Ambiguity and the Art of Meaning

It’s a new Gilded Age. So what happened to the middle class? The planet’s warming. So why is the weather getting harsher? Poverty and disease are being historically eradicated. So why does global progress appear to be stalling? Corporations are sitting on piles of cash. So why isn’t anyone…investing in the economy?

Ambiguity. It’s the defining characteristic of this age. Yesterday offered many certainties. A secure job, stable income, lasting community…a predictable economy, culture, society. But that’s not the case anymore. Something surrounds us, permeating our worlds, defining our lives; though we call it by different names. Economic uncertainty; social instability; political unpredictability. All simply different kinds of ambiguity.

And so we’re all what you might call faithful ambiguists these days. We’re fascinated by the in between; drawn to the double-sided; obsessed by the contradictory. Is Lady Gaga an artist or a pop star? Is Russell Brand a comedian or a politician? Are you following Kim Kierkegaardashian? Did you hear that remix? Check out this mashup! We delight in the ambiguous: the collision of seemingly contradictory ideas, genres, concepts, people.

Ambiguity’s exciting. Thrilling, even. The unresolved is the undecided; and the undecided, like a roulette wheel, rouses our blood while it spins. Who’s hot on Twitter today? Who will the outrage cycle be talking about tomorrow? Where will the economy be next year? But ambiguity’s also draining. It leaves us anxious, insecure, worried. Will the wheel land on my number…ever? What happens if it doesn’t?

And so ambiguity too often leaves us ambivalent. We don’t feel strongly about…very much…except the idea of not feeling strongly about very much. We distrust our leaders; we laugh at the idea that we would trust our institutions. We switch “brands” like changing the five billion channels of nothing we’ve tuned out of. Faith in the future? Forget it: we throw our hands up in apathy, sometimes; despairing at the futility of it all. And so we learn, after a while, in this age of ambiguity, to protect ourselves. We build fortresses of irony (#LOL). We construct great walls of detachment. We friend, heart, and like…and (oh, the irony) we barely feel a thing…let alone what all the hearts and likes are supposed to point to…True Love, Searing Purpose, Burning Passion. We construct boxes…cages…caskets…and then eagerly leap into them. What are you? I’m a Brand Manager…Data Analytics Ninja…Senior Vice President…anything but the ambiguity of reality: this job, relationship, career, education that I desperately need…sucks my soul out of my heart…while stamping all over my dreams…with a futility-shaped boot.

Here’s the truth. That’s not good enough. What are we really protecting ourselves from when we declare our tiny wars on ambiguity? Ourselves. The people we were meant to be.

Ambiguity asks us: what do our lives mean? And unless we can resolve ambiguity, we will always be left with the lingering suspicion: they could, and should, have meant more. That what we took with one hand, we simply gave away with the other.

Uncertainty is possibility. And it is in possibility that significance is born. Resolving ambiguity is one of the great hallmarks of a well lived life. Resolving. Not just “resigning one’s self to”. Nor merely eliminating, extinguishing, eradicating…learning to uneasily live with. But making the most of. How?

There is a great tension at the heart of every ambiguity. This or that? Up or down? Left or right? The answer is not either or. The choice might leave you satisfied — but the tension will surely leave you discontented with your very satisfaction. The answer, if there is one, is through. Resolving ambiguity is not just making choices between two opposites; nor is it merely learning to see two opposites, and throwing one’s hands up in the air at them. It is synthesis. Discovering how to forge two opposites, which should repel, into one whole — that is greater than the sum of its parts.

It is not just finding a lover you hate; or a friend you desperately love…but a lover you can build a great friendship with. It is not just finding a career that enriches you, or a fortune that impoverishes you…but riches that enlarge you…and leave you feeling fortunate enough to thank creation for every moment you are alive. It is not just a life that makes you happy…where “happiness” is merely suffering you are relieved to avoid…but a happiness that makes you ache with purpose, burn with passion, laugh at fate, rebel against destiny.

And all that is nothing more than what we call creativity. The greatest act of creativity is the one each and every one of us must undertake every single day. Creating the instants that we call our lives. They—not money, things, or careers—are the most valuable things that have been, or will ever be. The question is this. Whose lives are we creating? Ours — or someone else’s? Do we become the people we are told to be — or the people we were meant to be?

There are as many worlds as there are dreams. Not every world matters. But every dream does. Close your eyes. Breathe. Imagine.