Where does our source of meaning come from? Victor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, taught that a person must search to find what was meaningful to them, and in some cases create that meaning, to be sustained.
From Frankl: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked.”
Other philosophers, including many of the existentialists, believed that meaning was constructed by a man. That, faced with the uncertainty, suffering, and the arbitrariness of life, a man’s burden was to confront his life by deciding what was meaningful to him.
Camus, dramatic and poetic, captures the spirit of the existential perspective here, “The literal meaning of life is whatever you’re doing that prevents you from killing yourself.”
Others, particularly religious believers, think that meaning and purpose are preordained by a creator, and that it is found in realizing we were created “for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
There is a spectrum of beliefs that is revealed through these different perspectives. Picture a number line from 1-10. At the “1” mark is the belief that one’s source of meaning is solely derived from a pre-existing purpose. The meaning is already there to be had, stitched within the purpose of a creator.
The other extreme, at the “10” mark, posits that meaning is the sole construction of the human mind, only to be found in how we respond to our circumstances, and what we decide is important to us.
Is there a way to unify these perspectives? “Meaning” is a nebulous word, which we will be defining shortly; but speaking intuitively, is there a perspective that unifies the variable understandings of meaning? I posit that, in a very specific sense, there is a deep well of meaning to be extracted through one stream that exists, with nuanced expressions, in our own psyches.
What is “Meaning”?
“Meaning” is a word that belongs to the category of many other words like “love,” “purpose,” and “genius,” whose true meaning has become vague and circumstantial. To dictionary.com, “meaning” simply means “what is intended to be,” or “the end, purpose, or significance of something.”
“Meaning” has a nebulous relationship with “purpose,” which are often used interchangeably. When people are “Looking for purpose,” they are often trying to find a sense of meaning. And when someone is “Searching for meaning,” they are often looking for their purpose.
Purpose is defined as “the reason for which something exists or is done,” or “an intended or desired result.”
The relationship between the journey and destination is the tension revealed between purpose and meaning.
For the Greeks, “Telos” was a word interchangeable with “purpose,” and simply meant “end” — or to what end, aim, etc. Aristotle said that “Purpose is a desire for something in our own power, coupled with an investigation into its means.”
For Aristotle, then, “Purpose” is the broader, more far-reaching concept. And that purpose is composed of 1) the desire to achieve something combined with 2) understanding how to achieve it — or the means.
If “meaning” is the “how,” does that mean the “Meaning of life” translates to the “How of life?”
Is it coincidental that “means” and “meaning” have linguistic similarities? Purpose is the outcome — the end goal — and meaning, and our sense of meaning, is the progress made toward that outcome.
But “meaning” is also what is signified. And to “signify” means to point toward an end — a sign that you’re on the right path. “Meaning,” then, is the collection of guideposts along the route to our destination — our purpose.
Where does meaning come from?
Psychologically, it seems silly to distill all of life’s meaning to a single source, attitude, function, or expression of personality. I am not going to do that. Why? Because “meaning” can be found in every avenue of our psychological growth.
Whether we are focused on developing our Inferior, Critic, Subconscious, or even Superego, meaning can be derived from a multitude of sources. The Four Sides of the Mind can be interpreted as signifiers — or guideposts — for the avenues of meaning available to a human being.
However, there is one aspect of our mind that is equipped to carry a deeper, more sustained sense of meaning than the rest. What is this aspect? It is the Parent.
Why the Parent?
Consider this quote from Frankl: “Thus, Logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.”
And what is “logotherapy”? It is Frankl’s specific therapeutic technique that literally translates to: “Meaning therapy.” Thus, we can reimagine Frankl’s quote to this: “Thus, meaning sees in responsibility the very essence of human existence.” Meaning, then, is given by responsibility.
Why else does someone like Jordan Peterson, once a relatively obscure professor, rise to global fame on the back of a simple message: Take some responsibility.
From Peterson: “The purpose of life is finding the largest burden that you can bear and bearing it.”
To further Frankl’s concept, Peterson has made a global footprint around the fortification of responsibility: “It’s in responsibility that most people find the meaning that sustains them through life. It’s not in happiness.”
The connection between meaning and the Parent function lies in responsibility. The Parent Function is our psyche’s source of responsibility; and through it, one reaches maturity in the development of one’s Ego.
The Eight Sources of Meaning
Before reading further, it would be a useful exercise to reflect for a moment on these questions: “When do you feel most meaningfully engaged with the world and others? What are you doing when you feel the deepest sense of purpose within your life?”
There are eight functions, each shared by two types, that make up the spectrum of expressions of meaning within humankind. For each type that we analyze, the development of their parent function is dependent on their willingness to accept responsibility. And there a sense of meaning emerges.
- Te Parent: ISTJs + INTJs are seeking to become responsible with managing other people’s thoughts and developing their own beliefs through careful research, reflection, and intellectual experimentation. ISTJs and INTJs find a sense of meaning when they improve others’ thinking and commit to developing their own processes to find the truth within a given topic or discipline.
- Ti Parent: ESTPs + ENTPs find their sense of meaning in finding the truth. Responsible Ti Parents cannot help but rebel against the beliefs that they find intolerable and inaccurate. An ESTPs and ENTPs maturity lies in proportion to their willingness to search, find, and stand for what they believe is true.
- Fe Parent: ISFJs + INFJs find their sense of meaning in understanding the people in their lives and the core values that drive them. Responsible Fe Parents are open, though careful, in gathering and filtering through other people’s values. But, Fe, the most social of the judgment functions, requires the ISFJs and INFJs to engage with others. It is only through social connections that their Fe Parent can absorb the emotions, values, and pain of those around them, and learn how to manage them.
- Fi Parent: ESFPs + ENFPs find their sense of meaning in building up their own personal philosophy and what is good, what is valuable, and what is neither. Responsible Fi Parents search to not only find but embody the highest values that lead to success, but to personal refinement, gratitude, and moral conviction.
- Ne Parent: INTPs + INFPs find their sense of meaning by becoming the watchmen for the people around them — and even society at large. Mature Ne Parents steer others away from unnecessary danger and toward prosperity and fulfillment. Ne Parent protects others’ futures. They also create the mechanisms — technical, intellectual, spiritual, or social — the provides a path for others to thrive.
- Ni Parent: ENTJs + ENFJs find their sense of meaning in realizing their own vision — whether it be social, intellectual, artistic, or technological. Responsible Ni Parents are committed to realizing their vision by becoming the force that no obstacle can stop. The ENTJ and ENFJ — both Structure types — often become leaders whose Ni Parent is sufficient in potency to inspire entire movements to follow them.
- Se Parent: ISFPs + ISTPs find their sense of meaning in managing and manipulating the experience of those around them. Se Parents are often artists, athletes, or teachers, who impart useful and memorable experiences on others. Responsible Se Parents also find meaning in cultivating strength and imparting skills in others. And they can be among the greatest performers of the 16 types.
- Si Parent: ESFJs + ESTJs develop their sense of meaning by increasing their own strength. Responsible Si voluntarily seeks new experiences and commits to developing and maintaining the habits that create and refine their capacity to endure.
What drives the Parent?
Responsibility doesn’t just appear because the Parent exists. The Parent does not exist in a vacuum and it’s awareness of responsibility is not self-generated. Where does it come from, then? The Critic is the engine that refines the responsibility of the Parent.
- Ti Critic puts pressure on the IxTJs, making them feel stupid, incapable, and inaccurate. This pushes them to be careful, precise, and thorough in their research and evaluations. A responsible Te Parent is proof to the Ti Critic that the IxTJ is not stupid. Responsible IxTJs seek out the facts to consider for every decision they make.
- Te Critic puts pressure on the ExTPs to be precise and exact with their own thinking. An extraverted critic is telling the introverted Parent: “If you want it done right, you’ll have to do it yourself.” Te Critic is aware of the stupidity, rashness, and unsoundness in others’ thinking. It puts pressure on Ti Parent to be an example of proficient thinking and to be one who would do anything to preserve the truth.
- Fi Critic puts pressure on the IxFJs by making them feel useless, selfish, and guilty. Fi Critic is demanding proof from the Fe Parent to be compassionate, selfless, and socially sophisticated. Fi Critic also wants IxFJs to understand the nuances of moral values and the nature of pain. Responsible Fe Parents incorporate other’s values, emotions, and well-being into the decisions they make.
- Fe Critic puts pressure on the ExFPs to be the example of goodness, usefulness, and moral reliability. Fe Critic sees how useless others’ values are, and how inconsistent others are at sticking to their convictions. Fe Critic seeks to refine Fi Parent into not only possessing a nuanced moral philosophy, but by being willing to fight to preserve the goodness they have captured.
- Ni Critic puts pressure on the IxNPs by constricting their comfort in making choices for their own future. Ni Critic makes the INxPs uncertain when thinking about their own future. They have to go through painstaking effort before they allow themselves to want something fully. This pressure allows the INxPs to offer carefully considered and calibrated choices to others through their Ne Parent. Further, Ni Critic will only be satisfied once the INxP thinks through many of the ways things could go wrong.
- Ne Critic puts pressure on the ENxJs to be resolute in their visions for the future. Ne Critic sees others being rash with their choices, and not preparing for the future. Ne Critic shapes the Ni Critic into preparing for the future they see for themselves. Ne Critics do NOT want to be blindsided! And if the ENxJ respects the Ne Critic’s warnings, Ni Parent becomes the unstoppable force that no obstacle can overthrow.
- Si Critic puts pressure on the ISxPs, making them cynical of their incoming experience. IxSPs are often uncomfortable by default, and see that other people are incautious and careless with the experiences they give off. This gives the ISxP the opportunity to be aware and precise with the experiences they deliver to others. Arguably no one is more precise with physical experiences than an Se Parent.
- Se Critic puts pressure on the ESxJs to build up their strength, discipline, and body of experience. Se Critic, by default, is critical of others’ strength, skill, and performance. This pressure gives ESxJs the opportunity to build up their OWN habits of strength, discipline, and performance. Se Critic is trying to carve the Si Parent into something presentable and, beyond that, immovable.
The Depths of Meaning
Though the Parent sources our sense of responsibly, we can never isolate any of our Cognitive Functions entirely. The interconnected system of the 4 Sides Dynamics requires us to define pieces of ourselves in reference to the other pieces.
It is the combined wheel of the Parent and the Critic that fuels the core path of responsibility, wisdom, and meaning. But what is the Critic’s direct effect on the Parent? In other words, what is the purpose of the Critic’s influence? Responsibility is a tool that leads the Parent to accomplish its end goal. The end goal of responsibility, however, is capability.
Chase has hammered this point home for years. While the Hero functions may be the most powerful, it is a developed Parent function that can be the most accurate. But accuracy doesn’t capture the whole vision of the Parent. Something closer to discernment, the ability to see how much force to apply, and when, is the true power of the Parent and Critic Orbit.
But the journey of responsibility doesn’t stop at just the Parent or Critic, does it? If you’re familiar with the Four Sides of the Mind, you know that each side of our mind has its own Parent function. Over the course of a life, then, we each have access to four separate streams of meaning.
These four streams are the 1) Parent function within our Ego, the 2) Child function as it develops in our Subconscious, the 3) Critic function in our Shadow or Unconscious, and eventually our 4) Trickster function in our Superego.
The Parent functions of each side of the mind are collectively called “guidance functions.” Understanding the proper use of the guidance functions is vital to cognitive development and accessing the sides of your mind through orderly transitions. To learn more about guidance functions, check out the Cutting Edge from February, 2022.
Despite the Trickster, of all functions, being the most incompetent, incapable, and unaware, the path is there for the Trickster to become the master of masters within the Superego. And that, the ultimate proof of responsibility, can be a model we use for the development of each of our Parent functions. If our Trickster can one day become responsible, then certainly the other three can too.
Meaning and Purpose within the Psyche
You may have noticed that the descriptions of the Parent and Critic functions once again muddied the waters of “Meaning” and “Purpose.” That is because, though they point to slightly different things, both “Meaning” and “Purpose” feed into each other.
The Purpose of the Parent function is to develop responsibility. And the meaning we derive from the Parent is in the process we walk toward that development. In the end, the journey and the destination become part of the same substance. “Meaning” and “Purpose” exist in unison.