Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner


Originally posted on June 25, 2013

We all make meaning as instinctively and intuitively and largely unconsciously, just as we generate the illusion of a self and other illusions, such as reality being out there (objective) rather than in-here (subjective). The unconscious mind is unbelievably fast and powerful—this Freud got right, Groddek even more so, and contemporary psychologists, while disagreeing with Freud on many of his conclusions, agree with Freud on this one.

Meaning seems like it’s something that can be expressed as logically coherent ideas, and it can be that a little, but mainly it is a sensation, a sense that things hang together rather than are fragmented. As I said, this bridges over to a sense of self, and so forth. Most people feel that life is adequately meaningful, if you don’t push them to explain why in any tightly logical fashion. It’s a kluge-job, an assemblage of cliches, of general themes and perceptions that work, they satisfy. When they don’t satisfy, then the person embarks on a quest.

Note that the quest need not go all that far: Sometimes a new preacher, help in re-centering in the religion with one is most familiar—that’s all that’s needed. Sometimes a change in the local church, or the denomination, or even a new religion satisfies. Rarely the sense of seeking meaning precipitates a quest into philosophy, a path that to varying degrees savors self-doubt the way a refined palate among gourmet dishes may savor tastes that edge on the unpalatable for the non-adventurous.

Meaning as a word tends to imply a plausible “meta-narrative,” an ability to explain what it’s all about. In fact, it can’t be done—well, not to everyone’s satisfaction. Many meaning systems satisfy enough people to be recognized as a philosophy of life, a religion, or maybe just a cult—it depends on how many are involved. Words are really social constructs that imply their own status. My great truth may seem like just another wacky idea to you.

But if we recognize that we make meaning, implicitly, just to stay oriented; and that this may involve assumptions that cannot easily be framed in words; then the inventor of the system of individual psychology in the 1920s, Alfred Adler, was right when he noted that all children generate provisional answers to the following four questions:
1. Who am I? A winner, loser, entitled to care, worthless?
2. Who are other people? Helpful, competitive, nurturing, demeaning?
3. What’s the world about? A fun and easeful adventure? Hell? Give up imagination so you can work? A lifelong struggle? A victimhood to innumerable injustices?
(And, given provisional answers to these first three…)
4. What’s the best way for me to cope with others and the world? Fight, give in, mope, whine?

The problem of course is that who we were as immature children biases us towards over-simplified answers and no-shades of gray. As we grow, most people modify their preliminary conclusions a bit—they should far more, but actually most don’t very much! Becoming more conscious of the underlying assumptions and how they contribute to personal meaning is a worthy adult task that has not yet been widely recognized as something that should be part of the human condition.

Meaning then may be best thought of not as the discovery of a final meaning, as if anyone else’s “answer” can and should function as one’s own answer. True meaning is a creation of the individual as an ongoing process, like life, like discovering authenticity rather than believing and living according to what parents or peers believed. This requires taking on an extra degree of responsibility, and most folks don’t want much of that. For most people there’s some compromise here. For a few, struggling to find ever more coherent and resilient meanings becomes, well, meaningful, relevant, interesting, fun. (See )  It is for me.

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