Making Meaning

| July 23, 2016

It’s all so meaningless, we may as well be extraordinary. ~Francis Bacon

As I have before, I found myself again struggling with the term, “meaningful.” It is a term I use quite frequently in my writing when relating to the things I want to experience and to express in my work—the things I consider the most profound and important essences of living and creating. It seems only appropriate that I should be able to articulate what I mean by it.

Psychologist Eric Maisel, in discussing depression among creative people, wrote, “Creators have trouble maintaining meaning. Creating is one of the ways they endeavor to maintain meaning. In the act of creation, they lay a veneer of meaning over meaninglessness and sometimes produce work that helps others maintain meaning. This is why creating is such a crucial activity in the life of a creator: It is one of the ways, and often the most important way, that she manages to make life feel meaningful. Not creating is depressing because she is not making meaning when she is not creating.”

I’ve been contemplating Maisel’s words for some time. When I first read them, something didn’t quite seem right. If creators manage to find meaning, why do they have trouble maintaining it? Do the things we find to be meaningful at a point in time inevitably cease to be so after a while? And, as one who is convinced that existence as a human animal on a small planet in some insignificant part of the cosmos indeed is quite meaningless by any objective measure, and as someone who is not prone to superstition and myth, do my attempts at making meaning amount to self-deception?

Maisel may be relieved to know that after much thought I concluded that I agree with his points, albeit with a small caveat. Yes, I do believe that meaning is fleeting; that new meanings need to be found—and older ones reaffirmed or supplanted—with some consistency. And I do not believe that in considering my work or my life to be meaningful I am deceiving myself, despite believing that ultimately all existence—at least so far as we are given to understand it—is meaningless. The caveat, for me, is this: in my work I don’t make meanings, I express meanings found by other means.

 The paradox of meaning in a world that is—by any objective measure and rational analysis of reality as we know it—meaningless, is resolved only when meaning is asserted not in objective things, but in subjective experience at a point in time. My emotional gestalt—the sum of thoughts and feelings I experience right now, whether “real” or not—is the only thing I can defensibly consider as real and meaningful. Some meanings may persist as I journey in time, some may change and new ones may arise. My experience may be influenced by physical sensations, inner reflections, creative epiphanies, knowledge and speculation; but it can only be considered as meaningful in a subjective sense, and at the time I experience it.

This is not to argue with anyone who finds solace in faith or in mystical intuition about the meaning of existence and consciousness. I respect those who do and at times also considered such notions. For better or worse, however, my own mind is incapable of such leaps without at least a model that is convincingly consistent with objective, scientific, rationale. Anything I can plausibly doubt—or that does not reconcile with knowledge accomplished by reason—I am incapable of accepting as meaningful. Faith, to me, is not a fixed quantity; it is the gap between what I know and what I don’t know—a gap that, by definition, must constantly shift, adjust and change as my knowledge grows and evolves. I acknowledge, however, that some things will for ever remain unknowable to me, and in those I find philosophical thinking to be a more powerful tool for placing my wagers on what is most likely to be true than any fixed scripture.

In acknowledging that meaning is both subjective and transient, I can, in the words of Eric Maisel, “lay a veneer of meaning over meaninglessness,” and it is why I ultimately agree with his characterization.

As stated, I do not feel that in my work I am making meaning but rather expressing meaning—meaning found in subjective experience, only a small portion of which has to to directly with art. This is of great importance in explaining my choice (random and unintended as it was at the time) of photography as my means of expression. I do not doubt that, for many artists, engaging in creative work serves as a catalyst to great epiphanies and meaningful inner experiences. For me, however, the most profound experiences almost always are experienced in the wild, removed physically and emotionally from the mass of humanity. In the height of such fleeting sensations, photography is so far the best tool I found to express what inspires me, not by virtue of the camera’s power to capture objective appearances, but due to it being an intuitive means of employing literal aspects of the experience as visual metaphors for my inner feelings, in real time.

 As Maisel’s discussion explicitly links meaning with depression, I wish to also address this topic. I have been prone to episodes of depression for as long as I can remember, and long before I became an artist. What I concluded from personal experience, and what some likely may find difficult to reconcile, is that at times the solutions for depression may be worse than the problem. With quite a long history of self examination, as well as a good amount of research into the psychology (and to a degree also the physiology) of both happiness and depression, I came to believe that inner peace is not for everyone.

In the past I attempted to pursue inner peace as a goal, by means of meditation, and on the occasion that I managed to accomplish a semblance of it I learned this: it did not suit my temperament. More to the point of this essay, what I discovered is that I am not incapable of accomplishing inner peace, but that inner peace is—at least to a significant degree—incompatible with my emotional make up: despite finding the experience elevating, relaxing and joyous, it did not feel meaningful to me.

Depression is a severe and painful condition; it is a pain for which there is no equivalent in the physical realm, and those who do not have personal knowledge of it understandably may be dismissive of its, lacking a frame of reference. In severe cases depression can be fatal, too. Alas, having struggled with (at times severe) depression, I also realized that I could not live the idyllic life, not because it lacks in joy and satisfaction but because by nature I crave mystery and intense sensations, which to me are essential to a meaningful life; and I am willing to put up with a (quite high, at times) degree of inner conflict—even the occasional bout of utter misery—in order to experience them. I have come to accept that in order to experience the highest highs that I am capable of, it is necessary for me at times to also experience very low lows.

And so, when I use the term, “meaningful,” it is not as mere platitude, linguistic flourish, or for dramatic effect. What I am referring to are things—both joyous and painful—that are essential to my living experience; and without which I would not be the person that I am, let alone the artist that I am.

Outer Peace

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (10)

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  1. As usual, a thoughtful essay. Thank you, Guy.

    I’ve read Maisel. I’m a retired therapist who has long contemplated creativity. I appreciate Maisel’s study of creatives, but also remember he wrote The Atheist’s Way, which leads me to believe that he shares, at least a bit, the East Coast intellectual cynicism and belief that life is essentially meaningless.

    I don’t believe, as he does, that meaning is fleeting, rather that we should look on meaning, like creating, as a verb. As someone who both periodically experiences depression and works as a creative, I’ve found that meaning comes not from having created something, but from the act of creating itself.

    I believe that meaning unfolds as we engage in that which is meaningful to us. For the creative that happens as creativity. For a parent, it might come from parenting, and so on. This may sound like a tautology, but only if meaning can be nailed down as a thing that doesn’t change, which is a very euro-centric way of viewing the world. If we take the view that the act of creation brings meaning then relying of created works to give us meaning will inevitably lead to depression, or its lesser cousin, dissatisfaction. If we follow the path of creativity, meaning will arise and change as we create, but fail us if we don’t.

  2. Jack Larson says:

    When it comes to meaning, in the final analysis, you sound like Macbeth.

    — To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
    To the last syllable of recorded time;
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
    Signifying nothing.

    — Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)

    I think that the dimension of life that is empirically verifiable, that is limited to what is objective, scientific and rational, is just that, a dimension of life (and reality). I certainly respect your position. But I must also say that it does not come close to what I understand reality to be. I realize that you prefer to not get into this kind of discussion. But it is impossible for me to talk about creativity and meaning without such a discussion. Integral to the power of art is its capacity to transcend what is objective and rational. More than that; I find that great art transports me far beyond reason and what can be apprehended through the senses alone, and it brings great meaning to my life, meaning that never becomes meaningless.

  3. Dan Baumbach says:

    When we get that life ultimately has no meaning, then we can truly live and create. There is nothing to achieve. There is nothing to analyze. There is nothing to get. Some people retreat to caves. Some people walk into the ocean. Some people just live, freely.

  4. Fabio says:

    Beautiful thoughts! I always appreciate your writing expression. Thanks for sharing, Guy!

  5. Misha says:

    The Eric Maisel quote resonates with me. In relation thereto, I can draw only upon my own experiences: 1) if I haven’t created something in a while, I get very restless; 2) after I’ve created something, it loses its meaningfulness to me; 3) yes, I seem prone to bouts of depression as well.

    On this last point, I have been looking into mindfulness and meditation techniques to cope. The nagging thought in the back of my mind is that if I were to succeed in these endeavors, would it blunt or otherwise alter my creativity? I don’t particularly want to mess with that, so I’ve considered simply living with my temperament and dispositions they way the are now. Your thoughts on this provide an interesting perspective.

  6. John Wall says:

    We say meaningful when we should probably say fulfilling. Otherwise we confuse ourselves with the definition of “meaning,” ascribing logical attributes to it and thus killing both its spirit and our own. But I also believe we kill its spirit due to our own faith in so-called logical, objective reality. You say you can’t sustain a belief in something that’s inconsistent with an “objective, scientific” model — a model that posits an infinitely small “thing” called a singularity exploding some 14 billion years ago and expanding from elemental hydrogen to all of the other elements which coalesced into 100 billion galaxies where at least one planet formed under conditions in which the elements came to life and evolved into every living thing on the planet, including photographers.

    To me, inner peace is the fulcrum from which I experience depression and bliss and everything else my consciousness is capable of. Inner peace is the philosopher’s stone. A flock of colorful parrots can wheel in the sun above it. Magma can roil in the darkest depths below it. But the stone remains, always nourishing, in the center of it all.

  7. Thank you Guy, great and meaningful post as ever.

  8. Herb says:

    The tibetans do not have a word for poor self image or
    such. Their belief system, Buddhism, provides all the
    answers they need. I teach meditation to inmates; once I
    asked a group of about 12 to define happiness in two or three
    lines in just a minute or two. When the tablet with their answers
    made it back to me, the common thread was inner peace. It is
    and achievable state, but requires a steady routine of developing

  9. Jeannine says:

    You express so perfectly what i have often felt but for which i have no words. The accecptance of not being at peace, is peaceful.