collective is, of course, complex and multi-layered…and somewhat arbitrary. The personal is simply an instance of the collective and the collective is the sum of the personal. Conflicts and contradictions do not exist in the abstract no matter how abstractly we work with them. They are always embodied.
When our personal contradictions span emerging or existing cultural divides, the work to heal and harmonize can gain significant additional intensity (often painful intensity) but, also, the work to heal and harmonize can feel powerfully meaningful.
Jung and Campbell described this as the Hero’s Journey
The first stage is often individual crisis and confusion. The present is in some manner intolerable but the future is clouded and the hero must depart from the known world and seek the vision or tools or guidance that allows him/her to move forward.
This is the most individual form of meaning generation: the puzzles are often collective (contradictions in our culture), occasionally individual (warring traits) but the solutions are always sparked by individual blood, sweat, tears, and imagination.
Jung’s Individuation vs Cambell’s Hero’s Journey
Jung focuses on the introverted side: internal contradictions (generated by either personal contradictions or the ‘introjection’ of cultural divides) are resolved into awareness. Hero stories are about that process.
Campbell focuses on the extroverted side. Some rupture sends the hero out to triumph and return and revitalize the culture.