The subtitle of the blog is “meaning, music, and conducting.” So I want to address meaning — what it is, why it matters.
As defined by positive psychology research, meaning is the feeling of being connected to something larger than yourself. Often it feels like being of service to something larger. Might be God or community or the Prime Directive or the wellbeing of your students. As long as it gives you a sense of feeling connected or of service to something larger than yourself, it’s meaningful.
Positive psychology research tells us that this sensation is essential for our health. And it doesn’t matter where that sensation comes from. As long as you feel like you’re part of something bigger, you’ll experience greater wellbeing.
But the World wants to tell you what’s really meaningful. Why be a musician when you could contribute something of real value like the cure for cancer or a solution to homelessness? That’s the one I wrestle with. But if we take this kind of thinking to its absurdest manifestations, we see religions claiming to be “the only way to God,” and that the path to God is the only meaningful thing humanity has access to. Then each specific religion has their own ideas about how to do it, and that causes wars…
So, can we stop telling people what’s meaningful? Stop deciding for other people what they should care about? Stop insisting that everyone care about the same things you care about? We’re all just doing the best we can with what we have to work with. It’s nobody’s place to judge.
Admittedly, this has some grey areas. There’s a very real risk that people can feel of service to something that does harm to other people. So, yeah, if the KKK makes you feel connected to something larger than yourself, I’m gonna argue with you. But if we have a population full of people who feel their lives have meaning, and we don’t make them defend themselves all the time, we’ll have a population of people who are a little happier and less stressed out. It will require a society where judgement is not standard operating procedure. Which I suspect will lead to fewer people who feel like they need to fight for their own few inches of life against whatever scapegoat comes along.
On a related note, my sister has explained why we need to stop telling people they can’t be happy while there’s still evil in the world (link NSFW).
Meaning, music, and conducting.
I feel of service to my singers. I feel part of a community of musicians. I feel connected to composers from a long history, and cultures whose traditions created music from all over the world. It gives me the feeling that I’m connected to things that are larger than myself.
I even find it writing for the blog. I feel like I put some things on record that haven’t been said before, or said enough. And now, here they are, available to anyone who wants to look.
I’m reminded now of a conversation I had in my first year of teaching with the physics teacher at my school. We were talking about why we teach and I told him “to save the world.” Of course. I still feel like that’s where this goes. Eventually. Tiny step by tiny step. Word by word.
And now I’ve got this other opportunity to write something that will reach a larger audience. My sister and I are writing a book about health, feminism, sociology, history, art, mindfulness… Emily describes it as a book about why women feel exhausted all the time but still feel like they’re not doing enough. It has the premise that women’s self-care is a radical act of protest against misogyny. It’s a vast and sprawling subject. We’re combining our very different expertises in order to discuss this important subject in a way that it’s never been discussed before. Hopefully, it will be a way that is inviting and compelling and clear. And I also feel a sense of purpose and meaning in that project.
And because that’s also a paid gig, I’m gonna focus on that for the next several months, and step away from Thoughtful Gestures temporarily. I’ll be posting overflow from the book — especially stories and research that are too music-specific to be relevant to the book — over at Medium. If you’re interested in that stuff or are just curious, I hope you’ll follow me over there. I think most of you click on my blog posts through my Facebook page, and I’ll be linking the Medium posts there, too. So, no additional clicking required for those folks.
See you in a few months. In the meantime, help save the world. Enjoy what connects you to something larger than yourself, and let other people enjoy their connection to whatever feels meaningful to them.
Happy new year,