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The Paradox of Meaning - The Importance of a Clear Definition

April 12, 2017

Traditional definitions of meaning resort to the use of nouns such as “significance,” “value,” “quality,” or “implication”—which, far from illuminating the underlying concept, beg further definition. 

The experience of meaning has been no less difficult to pin down and many have made the attempt to do so: “Happiness is found in doing, not merely possessing” (Napoleon Hill). “Happiness is like a cloud, if you stare at it long enough, it evaporates” (Sarah McLachlan). “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product” (Eleanor Roosevelt). “Happiness is a direction, not a place” (Sydney J. Harris). “The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise. It is not that we seize them but that they seize us” (Ashley Montague). “Everyone chases after happiness, not noticing that happiness is right at their heels” (Bertolt Brecht). 

Victor Frankl aptly summed up the elusive nature of meaning when he said that it “cannot be pursued, it must ensue.” He noted that there is a sense in which one must “let it happen by not caring about it.” In other words, meaning is not an end in itself, but is the experience of another end. 
But what is that end and why is this experience important?

If we proceed under the assumption that we will know meaning when we experience it, or can find it by understanding how not to find it, such as in the above definitions, then meaning will largely be an accidental and coincidental part of our lives—and we may confuse experiences that feel good but are physically and spiritually unhealthy, such as overindulgence or addiction, with the wholesome experience that is meaning. 
Knowing what something is not, just like knowing what something is like, is not the same thing as knowing what it is. Meaning is an experience that is best not backed into, but looked into.

A clear conception of what it means to find life meaningful will provide insight into what actions will be most likely to cultivate meaning. It will also enable one to better discern those activities that promise to make life meaningful but will not, or may be harmful. As we shall see, a clear definition of meaning will eliminate many of the conventional paths by which many seek to achieve it. It will also allow one to reason one’s way to meaning in any situation rather than blindly following an opaque code of conduct whose relation to meaning is unclear.

More than this, clarity brings conviction. 

Like many young men, I looked for meaning in all the wrong places: the ego, the emotions, and the senses. I found that I could be stimulated without being pleased, pleased without being happy, happy without being satisfied, and satisfied without being fulfilled. I knew that hedonism felt empty and recognized that self-indulgence did not bring lasting satisfaction. But knowing that one ought not to do one thing, or take one course of action, is nowhere near as compelling as understanding the way one should go. 

Once I understood the difference between pleasure and meaning, the allure of pleasure faded because its false promise became clear. Pleasure has its place, but because I had put it in its proper place, I was no longer distracted or deceived in my pursuit of meaning. I was able to turn my attention from anesthetizing the soul to feeding it. 

If meaning is the food of the soul, then what is it that the soul is hungering for and in what way does meaning feed it?

We’ll look at this topic next.

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