Interlocking needs

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We see a similar process with regard to the search for meaning. The intensity of the need for an unfettered search to explore the meaning of life is evident as soon as a child learns the rudiments of language. No sooner do words begin to make sense than children discover the magical power of the question “why?” How quickly most adults tire of this amazing question that so logically leads to its own repetition.

There’s a wonderful, most likely apocryphal, story that the philosopher William James, after a lecture on natural causation, was approached by an elderly woman:

[She] told him the Earth rested on the back of a huge turtle. “But, my dear lady”, Professor James asked, as politely as possible, “what holds up the turtle?” “Ah”, she said, “that’s easy. He is standing on the back of another turtle.” “Oh, I see”, said Professor James, still being polite. “But would you be so good as to tell me what holds up the second turtle?” “It’s no use, Professor”, said the old lady, realizing he was trying to lead her into a logical trap. “It’s turtles-turtles-turtles, all the way!” — Robert Anton Wilson, Prometheus

Likewise, it’s “why’s” all the way down. Once one begins to question, there’s no reason to stop wondering why yet again. I often wonder if what accounts for human evolution is as much a matter of our insatiable curiosity as it is more commonly cited features such as the development of language. As much as it is possible that our curiosity may lead to our ultimate demise, it is most certainly the source of a vast amount of human inspiration.

Thus curiosity and creativity are inevitably linked. Curiosity and empathy are similarly tied, since the more we know the more we are likely to care, the more we care, the more we are likely to want to know more. It is this curiosity, this search, that gives meaning, not its end product in concrete facts and well-supported arguments. We know that the “solutions,” however brilliant, that satisfied previous centuries have been largely falsified as further exploration has taken place. There may still be a few people on earth who still insist that it’s flat, but there are not many who refuse to accept that many today’s “truths” won’t be falsified by the evidence accumulated in the next hundred years of human history.

The joy is in the search, not in the conclusion. Even though no conclusion is ultimate or absolute, the search matters. As with our views of human relationships, societal pressures demand far greater assurance than most of us really feel in our hearts. Moreover, the more we cling to anything as “The” truth, the less we are open to explore, the less our need to be curious, to wonder, can be freely pursued. Meaning is not the result of our search, it is a consequence of the search itself. It is like life itself: Death is the conclusion of life, not its summation, not its purpose, so we sense the meaning of life by searching for meaning. As we close off that search by clinging to this or that “solution,” this or that definitive answer to why we are here on earth, most often based on religious doctrine, we may well be closing ourselves from the richness of the experience of wondering “why?”

Committing ourselves to action, however, has opposite demands, at least on the surface. While the search for meaning requires above all an openness to the full range of possibilities, action means taking responsibility for a particular course, a specific selection from a set of options. Here, too, though, synergy plays a role. The greater one’s sense of empathy, of connection to the feelings and needs of others, the more likely one is to be moved to action. Interestingly, it works the other way as well: Acting in support of a cause often brings a person more in touch with the feelings of the other person.

There’s an old theatre maxim that reflects this dynamic: Do the action (as required by the script or the piece’s director) and then you’ll understand your character’s motivation. Marches and demonstrations aren’t just to show others how many stand together, but also serve to educate and energize the participants. Here, again, empathy is key. To the degree that political action is motivated by enmity, by antagonism towards one’s fellow human beings, the more likely it is to be destructive. Groups that unite against others (anti-immigration, anti-gay, anti-abortion) the more likely they are to be a matter of dehumanizing and damming of human empathy. There are, nevertheless, times when strong, united, and forceful action is justifiable and even necessary, but the key is whether the overall balance is toward empathizing with those in need (e.g. bringing soldiers home from illegitimate conflicts) or against those yet more vulnerable than oneself. It is, of course, fair to say that this judgement is, in the end, a political judgement, i.e. based on one’s political perspective and persuasion, but the degree to which one can empathically connect is nevertheless an important factor.

This book delves into each of these areas separately while recognizing that they feed into each other. It begins by looking at creativity not from the perspective of the few artists in history who have achieved enormous stature, but from the point of view of the “ordinary” human beings trying to express their creativity. It then delves into psychology — the field in which I trained and which, I believe has gone sorely astray, failing to give non-psychologists the tools to effectively think through psychological issues such as the search for intimacy and community. Delving more deeply into community, the book then explores a particular “experiment” in community in which some hundred to two hundred people joined together to attempt to live in a manner substantially different from the “norm” with both exciting and disastrous consequences.

Essays on creativity, community, social change, and the search for meaning