Posted by: gcarkner | March 4, 2019

Sources of Identity and Meaning

Sources of Identity, Sources of Meaning

The Examined, Reflective, Purposeful Life is  Well Worth Living

  • my culture, country and family of origin, the history of my people, my mother tongue and color–where I was born, my early years
  • my personal passion, or more deeply, my sense of calling–what I want to contribute, my life trajectory
  • my educational and job experience/training–my leadership skill set
  • my personal mentors, coaches, partners and life journey guides
  • my sexual orientation, the biology of my body, my gender socialization and choices about self-expression, my management of sexual desires
  • my religion, philosophy of life, worldview or ideological orientation, my ideals, standards and principles–the meta-biological drivers or factors of life
  • my experience of trauma, tragedy and suffering, failures, handicaps and how I cope with hard circumstances or personal loss
  • the friends I hang with–my social life and romantic life
  • my creative engagement with people who differ from me, either in background or convictions, my listening skills and ability to learn from others that I may disagree with, or who make me feel uncomfortable with my assumptions
  • the community or charity projects where I volunteer and attempt to make a better, more equal playing field
  • the larger story or narrative that makes sense of my life–clarifying what really matters, what constitutes being human, what gives solidity and substance to my biography
  • my children, their lives, their needs and aspirations–the creative sacrifice of giving them life, nurture, guidance and purpose
  • my commitments to the poor, the homeless, the marginalized–community service, social compassion, positive social change
  • my political affiliations, causes, debates and engagements–my sense of justice, human rights, concern for peace-making
  • my moral commitments to certain virtues and values (strong evaluations)–the good and the common good, the admirable and noble–leading to my growth in character and civility, my relationship to my highest good, things that empower my moral agency. This is how I “become better through seeing better” (Charles Taylor).
  • my self-concept as a global citizen, commitments to the wellbeing of other people groups and nations
  • my relationship to creation, to the land, air, and oceans, to the wellbeing of the planet for the long term
  • my local social roots–my deeper experience of neighbourhood and community
  • my economic, career track potential and capacity–traction in applying my knowledge, being innovative, taking leadership, shaping culture, leaving a positive legacy
  • my prayer, worship and spiritual life practices, relationship with the divine–experience of the transcendent, my quest for wisdom towards a life worth living
  • my music interests, loves, participation–seeking the good of my mental and emotional health, my creative artistic expression, the nurture of my aesthetic self
  • my personal addictions and obsessions–darker motives and habits–my chaos, my deceptiveness, dishonesty with self and others, my refusal to take responsibility, to admit where I have been wrong, to admit where I am not speaking the truth
  • my means of recreation, relaxation, creative outlets, entertainment, fun and adventure
  • my self-articulation on social media, video, audio or print media, public speaking, book and article writing
  • my relationship to agape love, which helps heuristically to shape and interpret both my stance towards myself and my stance towards the larger world

Be Real; Be Attentive; Be Whole; Be Innovative; Be Resilient; Go For Depth; Live with Integrity; Take Care of Yourself; Find Harmony Between Various Sectors of Your Life; Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Identity Basket, Prioritize Them; Examine Your Motives and Conscience; Tell the Truth; Invest in Community, Write Your Unique Story; Build Out From What You Have Been Given; Practice Gratitude; Keep the Poetry in Your Life; Take Full Responsibility for Yourself and Your World

To have meaning is to stand for something other than oneself, to establish a link with a value, an idea, an ideal beyond oneself [a referent]. Life has meaning, for example, for those who spend their lives in search of a cure for a disease., or in the struggle against injustice, or just to show every day that society can be more than a jungle. The link one establishes with this value or idea confers a higher value on life….A life that has meaning recognizes certain references….In other words, it is paradoxically worth something only to the extent that it admits itself not to be of supreme value, by recognizing what is worth more than itself, by its ability to organize itself around something else. Everyone will admit that existence is at once both finite and deficient. We consider society to be mediocre, love insufficient, a lifespan too narrow. The person whose life has meaning is the one who, instead of remaining  complacently in the midst of his regrets, decides to strive for perfection, however imperfectly, to express the absolute, even through his own deficiencies, to seek eternity, even if only temporarily. If he spends his life making peace in society or rendering justice to victims, he is effectively pointing, even if it is with a trembling finger, to the existence of peace and justice as such….By pursuing referents, he points to them. He awkwardly expresses these impalpable, immaterial figures of hope or expectancy….Individual existence, when it means something, points to its referent through its day-to-day actions and behaviours, the sacrifices it accepts and the risks it dares to take….The seeker moves forward, all the while wondering, “What is worth serving?” Individual existence structures itself through the call for meaning. Existence is shaped by questions and expectations.

~Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World (4-5)

Two Ways of Seeing/Reading/Understanding the World 

a. The Epistemological Way of Seeing:

The set of priority relations within this picture often tends towards a closed world position (CWS) within the immanent frame (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 2007, chapter 15). Its assumptions include proponents like Descartes, Locke, and Hume. Taylor calls this the modern buffered self. We find this approach rooted in Anglo-American philosophy. The connection between self and world is an I-It relationship.

  • Knowledge of self and its status comes before knowledge of the world (things) and others (cogito ergo sum).
  • Knowledge of reality is a neutral fact before the individual self attributes value to it.
  • Knowledge of things of the natural order comes before any theoretical invocations or any transcendence. Transcendence is often problematized, doubted or repressed—for example, in reductive materialism. This approach tends to write dimensions of transcendence out of the equation as a danger to wellbeing (superstition). Science morphs into scientism.
  • Human meaning is much harder to capture in this frame of reference—leading to disenchantment. It can cause alienation and lead to skepticism, or promote disengagment from a cold, mechanistic, materialistic cosmos.
  • Language is the Designative type (Hobbes, Locke, Condillac)—instrumental, pointing at an object, manipulating objects, and often in turn manipulating people as objects. It is a flattened form of language, which does not allow us to Name things in their depth of context, their embeddedness. Poetry, symbol, myth are missing. Scientific rationalism is dominant: evidence and justified belief.
  • Power and violence hides under the cloak of knowledge and techne: colonization, imperialism, war, environmental exploitation, Global North versus Global South. Hubris is an endemic problem.
  • Ethics is left to the private sphere of individual values, because of the fact-value split or dualism—moral subjectivism results. This often leads to loss of moral agency and nihilism, partly due to the loss of narrative and the communal dimension of ethics.
  • Human flourishing is a central concern within this immanent frame: reduction of suffering and increase of happiness/wellbeing. Health, lifespan, safety, entertainment, economic opportunity, consumer choice are key cultural drivers. This results in a thin self, focused on rights, entitlements, opportunities to advance one’s own personal interests.

b. The Hermeneutical Way of Seeing:

The working assumptions of this approach includes proponents like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer, the later Wittgenstein, Charles Taylor and Jens Zimmermann. We find this approach rooted more in Continental philosophy. The connection between the self and the world is an I-Thou relationship.

  • Self is not the first priority: the world, society and the game/drama of life come first. We only have knowledge as agents coping with the world, and it makes no sense to doubt that world in its fullness. Taken at face value, this world is shot through with meaning and discovery.
  • There is no priority of a neutral grasp of things over and above their value. It comes to us as a whole experience of facts and valuations all at once, interwoven with each other.
  • Our primordial identity is as a new player inducted into an old game. We learn the game and begin to interpret experience for ourselves within a larger communal context. Identity, morality and spirituality are interwoven within us. We sort through our conversations, dialogue with interlocutors, looking for a robust and practical picture of reality.
  • Transcendence or the divine horizon is a possible larger context of this game. Radical skepticism is not as strong here as in the epistemological approach. There is a smaller likelihood of a closed world system (CWS—closed to transcendence as a spin on reality) view in the hermeneutical approach. In a sense, it is more humble, nuanced, embodied and socially situated.
  • Language use is the Expressive-Constitutive type (Herder, Hamann, Humboldt, Gadamer) The mythic, poetic, aesthetic, and liturgical returns. Language is rich and expressive, open, creative, appealing to the depths of the human soul. Language is a sign. See Charles Taylor, The Language Animal.
  • Moral agency is revived within a community (oneself as another) with a strong narrative identity, in a relationship to the good, within a hierarchy of moral goods and practical virtuous habits that are mutually enriching and nurturing. One is more patient with the Other, the stranger: hospitality dominates over hostility.
  • The focus of human flourishing is on how we can live well, within our social location—a whole geography of relationships that shape our identity, and which we in turn shape as well. This is a thick version of the self, open to strong transcendence, within a meaningful whole.

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