Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Diversify Meaning

            “Diversify meaning” is a play on the classic financial advice to “diversify your investments.” It’s a motto I’ve been trying to live by that has felt pretty wise, but recently I’ve run up against a major flaw in its usefulness for life. I want to lay out the topic here, as a way of continuing to develop my thoughts around “meaning.”
            And, for the sake of clearer reading, I think I will write this in Q&A form.

Why are you comparing “meaning” to financial investments?
            Not that I know anything about investing or finance, but my understanding is that people make investments in order to generate wealth. There’s a risk in investment, a possibility of disappointment or loss, but also a chance for greater returns than if no action was taken.
            I believe that we can understand “meaning” as a kind of personal investment. Meaning comprises the experiences of connections to our selves, others, and things in the world, and through these connections we make sense, find direction and purpose, and generate joy. But these connections only grow through the time, energy, and care we invest in them. I only reap joy insofar as I sow care. My mother would probably call this “You get what you put in.” I could save myself a lot of time and energy by not bothering, but then what would I have? Meaning requires investment.

Why diversify?
Diversifying investments reduces risk—if one investment tanks, all is not lost. It’s wise advice to diversify financial investments because it expresses a realistic assessment of the unpredictable nature of business and markets.
To diversify meanings means to cultivate lots of connections. In one sense, this could sound very positive—hey, the more connections the merrier, right? If one friend is great, then another friend could be twice as great. Personally, I find myself invested in many things at the moment, including:
Teaching health       - Teaching philosophy        - Leading gender groups
- Working at PPLM   - New career directions      - Blogging
- Family                       - Partnership                       - New Friends
- Old friends                - Reading projects               - Comedy improv

But still, diversification is at heart an act of pessimism. I diversify meaning because I don’t trust any single source of meaning to be enough, to provide all the joy I’m looking for, to be dependable. We are complex people, and so no single source can provide the full variety of meanings we desire. Jobs likely won’t provide love; friends likely won’t provide money. The day is long and attention grows weary. Furthermore, connections can fail just like financial investments. Plans and hopes fall through. By diversifying meaning, I create a more stable sense of self, one built up through many venues and personas, one that doesn’t stand or fall by a single dimension of identity.

So why isn’t this motto working like it used to?
Recently I’ve been facing some existential dilemmas in life, pitting various “meaning investments” against each other. That is the nature of existential dilemmas—we can’t have everything; we are forced to choose among parts of our selves, forced to make decisions that must involve loss.
And it seems like “diversify meaning” does not provide any guidance in navigating these dilemmas. Yes, it’s important to seek out meaning in many places—but how do I choose among my various investments? There’s no sense of priorities. If I can’t depend on one source of meaning fully, then how can I authentically choose one and sacrifice another?
            In some ways, these existential dilemmas emerge from pursuing diverse meanings. Only by cultivating many connections can I end up finding myself caught in the tension between them. The issue now is, figuring out how to integrate all these connections. Or figuring out which connections are somehow… ok to lose? It makes no sense. “Diversify meaning” offers no advice on compromise or letting go.

            Any wise advice regarding meaning and sacrifices? Another motto?