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Week 2 - Setting the scene

We live in a time of change. I can see it as I think back over my lifetime – the world is a vastly different place that it was in my youth. “Modernity” began in the Renaissance, and we may be seeing its last days. It's a time of uncertainty. Moreover, we're leading the way in what is being called the Third Age. Most of us are retired, but still active. That's new, and raises its own questions about meaning.

That's important background information. But at the logical beginning of the study of meaning is the question of Free Will. Absent Free Will, nothing we willfully do can either increase of decrease the meaning in our lives. It would all be predestined. I believe that we do have a kind of Free Will, and that it can be explained by how the brain might work. That's step one, the next step is to examine our human needs. The Maslow needs hierarchy provides a useful starting point.

Week 3 - Model for the mind

Our understanding of how the mind works grew dramatically in the early years of the last century. Freud opened a new world of understanding. His work was followed by the work of Adler. Freud saw pleasure as the primary human driver; Adler saw power as primary. It's not unreasonable to say that we start off being driven by pleasure and then advance to being driven by power.

But the story doesn't end there. The existential psychotherapists have developed a more refined picture about the fundamental tensions that we must all confront. They would argue we must confront our isolation, our mortality, our freedom, and our meaninglessness. This may be a “feature” of modernity and its development. But many have been driven by deep questions about meaning.

Week 4 - Social context

To understand the human condition, it's important to recognize the role of social context. Our very sense of self derives from our interactions with others. We build ourselves through social interactions. It goes deeper. We are special. We're “social” animals, but we have taken the next critical step – we're also “cultural” animals. Our culture is a vital part of what we are, and is vital to understanding how we have advanced in knowledge and in mastery of our environment.

“Culture” (or community) goes beyond any one individual. It offers us an other reality that goes beyond our individual existence – it can be a path to a kind of transcendence. It also solve the meaning of meaning problem that Wittgenstein identified. Meaning requires a metric or yardstick that is other than internal. Meaning can take on meaning by how our communities view it. It's circular, but meaningful.

Week 5 - Patterns & places

Contribution to community is how I find meaning. But what might that contribution by? Contribution to family is relatively clear. Contribution to a social group could also be relatively clear. Contribution to place is an opportunity that, to a greater or lesser extent, is open to all of us. It also happens to be a subject that interests me.

Human beings become attached to places. Places can mean something. They can be worthy of protection and preservation. And worthy places fit interestingly into how our mind recognizes reality. We see, not things, but patterns. This grouping together is a basic part of our perceptual ability. Patterns are really at the root of perception.

Places that “work” are built up using a consistent and meaningful language of patterns. This is easy to see in built environments that have evolved over centuries. The builders naturally used the same patterns that worked for their fore-bearers. This “language' does evolve and develop, and can be punctuated by selected exceptions. But many important historical places did employ a consistent language of patterns.

A worthy human cause (a possible source of meaning) would be to protect and preserve places of important through enforcement of the use an appropriate language of patterns. This is really at the heart of Ontario's Heritage Conservation Districts.

Week 6 - Summing up

We have Free Will, … so I believe. But we're critically shaped and defined by the communities of which we are a part. Contributing to those valued communities makes human, social, and political sense. It's what gives me a sense of meaning in my life.

Does this argument make sense to you? Does it work on the human level? Does it work conceptually? Are there better answers? Should we even attempt to find meaning?

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May 6 – June 10 (6 sessions) Time: Wednesdays, 10:10 a.m. – 11:55 a.m. Location