Friday Book Club - The Politics of Meaning.

October 9, 2020

Friday Book Club - The Politics of Meaning.

May 29, 2023

Meaning is fuel. I learned that from Viktor Frankl the first time I read “Man’s Search for Meaning.” And, I cracked open that book twelve years ago in a St. Louis hospital after having gone flatline that day. I penned an Emotional Equation that night: Despair = Suffering - Meaning.

Just a year earlier, my book PEAK had been published with Meaning at the top of the employee pyramid above Money and Recognition. And, one of my favorite quotes of all-time focuses on Meaning: The meaning of life is to find your gift and the purpose of life is to give it away.

So, I took note nearly a quarter century ago when Michael Lerner’s book came out, “The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism.” I recently uncrated a box of books in Austin (having made the move from San Francisco) and sitting on top was this book almost as if a cosmic librarian was making a recommendation given the politically cynical times we’re living in.

I heard Lerner speak at “A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books” in San Francisco in 1996 and appreciated that he suggested our politicians could no longer separate healing of the soul from healing of our political and social world. He said the selfishness and cynicism that is at the root of our spiritual and values crisis must itself be addressed to fix our “broken politics.” To be honest, back then, many were cynical about this book considering Lerner was identified as “the guru of the White House” during the Clinton administration, but Lerner doesn’t mince words as he writes “that the media conflates the politics of meaning I advocate with the empty slogans uttered by Clinton.” So, the book does it’s best to be politically-agnostic although it does have both a strong progressive and religious tone to it.

Here’s the opening paragraph of the book that is as relevant today as it was in the mid-90’s


Most Americans hunger for meaning and purpose in life. Yet we are caught within a web of cynicism that makes us question whether there could be any higher purpose besides material self-interest and looking out for number one. We see around us the destructive consequences of the dominant ethos of selfishness and materialism. People treat one another as objects to be manipulated rather than as beings who have a fundamental worth that ought to be respected and even cherished. Many of our cultural and economic institutions teach us to look at the world from a narrow, results-oriented, materialist perspective. In the process we lose touch with the awe and wonder we experienced as children at the grandeur of the universe. We get rewarded for the degree to which we have been able to put our own interests above those of our neighbors and friends, but then find ourselves in a world filled with mutual distrust and loneliness.”

Lerner’s politics of meaning includes the following five goals which sound hippie-dippy, but are coming from someone who is the editor and publisher of one of the world’s most prestigious religious magazines who also holds Ph.D’s in both philosophy and clinical psychology:

  1. To create a society that encourages and supports love and intimacy, friendship and community, ethical sensitivity and spiritual awareness among people.
  2. To change the bottom line.
  3. To create the social, spiritual, and psychological conditions that will encourage us to recognize the uniqueness, sanctity and infinite preciousness of every human being, and to treat them with caring, gentleness, and compassion.
  4. To create a society that gives us adequate time and encouragement to develop our inner lives.
  5. To create a society that encourages us to relate to the world and to one another in awe and joy.

It’s ironic that many of the policies and practices that he advocates dovetail with what we’re doing at MEA. He suggests an annual week-long celebration in the U.S. focused on learning from elders. He writes, “It certainly is not too early for baby boomers to begin to plan the kind of meaning-oriented retirement centers that they wish to have.”

He continues, “Building on the biblical idea of a guaranteed sabbatical year after six years of work, I propose that all working people be given a sabbatical year...They could choose to deepen their own knowledge of subjects which they might not yet have explored, or to simply relax in an unstructured way, perhaps through travel or reading...” He says we should ask ourselves, “What would I do if I didn’t have to do what I’m doing?” I hope he isn’t expecting a license fee for our newly-announced Sabbatical Sessions...LOL. He goes on, “Here is yet another good reason for a shared sabbatical year: the possibility of giving the earth itself a sabbatical. Imagine, if we did follow the biblical notion: one out of every seven years, we could significantly reduce production so that the earth could reset from all our busy activity and frantic intent to exploit its resources.” Hello COVID.

In sum, he suggests that if we pursue the politics of meaning, we need to ask these two questions, “To what extent does the economy really serve the common good?” and “To what extent does the economy produce spiritually, ethically, and ecologically sensitive human beings who are capable of sustaining loving and caring relationships, and who feel themselves actualized and fulfilled in the world of work?” These questions are just as relevant today as they were twenty-five years ago. Feel free to use them in your conversations this next month.

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