We Find Life Amazing
(Exactly as It Is)
Let me summarize my version of the atheist's way. You adopt the attitude I've been describing: you announce that you are the sole arbiter of meaning in your life, you nominate yourself as the hero of your own story, and you give up all religions and supernatural enthusiasms. You expunge all language of that sort from your life. You stand up as a simple human being who must earn her own sense of pride and heroism, and you make an effort to identify how you want to represent yourself and which values you want to manifest.
You create a life purpose statement that, for the present moment at least, captures your best understanding of how you want to live. You decide how to implement your life purpose statement, fully understanding that there can be no guarantees about your choices panning out. You turn those decisions into actions, doing whatever is necessary to implement them, from walking away from your job to reestablishing contact with your sister to slogging through the writing of your first novel. You maintain a picture in your head of who you want to be, and you become that person.
You also do all the following. You become expert at noticing, embracing, and reducing anxiety, because you do not want to let anxiety get in the way of your meaning-making efforts. You become a cognitive expert and come as close as you can to getting a grip on your mind, extinguishing any self-talk that doesn't serve you. You become a relationship expert, a mood expert, an addictions expert, a mental health expert: in short, you strive to make yourself wise in everything human.
At every stage, you make decisions. You never say, "What is meaningful?" With the question framed that way, the answer is, "Nothing." What you are saying when you frame the question that way is that you are unwilling to choose the next ordinary human experience to back. There are only ordinary human experiences to select and nothing that is meaningful until you imbue it with meaning. There is only a choice to make, a best guess, an estimate, an existential decision. Are you unsure whether renting that studio across town and resuming your painting career will prove a meaningful avenue, given that you haven't painted in years? Who wouldn't be uncertain? You do it anyway, if it is your best guess that painting is a smart meaning choice. Want a guarantee? Join another species. Our species just makes decisions.
This is how you make meaning. There is no other way, no fancier way, no more sublime way. You decide that you will fight the current regime, and you fight it. You decide that you will love this man or this woman, and you enter into the relationship honorably, clear in your agreements, clear in the understanding that you both must pull your weight, certain that you will not be a pest, cruel, or anything less than you would wish to be. You decide something, and then you live up to it, letting your experience of it determine whether or not you will keep investing meaning in it.
Maintaining meaning is not some esoteric or magical process. We frame it in the context of ordinary human experience, we put aside our wishes for human nature, life, or the universe to be different, we spare ourselves the false high of supernatural enthusiasm and the painful low of distaste for reality, and we do the work required to keep meaning afloat. We invest new meaning here, we reinvest meaning there, we divest meaning from an enterprise that has let us down, all the while keeping our eyes on how we want to represent ourselves. We name and then accomplish our next heroic (but ordinary) task.
It is true that we will experience pain. It is also true that we can experience joy. It is true that we are obliged to witness too much injustice in the world. It is also true that we can stand up for our cherished values and make ourselves proud. It is true that what matters to us often involves us in great difficulty. It is also true that we can appreciate our human-size efforts. Our glass is completely full of everything, from the mundane to the exhilarating. We have a word for all this: amazing. We do not know why the universe opted to make a creature that can suffer from a toothache one day and rouse his fellow human beings to righteousness the next, but here we are.
If we possessed a range of experience bound by boredom on the one side and terror on the other, we might be inclined to throw in the towel and say to nature, "Sorry, this life you created isn't worth my time. I'd rather return my material (and, by the way, can I get a refund?)." But our endowment is tremendously rich. It includes the possibility of love and the reality of love. It includes the experience of beauty and the chance to create beauty. It includes a good nap one hour and an invigorating struggle to make meaning the next. It includes everything, really.
This is indeed amazing. That the universe has created a creature that can sit on her sofa, picture her future, and say, "I would like to spend a lifetime devoted to meditative sculpting" or "I would like to spend a lifetime exposing scoundrels" is worth a round of applause. It is a mundane fact that most people will not make use of their chance to make meaning. But, amazingly enough, that chance remains open to them for as long as they live. They can cash that chip in any time they want. That, too, is amazing. You may spend decades not engaged in the project of your life and, remarkably enough, that does not prevent you from starting now. You have enough brain plasticity left, enough courage, enough everything.
If we were to list every difficulty, crisis, and catastrophe that you will face in your life, we would paint one picture of your life, one that would seem unbearable. If we were to list every joy, pleasure, and delight you will experience in your life, we would paint another sort of picture, the snake oil salesman's picture, a picture of life as a bed of roses. Reality encompasses all of the above, and that is amazing in its own right. It is amazing that we can do philosophy, eat a ripe fig, feel sorrow, vanish into the world of a movie, dance, cry over a few drops of spilled milk, and rise to the occasion. Reality bites, but it is also remarkable.
Imagine a young boy or girl of sixteen or seventeen bombarded by what young boys and girls today are bombarded by: celebrity nonsense; forced piety on the weekends; endless sexual innuendo and sexual energy; the blandishments of gadgets and things; school subjects of no interest; nothing really demanded of them and nothing really presented to them that strikes a deep chord; their days filled with text messages, algebra homework, and gossip. They are self-conscious, body conscious, self-critical, and half-empty, since nothing around them is nourishing them. Are they in a good position to make meaning? Hardly!
Twenty years pass in the blink of an eye. They find themselves adrift, blue, confused, overwhelmed, indifferent, phenomenally busy, and radically empty: that is our contemporary adult. When were they supposed to find the way to stop and examine their situation? Who was there to speak up for their existential responsibilities and to explain to them the art of making meaning? They have learned certain realities - about raising children, earning a living, dealing with their dark moods, plunging back into the dating pool -- but something central is missing. They are bereft of meaning.
A crucial step is letting go of god-talk, supernatural enthusiasms, wishful thinking, easy comfort, and the other blandishments of our fantasizing mind, a mind perfectly capable of turning a peal of thunder into god's anger and dappled sunlight into god's good graces. You step fully out of that language, banishing it from your mind, and step into the language of meaning. Instead of saying, "Where can I find something that will finally make me feel alive?" you say, "What great meaning adventure can I plan?"
This is amazing, and it is also daunting. For no reason that we will ever know, except in the limited sense that science will explain it to us one day, we have popped onto the planet aware of our means and our ends, aware of our tricks and our talents, aware of how little the universe needs us to accomplish and how much we can do, plopped down here exactly like clowns in an absurdist play, too foolish and too wise to be believed. Let us make our situation even more daunting - and even more amazing - by advocating for this precise paradigm shift and by encouraging an explosion of meaning-making everywhere, in our schools, in our professions, in our homes, and first of all, in our own lives.
We need many things in life, among them basics like food, water, and oxygen. Another of our pressing needs is to feel that life holds meaning. If we do not meet that need, we feel lifeless, listless, and even suicidal. How can we meet this crucial need? By reframing it as an opportunity to fashion a life that matches our belief system. Instead of seeking meaning, as if it were lost, or accepting received meaning, as if other people had the answer, we boldly make meaning and treat meaning as a decision. As soon as we decide that meaning can be made and that it is in our power to make it - right now, right here - we discover that we can meet this pressing human need for meaning entirely from our own resources.
We have missed noticing that a lot of what ails us is rooted in meaning problems and not mental health problems. Depression, anxiety, addictions, personality shortfalls such as a lack of confidence, persistent procrastination, and confusion about life choices all represent meaning-making difficulties. Transforming yourself into a passionate meaning-maker is the solution to these meaning problems. When you make that change, you alter your relationship to life and begin to heal the pain that meaninglessness brings. Making personal meaning is not only the key to authentic living but also the best path to psychological health. The instant you decide to make meaning, you start to grow healthier.
You make personal meaning when you uphold your cherished values. What are those values? Most people have never stopped to articulate them. The key to making meaning is learning how to identify your values so that you really - and maybe finally - know what you stand for and what you want to manifest in your life. Once you create a compelling life purpose statement that captures your intentions and begin to live that life purpose statement, then you feel confident that your important values are motivating your current behavior. You know exactly where you are, existentially speaking, and you feel calm and purposeful.
Your next five minutes can feel meaningful to you - or they can feel like a waste of time. This day can feel meaningful to you or it can feel like another day of going through the motions. Your existential job is learning how to make meaning investments in the increments of time available to you. By learning the art of investing real time with real meaning, you learn a new life skill, perhaps the most important one you will ever learn. In this way you move from psychological motivation ("My mother didn't love me") to existential motivation ("This project matches my values"), freeing yourself from depression, doubt, and negativity.
The ability to make personal meaning often collides with the kinds of work available to a human being. You can become a doctor, a lawyer, a novelist, a baker, or a project manager, but you can't be everything and, whatever choice you make, you must deal with the realities that come with that brand of work. Great existential heartbreak arises when we throw ourselves into work that doesn't meet our meaning needs, that isn't as rich as we had hoped it would be, or that can't be sustained because it isn't rewarded or doesn't pay. When this happens, we experience a meaning crisis and must take charge of the moment, either by reinvesting meaning in our work (and meeting its precise challenges) or by making a new meaning investment elsewhere. What we must not do is stand defeated. Possessing a vision of what you want your life to mean, a sense of the activities that support your meaning needs, and knowledge of the art of making meaning, you create a working blueprint for your meaningful life.
This plan is infinitely flexible: you modify it as your values, your circumstances, and your understanding shift and change. Will you make the same meaning investments at seventy that you made at twenty? Maybe yes, maybe no. Might you value something more if it's suddenly threatened and might it recede in importance when its safety seems secured? Certainly. The essence of authentic living is that you treat life like a creative project every bit as beautiful as the symphony you might compose or the novel you might write. Your blueprint is your current working outline: your life is the actual creation.
You maintain meaning by holding the long view in the present moment. You may be baking a potato, answering an email, or waiting in line at the supermarket, but you still know what you stand for, what your meaning intentions are, and how you want to manifest your potential. Therefore you are calm, centered, and satisfied, even though what you are doing is routine or unexciting. By holding the long view in the present moment and by always standing ready to make the meaning you intend to make, you learn to switch gears effortlessly and turn directly, without theatrics or procrastination, to your most cherished meaning-making activities.
A savvy stock market investor needs to know when to buy, when to sell, which market indicators to believe, and what an idea like "diversification" means. In exactly the same way, a savvy meaning-maker needs to understand the language of meaning and be able to monitor meaning events in her own life: to notice when a meaning leak has occurred, to know how to make new meaning investments, and so on. Investing meaning is a core term in our new vocabulary of meaning, a language that allows us to talk to ourselves and to each other about meaning. If, one day, this new vocabulary becomes widely shared, we will finally be able to enter into fruitful existential conversation.
Each of us feels rich: we can think, we can create, we can form opinions, we can imagine, we can innovate, we can act -- even heroically. If we are prevented from manifesting that potential by our society, by our personality shortfalls, by anything at all -- we get depressed and feel cheated. Passionately making meaning is the answer. By forthrightly announcing your meaning intentions, you begin to mobilize your resources in the service of your intentions. When you decide to matter, you provide yourself with exactly the right motivation and, as a result, you experience increased energy, creativity, and productivity.
To meet your meaning needs and align with your meaning intentions, you have to fearlessly expend energy, produce adrenaline, and grow productively obsessed when obsession is called for. Making personal meaning sometimes entails round-the-clock work on behalf of a cause, full exhaustion in the service of a creative project, or hard mental labor as you craft the strong thing you want to say. Even productive people harbor a primitive fear of expending their capital on work of their own choosing, saving exhaustion for their "day job." With a new willingness to spend your personal capital on your own meaning-making efforts comes a new level of motivation and commitment.
We accomplish all this under the banner of atheism, thankful that there are no gods to control us, undermine us, punish us, or divert us from the construction of a righteous life full of passion and purpose. When we hear god-talk, we reject it; when we see a supernatural error committed, we expose it; when believers betray their common humanity with us by acting as if they possess some special news about the universe, we exclaim, "How dare you!" We let the thousands of gods invented by humankind sink into the sunset, and we demand of our fellow human beings that they do not browbeat us with their fictions.
Ideas that were birthed during the Enlightenment led people to question the existence of gods, the rights of kings, and the nature of meaning. Now that we have had sufficient time to ponder the past several centuries, we are ready to describe a new individualism, one that matches our experience as actors in our own lives, responsible for creating our own meaning. We are ready to accept this responsibility, and we smile, in recognition of the astounding journey that we get to make as the creators of our own meaning. I hope that you will join me in supporting this paradigm shift by announcing - loudly, roundly, and first of all to yourself -"I make my own meaning!" No announcement is more amazing or more triumphant.
This, then, is my version of the atheist's way. I think that it is a realistic, unsentimental, arduous, and beautiful way that allows for love, good works, and human-size happiness. At the same time it avoids humbug, especially the crippling and dangerous humbug of god-talk. Take from my version whatever makes sense to you, and heroically fashion your own atheist's way.
Residing as you do in a universe without gods, you must take the lead in creating yourself, making your meaning, and living your ethics. Nothing less than your righteousness and your happiness are at stake. Aren't you glad that the universe has entrusted these tasks to you and not to some squabbling gods or mountain sprites? Good luck on your atheist's way - may you make yourself proud!