This article is part of a continued exploration of a modern problem: we lack meaning in our lives because we are way too unsophisticated about how we set our goals.
In the previous article, What Do You Really Want, I explored what happens if you don’t settle for short-sighted goals. In this article I want to address another meaning-inhibiting aspect: fragmentation.
To have a goal is to be part of a story, a story about where you are and where you are going. Visually, it looks like this.
This way of seeing the world comes very natural to us. It’s the narrow-focused hunter frame. The reason why our vision is organized around a high resolution center. To make progress towards a goal is what produces positive emotions, and the more worthy the goal, the better the emotions. To be in that state is very engaging and meaningful and is ultimately what makes life worth living.
But there is something crucially wrong about this view, namely: you are not just one person with one target. If you have ever planned to do something (say, wake up at 5 in the morning and go jogging) and then done the opposite, you know you what I’m talking about. You are a multitude of personalities, each with their own goals. You are fragmented:
Obviously, it’s not easy to be motivated and make any progress in this situation, and even if a part of you managed to take over, the others would be criticizing it and dragging their feet every step of the way.
How to solve this situation? Let’s redraw the status quo in a different way. Imagine that all parts of you are organized in a circle, a quorum.
Now you have to make an assumption: that there is an ultimate goal, the best possible target. You don’t know what it is, but it is the goal that would satisfy everyone in the quorum in the best possible way. You might say that this assumption is unwarranted, but then you are stuck in an unsolvable war of irreconcilable objectives. Furthermore, this is only something you can find out if you try it out. So you might as well make that assumption. Let that be your “leap of faith”.
This “ultimate goal” is not and cannot be clearly defined and concrete. It is a meta-goal. But this means that the part of you that wants to achieve that meta-goal is not part of the quorum. It is “above”. It is a meta-you. One could say that the meta-you is the “real” you. But to the degree that your meta-goal is vaguely defined, the real you is weak.
Well, then, let’s look at this scenario from your top-down perspective. Here is your current “map of meaning”.
As you may sense, it is hard to make progress with such a map. How can you proceed towards your meta-goal if you don’t know what it is and every bit of you is pointed towards an other direction?
The solution is a process called integration. You allow parts of you to talk to each other and negotiate better goals. Take, for example, the part of you that wants to have fun and relax, and the part of you that wants to earn a lot of money. They have been fighting for dominance for years, because they have pretty different goals.
What you do now is to create a space where they can have a dialogue and negotiate a new common goal. In practice this might mean
- recognizing that with no money you can’t have fun for long, so you need to make a sacrifice to maximize your potential for fun, and
- recognizing that you can earn more money if you don’t tyrannize your desire for fun, with the inevitable revenge
- if possible, finding a way to make money that is fun
At any rate, what emerges from a successful negotiation is a new goal that transcends and integrates the two previous goals. The new goal is more sophisticated, powerful (because it draws energy from more motivational sources) and closer to the meta-goal.
There’s no systematic way to sew together (or sort out) all your motivations. You need to allow the conflicting parts of you to express their meanings in this kind of open dialectic process. Your awareness must be the opposite of narrow-focused. You need to be mindful of the quorum, to be accepting of all kinds of voices and allow this dialectic to unfold — always keeping an eye on the meta-goal. Over time, more and more parts of you will be properly integrated and start working together harmoniously, in a kind of dance. Each “lower you” will have a proper place to express itself. You will have less distracting voices and be able to focus more and more effectively on the ultimate goal. The more you continue with this process, the more meaning you will experience in your life.
A caveat: I feel that the above description doesn’t fully account for the problem of evil. Though I believe that there are many “dark sides” of our personality that we are afraid of but can be properly integrated by the above process, something tells me that there is an irreducible residue that can’t, the part of you that is aiming to undermine the whole process, that doesn’t want to sacrifice, that doesn’t want things to be in their proper place. The eternal adversary. Perhaps, the proper place for evil is in the form of fully conscious temptation.