In my twenties I took a significant number of courses with Landmark Education. The introductory course, the Landmark Forum, is a 3-day event that is carefully constructed to walk participants through complex theoretical concepts – that are familiar to philosophers of all stripes – in a way that makes them coherent and practical. Perhaps the most primary concept is the idea that life is “empty and meaningless.”
At first mention, this idea seems to rob our experience of any value; it appears to be saying that there is nothing good or true or worthwhile about living, loving, or any aspect of being human. But that’s a flawed understanding of the concept. What’s required to grapple with this idea in a way that frees us from the pitfall of despair is stepping completely out of the paradigm that inserts meaning into our life experience as a matter of course — a paradigm that operates so invisibly that it denies its own presence. To feel despair in the face of the concept “life is empty and meaningless” is the result of making it mean something that there’s no inherent meaning in anything. The only way that “empty and meaningless” can be recognized as a workable concept is to measure it from its own criteria: it is empty and meaningless THAT it’s empty and meaningless! It doesn’t mean anything that it doesn’t mean anything.
That life doesn’t “mean anything” is not a condemnation of the experience; it doesn’t invalidate life in any way whatsoever. The whole premise here is that the life experience we are attempting to examine is actually a field of pure potentiality; it doesn’t possess any inherent, objectively measurable significance, because it is, contains, and creates endless possibility. We can, and do, make of it what we will. From the paradigm of “it’s empty and meaningless that life is empty and meaningless,” there is no escape from the totality of freedom of interpretation — just as (in contrast) from the starting paradigm that we do and must “make meaning” of life, there is no escape from the totality of interpretation.
I’m spending time explaining this because I recently encountered a presentation stating that we humans “make up meaning” out of what other people say or do, and that this meaning is pure fabrication. On the surface, I agree, BUT I’ve personally had the fortune of having been hand-held through the minefield of unpacking the revelation that we make meanings up about anything and everything. And it is a minefield! Without fleshing the concept out completely, without recognizing that there isn’t any meaning to the fact that we make up meaning, there is a real danger of getting lost in an assumption of the “fallacy” of our experience. This is what leads to despair, and it’s unnecessary!
To address this issue clearly and succinctly, I’d state it like this:
* We can’t help but make meaning out of what we experience in life, be it our own or others thoughts, words, and deeds. You might say that human beings are “meaning-making machines.”
* This meaning-making is inevitable, unavoidable, and ultimately arbitrary, in that in the world where meaning is made, all meanings are possible — and remain possible, even as some are more frequently selected.
* If meaning-making is what we must and will do, and all meanings are possible, then there is room for us to select meanings that reinforce whatever (larger) meaning we elect to make.
* As participants in a life experience in which we in fact DON’T get to say WHETHER we make meaning, we DO get to say WHAT meaning we make!