Saturday, February 26, 2005

Meaning: the lack of a knack

In the previous entry I referred to my fruitless, but not yet hopeless, search for meaning. On reflection, it may be hopeless; I may just not have the temperament for it.

According to tests like Seligman's Signature Strengths, my self-image is built around even-handedness and humility. I strongly value open-mindedness, good judgement, and modesty. One might expect that this kind of person would not have strong opinions, would be willing to entertain that any number of contradictory possibilities might be equally good, and wouldn't believe that they have any privileged insight into, say, what's worth doing and what isn't.

This would make it hard to experience meaning, given the Concise Oxford Dictionary definition of it as "importance, or significance". Both these terms suggest a relative judgment; something can be important or significant only relative to other, less important, things. Someone who is even-handed will find it difficult to experience one thing as much more significant than another. A leaning towards modesty makes it even harder, since there is a reluctance to believe that any judgment that is arrived at is important compared to that of other people.

Now, I cheated a bit. Another meaning of "meaning" is "worthwhile quality, or purpose"(Compact Oxford English Dictionary) . In that case, the search for meaning is a search for purpose, not the search for importance. And yet... "worthwhile" implies a value judgement, and a purpose entails selecting one direction over another. Humble open-mindedness isn't going to help much here, either.

If it's correct that some temperaments militate against finding meaning in life, then others must enhance it. Seligman, for example, lists one of 24 signature strengths as "Spirtuality, Sense of Purpose, Faith, Religiousness". At the risk of tautology, one might guess that people who have a strong sense of the Other will find meaning, since to them it is obvious that there's a greater reality beyond themselves that provides a compass, and a way to discern between alternatives. Other personality types that are likely to find meaning easily are those who are courageous (taking strong stands in face of opposition suggests the self-confidence required to discern one thing as more important than another), and those showing leadership (since leadership presupposes a sense of direction, which presumes the ability to feel a strong bias for one course of action over another).

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