I Am Not Invisible: Reflections on Meaning and Perspective
By Michael Honey
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015. 106 pp.
ISBN 978-1514363713 $12.46
Reviewed by Paul T. P. Wong
My biggest surprise is that this slim book is packed with so many helpful wisdoms and insights, which often elude scholarly treatises on the weighty subject of the meaning of life. It summarizes Michael’s personal journey of searching for meaning and he has the gift of expressing this fundamental existential struggle in a beautiful poetic language. Here is an example of his delightful inspired writing: “where the pen moves, the words flow, like a river without source, a wind without direction, from a place like home but without an address” (p. 29).
I believe that thoughtful readers will agree with Michael that at the deepest level of human existence, what is personal is also universal, what is mundane is also spiritual, and what is invisible can become visible. I do hope that readers can make good use of this book as a guide in their personal quest for meaning.
Sometimes, You Can Judge a Book by its Cover
The cover of this book instantly grabbed my attention. I had the uncanny feeling that it looked so familiar and yet so new. There was the feeling of deja vu as I looked at the cover and it stared right back at me.
The picture of the cover reminds me of the universal game of peek-a-boo—a game that captures the inherent tension of wanting to hide and wanting to be found. The single wide opened eye, peeking out between two figures behind the two hands covering the face, speaks volumes. On the one hand, we are fearful of being exposed in our nakedness and dark side. On the other hand, we want to be found and known as we truly are. This tension between our need for a persona and the need for authenticity and intimacy is always there. Perhaps, this is the root cause of our alienation and restlessness.
The title is equally provocative and it conveys the same existential tension. On the one hand, it sounds like a protest statement, affirming one’s existence and significance in a vast and unresponsive universe. On the other hand, it sounds like a tacit acknowledgment that one is lost in the crowd struggling to make one’s voice heard. It reveals the ambiguous feeling that we are torn between two options—to be invisible in the faceless crowd, or to stand out and be recognized as a unique individual. This conflict between conformity and individuality, between bad faith and good faith, is another way of expressing the basic existential anxiety, which drives us to search for meaning in relationships.
Thus, the book cover is full of symbolism and assures me what lies between the covers is worth reading. Indeed, I am not disappointed. The book is a collection of several short but brilliant essays; Michael weaves together several recurrent threads into an illuminating picture of meaning in life. Many of the chapters are illustrated by carefully selected provocative pictures.
In this book review, I will comment on a few main themes and metaphors, which I find most helpful. Having done meaning research for more than 30 years, I still find something new and inspirational in this small book. I am sure that if you are willing to spend some time to reflect on these pages, you will be richly rewarded in your own existential quest.
Perspective is Everything
The first thing that stands out is Michael’s emphasis on the principle of perspective in the quest for meaning. “Any meaning uncovered in our lives is a function of perspective” (p. 15). Michael has just hit the nail on the head. Indeed, one’s search for meaning, whether in our personal lives and in scientific research, “will draw one towards the boundaries of one’s perspective” (p. 15).
Towards the end of the book, he states this principle more clearly:
Meaning is not hiding. It is our perspective, our way of seeking which renders as invisible what and who is right there, what and who has always been available… The mystery which shrouds meaning is the veil of perspective, both collective and personal, which shrouds the ability to see and to experience what and who has been with us at all time. (p. 90)
Our prevailing cultural norms and personal beliefs and values can both limit our perspective to discover meaning. Such barriers will be discussed in detail later. Meanwhile, I would suggest that both materialism and consumerism can direct our eyes to only what is visible, tangible, useful and buyable, thus, leaving out the possibility that there may be something invisible, mysterious, and yet real.
Michael seems to argue that the uncertainty principle allows some room for imagination, spirituality and faith. “There appears to be something holding the root structure of me, the entire universe and the physical laws together. It is as if there remains something invisible working within the universe, the physical laws and the human history” (p. 57). That something is the spiritual and invisible force that is working its way through what is physical and visible.
Michael shares Father Teilhard de Chardin’s (1999) deep respect for both faith and reason and his courageous struggle to integrate the material and spiritual world. This perspective represents “a new way of imagining and describing… A change in perspective can change the invisible into the visible.” (p. 59). This new perspective also assumes a direction and purpose for the “the dust and atoms of the universe” (p. 59) as well as for the human history. By integrating science and theology, the universe can become a meaningful place with an ultimate purpose. With some imagination, Michael concludes that “the personal meaning I uncover may be larger than my life and me and helpful to other people within their search for meaning” (p. 60).
The perspective on a purposeful transcendental reality endows the universe with both spirituality and ultimate meaning—something, whether God the creator or the Higher power—is the ultimate reality that regulates the physical universe and the spiritual journey of humanity with the same purposeful laws. Such affirmation is essential to recognizing the existence of the soul or the spiritual dimension that working in us purposefully towards the discovery of meaning.
This perspective is very similar to Frankl’s (1985) basic tenant of meaning in life—that meaning can be discovered in the universe as well in everyday situations. It is also similar to Wong’s (2012a) concept of meaning mindset as a frame of reference to view oneself, others and the world. Such a spiritual and meaning-oriented worldview is the key to discovering the ultimate meaning of the universe as well as the meaning potential of day-to-day situations.
It is understandable that those who believe in scientism or materialism would have difficulty accepting this spiritual orientation. I have encountered some individuals in all my workshops on meaning therapy around the globe. I usually assure them that they can also discover meaning, but their search for meaning would be limited to the world of atoms and neurons. It is entirely up to individuals to choose a perspective that is most likely to satisfy their deepest yearning for meaning. Michael poses the same challenge to his readers:
What is meaning in life that we have been seeking? What is this something? Is this my soul? Is this my unconscious? Is this my muse? Is this something of the divine resonating within me? Is this but an echo of the neurons firing in my brain? … The answer to any of these questions will affect the meaning your seek, the meaning you discover, the meaning you make, and the meanings you hold onto through life. (p. 97)
Soul is the Restless Companion of the Human Condition
This is a constant refrain throughout the book. Soul is described as mysterious, invisible, and the restless, spiritual aspect of the human condition. Soul has become part of the common parlance even among atheists. Generally, it refers to the immaterial but noble aspect of personality.
The author is more explicit about the nature and importance of soul. By its nature, the soul is seeking a spiritual home that transcends the historical-cultural context of everyday living. The soul is restless, because its special needs are not met, and worse still, even its existence is not recognized by some people. The restless hungry soul is crying out for our attention.
Soul cannot be satisfied by money or by any material things this world can offer, because its needs are of a spiritual, existential nature. This deeply felt yearning can only be filled by throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into something or someone much bigger than we are. In a way, it is good thing that our inner restlessness prompts us to search for meaning and self-transcendence.
The embodied material part of soul may find some satisfaction and happiness in the material world, but the spiritual part of soul cannot be satisfied by the here-and-now and it is restless, seeking satisfaction and expression of “the satisfaction of mystery, imagination, meaning and the flame of distillation” (p. 42).
The synthetic god of materialism and consumerism “is actually working against my soul, against my image, slowly tearing me apart, peace by peace. Slowly grinding me into dust, day by day” (p. 40). This felt sense of brokenness contributes to our restlessness and calls our attention to the spiritual aspect of our being.
There is something within my shadow that begins to rattle… Reminding me that some part of me would like to return home from this shadowy place of exile… Perhaps my soul will be restless as long as there are parts of me rattling within the shadows of exile. (p. 35)
Brokenness, fragmentation, rattling, alienation and shadows of exile can also be regarded as the dark side of the human condition, crying out for healing and restoration. In sum, the restlessness of our soul represents our need for restoration and return to a spiritual home.
Soul is Seeking a Home
The home is a powerful metaphor and the major missing piece in search for meaning. It is a place “calling out to me and resonating within my soul” (p. 68). According to Michael, meaning is inextricably linked to the concept of home, which provides both a center of gravity and a place where one feels grounded in the midst of chaos and uncertainties.
From his transcendental perspective, home has both a personal and cosmic meaning. In this book, I can recognize three levels of analysis of the metaphor of “home.”
At the personal level, home is a center of gravity of being, an inner sanctuary, or a spiritual or existential grounding on which we can stand with certain measures of security. Home is a place of rest for our restless feet, a refuge from stormy weathers, and place where our deepest needs for meaning are met. It is the only place where we can be truly ourselves and free to use our unique talents to create and contribute to the world. This is the subjective experience of finding “a place of feeling lived within” (p. 30), regardless of the current or future weather condition.
At the relational level, home is a community or network of relationships. Home is a place where we feel belonging, where we experience reciprocal love and care. It is a place where we can serve, play and enjoy each other together. It is also a school where we learn to serve and love each other in a selfless manner. This is the objective criterion of finding and making meaning through serving someone or something bigger than ourselves. A lot of research has supported this conclusion (e.g., Batthyany & Russo-Netzer, 2014; Wong, 2012b).
Michael is very explicit about the spiritual implications of the ordinary experience of relationships. My story and your story have the special quality of connection in everyday life. “The divine is a by-product of the human process of being in relation to self, other and all that is experienced” (p. 71). God’s invisible love becomes visible and concrete with each kind word and kind deed we show to each other. When every human being is valued, when we listen to each other’s story with interest and respect, something divine and eternal happens.
By nature, we are social creatures. Our home can only be found in relationships. Therefore, it is quite understandable that we would feel alienated and restless, in a broken and lonely world, where people feel utilized, marginalized, displaced, and dehumanized. We are out of our elements, when the community around us is unravelling. That is why meaning exists within relationships.
At the cosmic level, Michael asks: “What is my place in this universe? It can make me feel as if I am nothing, in relationship to all that exists, and therefore meaningless” (p. 25). Considering the vastness of the universe and all the galaxies, we indeed feel as insignificant as a grain of sand. How can we find a center of gravity for our being, a spiritual home that connects the here and now with the eternal, and the visible with the invisible?
How much of this search is a spiritual process and how much of this exploration is a psychological process? Either way, by discovering some image, or experience of my center of gravity of being, I also locate something which feels secure and indestructible. (p. 25)
This search for a home in the universe leads us back to where we started—a personal sense of home, which can be lived from within, but which also extends beyond the confines of time and space and reaches to what has always been there universally. Thus, home is where we can have a sense of being secure in ourselves and yet connects us with each other horizontally and connects to the creator or higher power vertically.
Interestingly, his search for a spiritual home leads to the discovery that “home is where I have already been. Home is territory which has already been explored. My story is my home” (p. 75). His analysis of home is very similar to Wong’s (2014) attunement theory which posits that we will experience life as meaningful, when we are at home with ourselves, with others and with the world. Such attunement is related to a meaning-oriented perspective and the story we live by.
Barrier to Discovering Meaning
Since the home we have been looking for is always there, waiting to be discovered, what has prevented us from finding it? “The barriers into meaning are both collective and personal. Collective barriers into meaning can be most harmful when they remain invisible” (p. 35).
Michael correctly points out that our cultural belief in the Almighty Dollar is the main barrier to the meaning quest, because money “has become the global god, idol, the modern myth” (p. 31). Our materialistic culture in a consumer society can “cause me to wonder if there is anything of lasting value and meaning” (p. 34). Michael wonders: “How do I reconcile my soul with economy? How do I keep and hold myself together in the presence of this god, this synthetic divine other?” (p. 39).
He knows from both personal experience and observation that “the economy demands a continuous living sacrifice. The sacrifice of my time for money so that I may afford to live in the world of this synthetic god” (p. 39). Fortunately, the false god can never satisfy our deepest longings, and our restless soul can still assert itself: “My soul is not for sale… No money required” (p. 34).
His inspirational message is that the invisible is simply the other side of being visible and that the home for our restless soul is right where we are. Our spiritual home, at all three levels, can be discovered and experienced with a change in our perspective and with kindness and respect for each other in our relationships. We can co-create a spiritual home even on a factory floor or in a busy market place.
The other major barrier to our search is the “impenetrable boundary” (p. 73) of our assumptions and perspectives, such as naturalism or scientism. If we believe that the physical world is all there is, our search for meaning will not go beyond the realm of atoms and neurons.
Michael proposes that when our search for meaning leads us to dead end, we can “turn around at the imaginal boundary” and discover that “home is where I have already been” (p. 75). Thus, with a radical change of perspective, we may finally discover our home, “a place of grace, gratitude, grounding and meaning” (p. 75).
One interesting insight from Michael is that looking too hard can actually result in finding nothing. “Something within the search for meaning, the focus on the search itself can obscure or obstruct from view anything meaningful” (p. 30). The search for meaning can benefit from a willingness to entertain new perspectives and returning to familiar territories over and over again.
Finding a Home for Restless Soul through Iterations
Iteration is a mathematical and computer programming concept, but herein lies the secret to finding a home for restless soul. Michael suggests that “life is about iteration. Iterations of self, soul, and psyche. Each new personal iteration lands me into a place containing something unanticipated. … Each iteration is an expression of what soul wants. Getting down and dirty with my own shit will help keep the landing area form being an overly messy experience” (p. 49). Thus, iteration is a necessary process of discovering something new and purifying us from something toxic.
The key to iteration is our capacity to make responsible choices and the right reactions to our experiences. “Each literation is the end result of choices we made” (p. 51). These choices are guided by our intention of “looking for meaning and trying to be aware of where meaning is” (p. 52). More specifically, he refers to the quest for something that satisfies our deepest longing: “From place to place searching for some sense of what seems to be calling out to me and resonating within my bones” (p. 68). This quest is involves the process of purification and transformation, because it is the “the process of distilling something divine from coarse matter” (p. 69).
This is can be a messy and difficult process, yet, it is a necessary process to discover something meaningful and significant in everyday situations. “This may be imagined as the creation of something eternal out of the temporal. This requires concentrated work, energy and a sustaining story to bring about the transformation” (p. 71).
Michael’s major contribution to the meaning literature is to add the iteration concept to the tradition of metaphor of journey from points A to point B. His new insight is that iteration is inherently imbedded in the journey; therefore, our search for meaning can be both incremental and cyclical. Iteration does not need to result in an endless loop, but it can move to the next cycle of iteration after revealing a hidden part of ourselves and life itself. Each iteration can move us to make some positive changes and move forward.
In psychological terms, iteration may mean existential reflection or life review. It entails taking some time to reflect and take stock of one’s life experience. It is typically motivated by an awareness of our own restless soul syndrome and our yearning for a home that cannot be provided by a synthetic god.
For Michael, iterations involve working through “archetype and archetypal images as a subset of the primary image that moves me, and that I am both creating and discovering within each iteration of imagination” (p. 67). For others, iterations may involve mindful meditation or personal devotion to a Higher Power as a way to discover a wealth of meaning in everyday living. The book ends on a promising note. “It is entirely possible that the meaning you seek is with you right now, providing the solid ground for your restless soul” (p. 102).
I find this book resonates with me a great deal, because his search for meaning has led to the same conclusion that Viktor Frankl (1985) discovered many years ago, but Michael has also added fresh insights for younger generations.
The genius of Viktor Frankl is that he points out the seeming contradiction that our relentless search for meaning and the constant availability of meaning. He offers the solution to this apparent paradox—adopting the perspective of affirming the intrinsic meaning and values of life and finding it through self-transcendence in ethical and responsible relationships, because we are spiritual and moral at our core. From a very different starting point, Michael essentially comes to the same conclusion.
Michael’s book is inspirational because it demonstrates that one does not need graduate degrees in psychology or philosophy, and one does not need a university affiliation with a big research grant, in order to find profound answers to the most persistent question of meaning in life. I do hope that one day Michael can write a full-length book to further develop his brilliant ideas contained in this slim volume.
I highly recommend this book to all those who are aware of their “restless soul syndrome” and those who have reached an “impenetrable boundary” in their meaning quest. I hate to see this genuine gemstone overlooked by meaning seekers.
- Batthyany, A. & Russo-Netzer, P. (Eds.) (2014), Meaning in existential and positive psychology. New York, NY: Springer.
- Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning (Revised & updated ed.). New York, NY: Washington Square Press.
- Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1999). The human phenomenon (1999), Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic, 2003: ISBN 1-902210-30-1
- Wong, P. T. P. (2012a). What is the meaning mindset? International Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy, 4(1), 1-3.
- Wong, P. T. P. (Ed.). (2012b). The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2014). From attunement to a meaning-centred good life: Book review of Daniel Haybron’s Happiness: A very short introduction. International Journal of Wellbeing, 4(2), 100-105. doi:10.5502/ijw.v4i2.