“Life in the Light of Truth”
by Tami Yaguri
The “Art of Meaning” approach to formulating Life’s Meaning
The “Art of Meaning” aims to uncover personal meaning through dialogue. There is an art to drawing out personal meaning (Yaguri, 2018). Meaning in life links to psychological wellbeing (Frankl, 2014). It appears at the overlap of self-identity and worldview. The art of dialogue with an interviewee aims to express a mutually satisfying formulation, a simple but powerful phrase that encapsulates the interviewee’s meaning. Once formulated, this radiant kernel contributes to clarity of thought, and connects fundamental life decisions and values.
In What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy, Thomas Nagel concludes that “life may be not only meaningless but absurd.” (1987: 100). Perhaps this should be our rational answer to the BIG wonder concerning the meaning of life. After all, this is Wittgenstein’s final word in the Tractatus (1922: 6.41, 6.521, 7). Yet this “solution” does not help with smaller-scale dilemmas about meaning in my life and in the lives of others. As Nagel puts it, “if there’s any point at all to what we do, we have to find it within our own lives.” (1987: 95). We cannot, and should not, abandon the quest for small-scale personal solutions:
Even if life as a whole is meaningless, perhaps that’s nothing to worry about. Perhaps we can recognize it and just go on as before. The trick is to keep your eyes on what’s in front of you, and allow justifications to come to an end inside your life, and inside the lives of others to whom you are connected. (ibid: 99)
To demonstrate how this trick – keeping your eyes on what’s in front of you – works, is my aim in this paper.
I begin by showing why we should replace a quest for happiness with a quest for meaning. Satisfying a quest for meaning is an art. Developing a sketch of personal meaning is what I call practicing the “Art of Meaning” (Yaguri, 2018). Meaning in life appears at the overlap of self-identity and worldview. I show how, through an informal interview, meaning in a person’s life can be drawn out. A satisfying formulation of a positive value is worked out with an interviewee, that provides a life-line connecting major life-decisions, preferences and values.
Happiness, Pleasure and Optimal Experience
Everyone needs meaning in life, but not everyone makes a meaningful life for themselves. We want our life to express our own choices, yet too many perceive themselves to be victims of circumstance. Everyone needs to know they did not live in vain, but too many taste the bitter pill of senselessness. No one wants to live idly, without purpose, goals, or a sense of worth. No one wants to miss out on their lives. Many find themselves caught between meaning and senselessness. Few can say wholeheartedly that they live the life they wish to live or live the best version of their lives. A successful interview, as illustrated here, will culminate in a straightforward response to the question of personal meaning: this is my life; it is the most meaningful one for me (Yaguri, 2018).
Victor Frankl, the psychiatrist and founder of logotherapy, predicts that the worst epidemic of the 21st century will be depression arising from lack of meaning (2014). Consumerism, the restless culture of affluent society, and the vast use of antidepressants are signs of lost meaning in life. Even the emergence of a “Science of Happiness” attests to a distressing existential vacuum. What if happiness is not a solution to psychological malaise? Thinking it’s the solution can be part of the problem. It distracts us from a deeper question.
A Holocaust survivor, Frankl recounts his experience in a Camp:
We all said to each other in camp that there could be no earthly happiness which could compensate for all we had suffered. We were not hoping for happiness—it was not what gave us courage and gave meaning to our suffering, our sacrifice and our dying. (Frankl, 2014: 86-87)
The inmates needed meaning, not merely the removal of suffering. The quest for happiness, like the horizon, moves farther away as we work to reach it directly. Happiness cannot be marked as the end-point of a straight path. In Frankl’s view, it is a by-product of actions that give our lives meaning. A direct striving for meaning can produce happiness, but a direct pursuit of happiness brings depression (Frankl, 2014).
The idea that a person fulfills herself when she is happy originates with Epicurus (341-270 BC), who believed that human life is striving for pleasure and avoiding pain. Aristotle (384-322 BC) agrees. Happiness is the greatest good in people’s lives. He uses the Greek word “Eudaimonia” to cover happiness, wellbeing, and spiritual welfare. For him, it is attained through devotion to human reason. Our contemporary ideal is Epicurean rather than Aristotelian happiness.
Studies show that happiness arrives through stimulation of the brain’s pleasure center. When lab rats have electrodes stimulating these pleasure centers, they cease to care about sex or food. They only desire to continue experiencing raw pleasure (Olds & Milner, 1954: 419-427). Humans often aim for happiness through alcohol, hallucinogenic drugs, and “settling for the way things are.” But these routes to happiness aren’t routes to a meaningful life. Susan Wolf writes that what’s important is “understanding meaningfulness as an attribute lives can have that is not reducible to or subsumable under either happiness, as it is ordinarily understood, or morality.” (2010: 3).
Delightful happiness differs from satisfactions stemming from eating, drinking, buying, playing sports or painting. Satisfactions contribute to the quality of life in a way simple pleasure doesn’t (Yalom, 2000). Happiness in lab rats doesn’t create further happiness or new awareness. Satisfying enjoyment goes beyond pleasure by providing a sense of innovation, achievement, and contentment. Contentment can arrive with completing a difficult sporting activity, reading a difficult book, or engaging in deep conversation. Challenges are not necessarily pleasurable or delightful while they are taking place. Running a marathon can be painful. But they are gratifying afterwards. By facing challenges, we become more complex and accomplished. This distinction between pleasure, delight, or happiness, and deep satisfaction, contentment, or enjoyment, reminds us that we aim for more than pleasure or happiness in our lives (Csíkszentmihályi, 2008: 45-48). Meaningful lives can be fraught with painful struggle. If we must choose, the satisfactions of meaning are preferable to transient pleasures or happiness. Meaning can last to the end of life.
Meaning: Past, Present and Future
Those who lose meaning can become seekers. Was meaning there earlier and then disappeared with a turn for the worse in her life? Where should she look? To the past, or forward? (Frankl, 1978: 105). We must choose which way to seek first, forward or back, in the life already lived, or in the life yet to come (Sherover, 1975). What is important is the specific meaning of a specific human life at a given moment. Meaning is based on realities of the past, according to Frankl. The great achievement of finding meaning in life lies in the ability of a person to observe her past, and to be optimistic about what has happened (Frankl, 1978). Observing the past means telling a meaningful story. A life story does not have to include the entire life of the narrator (Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach, Zilber, 1998). One concrete example taken from a narrator’s account can be the depository of life’s meaning. The connection of meaning in life to a worldview––the way we observe the world around us––adds to stability. The self-identity of the seeker and his worldview ensure stability of meaning through time.
Interpretation in the Art of Meaning
In Law’s Empire (1986), Ronald M. Dworkin promotes what he calls “creative interpretation.” (ibid: 65). In a courtroom defense, a lawyer appeals to a jury with a “creative interpretation” of the defendant’s action placed against social practices the jury will recognize as relevant. This “creative interpretation” resembles the work of an art critic who makes a case for a controversial work of art. The critic will highlight certain aspects of a work that put it in a positive light. Similarly, a courtroom lawyer will put the accused’s behavior in the best possible light. The lawyer doesn’t invent a story but gives a plausible and positive interpretation that “strives to make an object the best it can be” (ibid: 53). A courtroom interpretation has to address the accused’s intention and show it in the best light (ibid: 52-3). Although the interpretation cannot be perfectly objective, it will appeal to values about which there is common consent. Such common consent is required, because “the interpretive attitude cannot survive unless members of the same interpretive community share at least roughly the same assumptions” about good and bad, honesty and dishonesty, and so forth (ibid: 67).
There is no “right answer” to questions about aesthetic, moral, or social value, Dworkin believes. He writes, “It is a philosophical mistake to suppose that interpretation can be right or wrong, true or false.” (ibid: 78). Nonetheless, an interpretation can aim to give the best account of practices of different people, and the best defense possible for the accused. Interpretations can be better or worse. In the courtroom, a lawyer is creative in presenting the best possible account of an accused’s behavior.
A defense attorney who is able to assist in the exoneration of a defendant is a good lawyer. He can be creative in the interpretation of facts. He will choose from possible interpretations the one which will shed the best light on the protagonist. An attorney sticks to one version of the defendant’s life-story. Given the story, he will explain the defendant’s intentions, purposes and actions. He looks for the most important element in the story, and show how it is relevant in general, across many lives, and not only for this particular person’s life-story. He emphasizes a general value that presents the defendant’s story in the best possible light.
Dworkin’s creative interpretation gives accounts that are better or worse as advocacy. Seeking meaning in life also requires creative interpretation and advocacy. Persons seeking meaning need an interpretation of their personal story, one they can advocate for themselves and others. The creative interpretation will be linking a paradigmatic segment of personal life to wide cultural values. A creative interpreter is a defense attorney for the life-story or story segment the person seeking meaning presents. The interpretation will be loyal to the facts. If it is vibrant, the seeker acknowledges this, and adopts it (Yaguri, 2018: 18).
Art of Meaning: the Interview
Finding and creating meaning in one’s life is an art. Someone seeking to formulate meaning in their lives is helped by a careful listener who becomes a good defense attorney for the seeker. The attentive interviewer artfully select with the interviewee from possible interpretations one that offers the greatest positive value to the seeker. Based on Dworkin’s stages of interpretation (1986: 65-67), the interview format includes four questions and a story segment, a concrete example given by the interviewee.
1. What is the meaning of your life? If the interviewee hesitates or has difficulty, the interviewer can suggest an alternative wording: What is important to you? Upon a reply, the interviewer asks for a concrete example, a story segment that expresses those important things: is there a salient event that illustrates the meaning described?
2. What is important in the story? The interviewer listens for the subjects or character traits that appear to be most important to the interviewee. Based on this mapping of importance, the interviewer reflects back to the speaker different possibilities that might be chosen as the most important thing in the story. The interviewee is asked which issue seems most salient.
3. Why is this important? Meaning in life expresses personal identity and also a broader worldview shared by others. This question seeks to frame a worldview that captures the initial expression of importance. Worldviews reflect widely shared values. Collecting corks or soap bubbles can be important to a person, but it is hardly a rich enough activity to count as a worldview. Hobbies are too personal to count as worldviews. Helping others, in contrast, is a rich and encompassing sort of importance. This part of the interview works to show that the importance chosen is valuable not only from the subjective point of view of the interviewee. What was initially presented as a private position is now artfully presented as of general importance. If the meaning was prefaced at first by the qualification, “in my opinion it is important,” now it can carry the broader assurance, “it is important.”
4. What value is expressed by that meaning? The goal is to present in a word or phrase a summary of what has appeared so far. Meaning is first formulated as personal importance and now as a broad culturally recognized value. This gives the meaning broad social and cultural justification. The move from an initial intuitive personal meaning to a formulation accepted by the interviewee as naming a broad cultural value is like extracting a diamond from a lump of coal.
“Life in Light of Truth”: an Interview
Here is an interview that illustrates the steps just formulated in four questions and a story segment. The interviewer turned to Michelle (a pseudonym), an experienced art therapist, inviting her to unravel a meaning in her life. Her lips quivered as she debated where to begin to answer the first question, “What is the meaning of your life?” She stumbled and then began to describe the death of her grandfather, when she was a teenager. “I saw death before my eyes,” she says. “Suddenly a person disappears.” The encounter with this death of a man dear to her raised the question of what life was about. Then she shifted to describe her move to Israel. As she gathers her memories and thoughts, Michelle suggested that the meaning for her rested in the word “Judaism.”
Michelle’s words told a story of conversion. She was born and raised within a Christian society. Although her family was atheist, she sought to answer her questions specifically within religion. “I searched in myself, among my classmates, among members of different faiths, including Jews,” she said, but found that no one had answers for her. People’s lives lacked the meaning she sought for herself. She continued to search in books, conversations with religious figures, an intimate meeting with her first boyfriend who was a Jew. “How did you become to know that Judaism is the meaning of your life?” The interviewer wanted her to illustrate the meaning of her story. “The soul knew,” she explained. “I went into a synagogue and from the women’s section I heard a prayer, and I began to cry like a little girl.” At this stage in the conversation, she rephrased the meaning she found: “To be a Jew – and also a connection to God.”
Until then her faith was based in her mind. Her deep conviction, she said, came from her head. Michelle became part of a Jewish community in her home country. She began to learn Hebrew and to become acquainted with key texts. She had a lot of questions, she asked intellectually, and asked for informed answers. She turned to books that reinforced her conviction that Judaism was the answer to the meaning of her life. She was influenced by Martin Buber, who spoke of spiritual dialogue between man and creation, of non-establishment religiosity. He became a teacher. Her study of the week’s Torah selection also reinforced the significance of Judaism for her.
Later she said, “I started to read history – that’s how I knew I was Jewish. Jewish history is an open miracle.” Michelle described her mother as an educated and learned woman, “a champion of history and literature.” Michelle learned that empires rise and fall, but Judaism does not follow this rule. “What happened to these Jews? a nation that was not destroyed,” she wonders. She answers her own question. The uniqueness of the Jewish people is that they sought to survive, not to occupy land.
Her meaning was to be a Jew and connected to God, but how is this meaning linked to her worldview? The interviewer asked: “What is important about being a Jew?” The answer was quick: “gratitude, praying with God. In my eyes, God is the source, I know where I come from and where I’m going.” Her worldview derived from Judaism’s self-conception as the religion of the Chosen People. Belonging for her, seems to mean anchoring at the beginning, at creation. Michelle admits this.
“Why is it important to know where you came from and where you go in this way?” The interviewer asked. “Internal affiliation,” Michelle replied. “I was a leaf in the wind. Ostensibly I was not lonely or poor – I came from a warm family, I had everything, much more than now. I came to Israel as a new immigrant, alone with a suitcase.”
The interviewer asked Michelle, “Who do you know who was not ‘a leaf in the wind,’ who knew where he came from and where he was going?” In her reply, Michelle told of her father. According to her, he knew intuitively that his calling was to work for others. His goals were formulated in the language of deeds and achievements in the public arena. “I am on the same axis,” she says, but she has taken the awareness of “where I come from and where I am going” to a spiritual place, to the unknown. While her father stood on earth and acted in a tangible social space, she sought the truth. The search for the source led her to leave her country of origin and move to Israel. When she explained to her mother her choice, she told her that she felt she was living there in a false reality.
Michelle anchors her existence in the source of the world. The interviewer suggested to her that this is a search for truth, and that she is a person committed to truth. She demands it in her life and in the lives of those around her. Michelle agreed that the truth was her guiding light. As a summary of the interview, the interviewer suggested to her: “The meaning of your life is embodied in the value of responsibility, and the opposite of falsification, brought with people of truth.” Michelle agreed and approved. Judaism is the truth in her eyes. But the revealed meaning teaches that other believers – people of action who seek social justice, for example – who are connected in their minds and souls to the truth, share the same meaning in their lives. “’Life in light of the truth,” was the formulated meaning of Michelle’s life.
The “art of meaning” sees meaning as an essence. Michelle’s life story, like every life story, is composed of numerous and varied events and situations, details and facts that are collected and accumulated over a lifetime (McAdams, Josselson, Lieblich, 2006). The process that takes place in an “art of meaning” interview is intended to extract a main essence from the many details (Yaguri, 2018). The extracted essence is a leitmotif for the narrative. Through the process of the interview, Michelle’s complex story was transformed into a concise formulation of an essence in her life.
For Michelle this was an initial attempt to formulate the main value in her life. If it were not for the process the phrase “life in the light of the truth” would sound bombastic to her. Arriving at this phrase, enables her to look at her life in a new light. It was for her “like wearing Sabbath clothes on a weekday.” The process gave her permission to flaunt her value. In retrospect, she realized that this meaning inspired her all along. She said she had a new appreciation of who she is and what her role in the world is to be.
Judaism is the meaning of her life, the concept that shapes her world and her daily life (Yaguri, 2014). The process of artfully exposing meaning enabled her to see that her striving for truth, her insistence on living in the light of the truth she had found, turned out to be of the essence. Judaism remains central to her world view, but now the path that led her to Judaism is perceived by her as no less important than the goal.
The wording that was the outcome of the interview made the meaning in Michelle’s life more universal (Wolf, 2010). Suddenly she realized that her meaning was similar to her father’s. This was a surprise. She had perceived his way as different from her own. Yet she shared a path of meaning with him. The surprise of that discovery excited Michelle. The scope of meaning in her life has expanded. It includes a new circle of partners and friends who share meaning.
Like Michelle, many may have a general idea of the meaning in their lives, but few experience a concise and precise wording for it. Clarity of conscious meaning translates into quality of life. Once a person can refine the essence of her meaning, she can look through it to focus herself and her life (van Deurzen, 1997). Formulated meaning helps self-realization. It serves on a daily basis as a north-star that guides decision making.
Extracting meaning in life to contribute to quality of life and to mental health, punctuates self-understanding and helps one navigate one’s way. On a daily basis, even in times of difficulty, meaning in life serves as a framework within which life-events receive justification. It serves as a reminder of the truly important essence of one’s life.
About the Author
Dr. Tami Yaguri is a senior lecturer at Ono Academic College in Israel and former head of the Master of Arts program in interdisciplinary studies at the Lesley University Extension in Israel. She is a scholar in existential philosophy, trains psychotherapists and is the author and editor of Art Therapy Education (2021, English), Unraveling Life’s Riddle (2018, English), Kierkegaard: Between Authentic Faith and Self-Deception (2018, Hebrew), Solving the Riddle of Meaning (2016, Hebrew), The Authenticity of Faith in Kierkegaard’s Philosophy (2013, English), Human Dialogue with the Absolute (2008, Hebrew).
This paper was first published in PHILOSOPHICAL PRACTICE Journal of the APPA, 14: 2, July 2019, pp. 2333-2340.
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