Making Meaning: The Van Gogh Blues

In his book “The Van Gogh Blues,” Eric Maisel introduces an intriguing idea: Instead of searching for meaning all over the place, we can simply make our own meaning. Far fetched? I think not. In fact, I agree with Maisel that this is the only reliable way to lead a meaningful life: we answer the question “what does my life mean” rather than the metaphysical – and probably unanswerable – question “what is the meaning of life?”

There are three central and interconnected aspects of the meaning-making process: Creating a life plan, doing meaningful work, and deciding how each and every second of our life can be meaningful. The primary tool that Maisel offers in our meaning-making quest is cognitive psychology: we need to really look at our thoughts! Only if we start paying attention to what we are thinking, look at whether a thought is helpful, and then actively arguing with unhelpful thoughts can we successfully integrate the three aspects of meaning-making. This tool is also useful when fighting anxiety. Again, Maisel states the obvious that I too often forget (maybe it’s not that obvious then…): Anxiety is part of life. We would not survive if it weren’t for anxiety because it triggers the fight or flight response, which is crucial when we try to escape from a saber tooth tiger. Although what creates anxiety in us now is just as real as that tiger, it probably is not as dangerous. So, we can accept that we’re anxious and then courageously face our anxiety and still do what scares us. Maisel cautions, though, that in order to do that, we really need to dig into the causes of our anxiety, which in the context of the book are largely internal. If we do not dig deep enough, we can still fool ourselves and thus are unable to face the anxiety.

Maisel also calls upon us to opt to matter. Rather than spending agonizing hours trying to figure out why we exist, he proposes to simply state the obvious: we exist and that’s what matters. We can then take that fact and make it matter – we can give our own answer to why we exist by deciding on what answer we want to give. Maisel urges us that this has to be grounded in ethics. Without ethical grounding, Maisel contends, we will simply experience emptiness by living non-authentic.

I find Maisel’s book very helpful and his ideas of deciding to make meaning and opting to matter are simple, yet profound and just what we need in today’s world, when the old sources of meaning have become often rather meaningless. And he touches on something that those of us who do not believe in a God or god need to flesh out because only by offering a rational alternative can we help answer the question of meaning.

If you are interested in these ideas, in addition to checking out Maisel’s book, you can check out his website. You can also check out a brief interview with Eric Maisel at YouTube. I found especially the last part of the interview important: It is crucial for us to shift from “searching for meaning” to an attitude of “making meaning.”

Also, please check my post on Meaning Making in Action.

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Making Meaning: The Van Gogh Blues — 3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Rachel’s Musings » What is Success?

  2. Pingback: Rachel’s Musings » Eric Maisel on Meaningless Work

  3. Pingback: Rachel’s Musings » Monday Meaning Report

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