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How to understand meaningHow does a person comprehend the meaning of an entire life? Is there a way to evaluate life as one lives it - to see the plot, the meaning, the things that have to be resolved? Is a life like a story at all, or is it so totally different that no comparison is reasonable? The characters in a story know the problem they face, but not what events are going to happen and how the tale will be resolved. In that way, life is like a story. But there are differences.
This article is about gaining some perspective on how to find meaning and purpose, and about being able to look at life objectively. This is important to stories in that meaning and purpose don't just land on us in life - and shouldn't to characters. Meaning is somewhat dependent on what our culture (or environment) defines as meaningful, and on our past experience, and on personal characteristics that help define what appeals to us, and on a personal sense of mission that we distill from our family, social, and religious environments. Most often in stories there is a threat to one of those things.
In reading over the last four years about life stories, I am at first struck by the people who "have a plan" so that they expect by age 30 to be at a certain point in their personal and professional life. Then you find that things didn't go according to plan, but other things were discovered that dragged the person this way and that. Which one of us is so clever to know what our life is about so that we can plan it strategically? Which one of us at twenty has the wisdom of 30 years additional experience that will tell us where we "should" be?
In reading about life stories from an academic point of view, I'm also struck by Charlotte's Linde's finding (Life Stories: The Creation Of Coherence) that when most people are telling their stories about life they avoid serendipidous events and causes, and tell the entire tale as if they had planned their entire life and were completely in control all along.
I am also struck by the academic propensity for quantifying, qualifying, and defining everything about experience and about life stories. I get the feeling that at some point most of us will have had our experience in life disqualified if it didn't have academic sanction. "Well, sorry, Scott, your life didn't fit into our categories and definining conditions, so as far as we are concerned your life is illegitimate and it isn't a real story, so we're consigning you to the scrap heap - just another misfit." Or, "Sorry, Mr. Cole, that is not a legitimate life experience, so your insurance will be cancelled."
In my criticism, I am referring to Charlotte Linde's excellent book, Life Stories, in which authoritative external sources, such as religion or psychoanalysis (as a source of metanarratives), are searched for as legitimate causes of ideas or frameworks for the stories in a person's life. Even though these metanarratives are often misunderstood and are misdirecting, they are still a source. What if there isn't a source? I'm also referring to Eugene Gendlin's excellent book, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, in which he searches for ways to define experience to get at the root of meaning without reducing experience to meaningless elements.
I see a dangerous potential to lose the uniqueness and separateness of each person's individual experience, and Gendlin is similarly concerned about "doing science" before investigating the phenomenon so that the results are not prescreened to fit a preconceived scientific model, instead of understanding (and if need be, inventing) the science needed to investigate meaning and experience. Gendlin takes great care to avoid quantifying and defining things by theory, instead looking for empirical He clearly grasps that life is a subjective experience that isn't limited to definitions. Each person's interpretation of his experience is infinitely variable. The objectivity and precision required for science are elusive when studying life. Today the experience might mean one thing, and a year from now with the advent of a new technology or a new perspective, the experience might mean something totally different. The experience may describe itself through its content of variable experiences (instead of through concrete language outside of itself). And the symbol may simply be a pointer to many other symbols.
Gendlin searches for ways of doing the research into meaning that guard against overzealous definitions and predetermining tools that might impose a story of life on us that restricts what life might be. He avows the relativism of experience while looking for tools to explore experience so it can be described in an open system."Meaning is formed in the interaction of experiencing and something that functions as a symbol. Feeling without symbolization is blind; symbolization without feeling is empty." - Gendlin
Sometimes life is very predictable. You are born, you live in the same house that your grandparents and their parents lived in, you go to the same school, you apprentice yourself to your father or mother, you marry, raise kids, and you die. That is a very linear progression of fixed events. But for most of us, life contains options that are potentially limitless (even if we don't pursue them) and we have no idea what combination of options we will be following. Directing a process usually isn't like directing a list of concurrent events, and it isn't usually linear (doesn't go in a predetermined straight line). Sometimes you have a fixed goal in mind, and an idea of how to get there. More often, you change the goal and the method during the process so that you maximize your outcome.
When you initiate a process, the amount of control you exert on it is up to you, and if you see a better end result as the process unfolds, then you can steer toward the better end. For example, during a person's education, courses are selected in high school each year, then in college courses are selected each year, and the goal may have been refined or completely changed at each selection date. Even those who know at age ten that they want to be a physician, don't know what they will want to specialize in, and who they will marry, and so on.
Life fits well into the process analogy. The reason is because as we gain experience, our new perspective changes everything, including our goals. And opportunities change. We "write the story" as we see new possibilities. To see life in some perspective then, requires a flexible way of planning and of evaluating life. At the end we may be able to see many stories, but at the early stages we have little but blank pages to fill and no plot in sight. To have a life plan is probably not a realistic approach for people who have many open opportunities. To look for a single unifying story is probably not a realistic view for people who live in a complex world."enculturating" ourselves in our world and of learning what has meaning in our world. Without the perspective of others we have a more difficult time making sense of our world.
Talking to others has other benefits as well. It helps us to define our situation - our story - and possibly even to put a name to our experience. Naming things makes them known, which makes them comprehensible and controllable. The more we define something, the more we know its limitations and how it behaves. For example, in psychotherapy, putting a name to something can help make it seem more real, something that can be differentiated from one's self, and make it the focus of effort to change. Before naming, it is just some arbitrary behavior and cause that we don't understand. (Naming can also make it more serious and longer lasting than it really is - permanent - which is part of why I don't like labels.)
When we tell others about the events in our lives, they begin to take form, drawing on our lives and other's perspective for additional background, until they become a story that is comprehensible.
Talking about our experiences isn't just an opportunity to form a story. It is also an opportunity to change. Mandy Aftel, in The Story of Your Life, describes the importance of talking about experience in this way: "Experience that we have talked about is deeply different from experience that we have never put into words.... Committing an experience to words not only fixes it within a verbal structure but also gives it a greater reality, because it determines how we will remember, regard, and communicate what transpired in the future. Language gives meaning to experience. Changing the words we use to describe things can actually change what we want to do and what we think we are."
What Aftel is talking about is creating or finding symbols for experience. That is, verbal symbols - words. Changing those symbols to other symbols is actually changing how we interpret our experience - the meaning to us - which is our attitude. At any time in our life we can reinterpret the same experience to have different meanings to us. As we mature, we "see things differently." But we can also remain stuck with our attitude. Aftel acknowledges that if we view an experience from the perspective of a well entrenched attitude, such as, "Nothing good ever happens to us," then an experience is just another statistic added to the pile of proof.
Not only is it helpful to put our experiences into words and think about them in different ways to help us change, the very act of telling someone else is also a vehicle to understanding and change. Eugene Gendlin, in Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, talks about change during therapy. "...the client's change and improvement depend so largely upon the interpersonal relationship with the therapist. This is what really changes him, for alone he can think about the same things, yet he remains as he is. ... how different is the experiencing of an individual in a relationship with another..."
Gendlin sees life as a process in which experience is continually changing us. So according to Gendlin (p38, 39), in therapy it is not a question of, "What are the reasons I am the way I am?" but instead, providing an experiencing process that helps the person through his change. So, to put this in my words regarding attitude, the person is becoming painfully aware that his own attitude is undermining him, and is working toward a new interpretation of his experience that will give him a new attitude - one that provides a path forward.
Regarding the problem of naming "a condition" permanently into existence, Gendlin reminds us (p78, 80) that the symbol is only a temporary framework with which to grapple with the problem, but the name can be discarded once the person is fully aware of all the experience that is involved.
On another day, the experience becomes a piece in a larger puzzle, reinterpreted, rather than a "condition" to drag around through life.
As we mature and look back on our experiences we view them from a different perspective - attitudes change - and we categorize them differently. The immediate evaluation of experience is temporal and will probably change later. In fact, as our minds try to make some sense out of the things that happen to us, we often force an erroneous conclusion just to have something "meaningful." But in the longer future we again look back from a position of great experience and see these same experiences differently and recategorize them again. The experience will probably become much more meaningful as the years pass and is correlated with other experiences. The immediate evaluation of experience is a tool for getting through everyday life by anchoring things to the sense of meaning that is present and still forming within us. While necessary, it is like forcing a square peg into a round hole. I think we shouldn't get discouraged if some experiences in life are just a mystery.
In an ideal world, each person's steps would be positive steps forward. We could say of that person that his life was "well plotted" and led to a preferred resolution. But we don't live in an ideal world, and some people's stories are tragedies that end in their death. Recently the news carried a Romeo and Juliet story of two teens who took their own lives rather than submit to their parent's wishes to break up. Many others kill someone and end up forfeiting their own lives, or do some other serious crime and end up in prison for the rest of their lives. Most of these people know the person they kill, and give in to some problem or passion that drives them. It is tragic if not fatalistic. Some people don't seem to have enough sense to even remain alive in this technological age. One man, in a fit of rebellion against the speed limit (I jest), stole a military rocket, strapped it to the roof of his car, and propelled himself down a straight section of highway. He miscalculated the rocket's power and longevity and missed a turn. The rocket drove the front of the car deep into the side of a stone cliff about a hundred feet up. These people seem to form an illustrated instruction book of how not to carry on our own lives. They are our bad examples.
What is life about? Good examples? Bad examples? Meaning? A search for meaning? To serve God? To serve each other?
In Eastern religious philosophy, life is about overcoming maya (illusion), which describes the state of suffering in ignorance and self-delusion, and being continuously trapped in the experience (Karma); but overcoming through knowledge of spiritual truth, and then ceasing to strive so to exist in a state of nirvana. Interestingly, Stanislav Grof, M.D., in his book, The Holotropic Mind, referred to Maya as a mysterious ethereal principle symbolizing the illusion that creates the world of matter. Shirley Maclaine, in Out On A Limb, referred to Maya as the visitor from another planet, which is thought possible by some as a projection from another universe.
In Western religious philosophy, life is about achieving perfection (or at least forgiveness) by becoming free through spiritual truth, in order to live with God. This involves becoming like God or Christ through serving others to become Christ-like. The "truth" sets the person free from enslavement to selfish desires.
In Existential philosophy, one exists in a state of not-knowing and derives meaning from the more relative situation. There is not a specific goal, and the exact definition of the larger picture, its makeup and its limits, may not be known, depending on the philosophical or religious orientation of the person. As in Eastern philosophy, the danger is in remaining trapped in a state of chaos (ignorance), unless a humanistic or religious philosophy establishes a goal and direction.
Although these philosophies appear different, they are alike in many ways. The underlying key to these philosophies is experience. Experience is enlightening and liberates us from our state of ignorance. God or knowledge set a specific direction. The experience of living with spiritual truth as a guide is transforming. Without experience - action, doing - there can be no progress in any of them.
To gain experience is not the goal, but the means of arriving at the goal. Yet the goal describes itself through experience.
To me this is one of the main difficulties of defining the experiences of life. The goal, is a symbol that contains the description of what is necessary to attain it - experience. To experience so to become knowledgeable of spiritual truth to cease striving, or so to become like God, or so to serve God, or so to live with God. The content of all of these symbols (goals) is setting God as the direction and treating our fellow man properly.
We are incapable of defining many experiences in life. They are subjective, depending on our past experience. For example, love is a way of experiencing, but we are not agreed on the definition of love. We have different ways of interpreting love, such as systems of thought (religion), and attitudes which create a mask (filter) over the experience. One thing tells us what love should be, and the other limits what it can mean. To one person, love is sexual attraction and fulfillment, to another it is caring and giving, to another it is a close and intense bond between people, and to some it is all of these. Love in its many forms is experienced. Experience describes what it means to an individual to love. Experience also transforms what love means to that individual.
We are accustomed to the scientific model of precisely defining things, but the definition of love is a description of many other experiences which are probably also described rather than defined.
How does one define meaning in life? Can one create and define meaning? Is meaning already within the individual? Is it already in the world as in a philosophy, or in a religion? Or can the individual create legitimate meaning both within himself and within the world? From some points of view, all meaning has already been discovered. The framework exists, all one has to do is define it, label it, write about it, and teach it. Some have found their answers and they are satisfied that the answer fits all. Meaning is defined and it is now a closed subject - part of a closed system. So then, what value is there in producing more clones? We can all die now.
But what if life is about search for meaning? Life seems to be about experiencing and understanding. Defining more than that is treading on slippery territory.
For the longer duration, I think the building metaphor is more useful. At the beginning is an idea in the mind of the architect. Ideas and love (relationships) and bringing those things to life, expressing them, exploring the depths of them, I think, are the driving force in life. A bit like character and plot. A bit like a building. When building begins, the ground is torn open and what is seen is only scars on a field. The aproximate dimensions are in view. For some reason we measure babies when they are born. Then sand and gravel are put down - very rough, rudimentary things necessary for laying a firm foundation. Babies slowly gather information about their world and begin to form rudimentary categories.
And then concrete is poured to create a strong foundation. Children are given firm rules about their world - right, wrong, dangerous, taboo, illegal, immoral, not done.
Next the framework goes up and we can begin to see the outline of the building. A door here, a window there. Children are given basic assumptions about their world - a basic framework from which to interpret their experience: This represents good and God, that is the way to a good life, this means you are building good relationships, that means you are tearing relationships down, this means you have done well, that means you have not done well, this is your duty, this is a benefit, that means he likes you.
A building is more than a roof over our head and a window to look out. Architecture determines the physical appearance of the outside of the building. Decoration changes the interior of the building. Some are bright and fun to be around, some are pretty just to look at, some are intelligent and helpful, some exude wealth and power, some are austere and some needy. Each structure speaks to us. Each is the theme of a story.
Each building has a purpose. The shape of the building, the architecture, often symbolizes that purpose, and when we see it we recognize what it it. Some are private homes for families, some are for care for the sick and injured, spirituality, entertainment, death, food and necessities, money, incarceration, etc. And each person in these buildings has a story: one who came from a broken home and found a home filled with love, one who made money and built an empire, and another who found money and lost it all, one who found his limits and was injured, one who discovered he could entertain, and one who discovered that he couldn't, one whose dream was to sell necessities to the community, one whose dream was to own a chain of stores, and one who robbed the store and went to jail. Each story relates to an idea and a purpose.
Each building has a life. Some stand for hundreds of years and thousands of people visit them. Most buildings stand for at least fifty years and see multiple families, multiple generations, multiple communities, and they get modified for multiple uses, and multiple stories. Each person has the same opportunities to interact with multiple families, multiple generations, multiple communities, and each can get modified for multiple uses, and multiple stories.
Sometimes we can see the plot, or create the plot so that we can see part of the architecture. But like a building, none of us is ever finished changing and it is diffucult to stand outside of ourselves to see the building or see the finished architecture. What is life about? Maybe about being a unique and useful building in many situations.
What I did in the preceding was to pass you a symbol. It wasn't a verbal symbol, but a visual one. The symbol was a metaphor for life. "Life is like this visualization," and I described all the elements in the visualization. In writing stories we do a similar thing. We pass ideas and emotions and meaning through dramatic action. We break the dramatic action down into scenes, and in each scene we try to convey very specific things - especially the "feeling," of the experience.
If we have written the story well, we have described what is at stake for the character. This is another way of saying, "What does it mean to the character?" Value. This is the character's motivation. Through various character experiences, we have shown what something means. We have passed that to the audience as a symbol full of feelings. The actor doesn't shout, "I'm afraid!" We look at the villain, the gun, and the actor showing fear, and we understand without it being verbalized. We also describe the threat - the villain. Through various character experiences, we show how much of a threat the villain is. We pass this symbol full of feeling to the audience. No one comes on stage and shouts, "He's mean!" Instead, as one writer said, "The villain comes on stage and kicks the dog." We understand.
We can't really tell a story. What we do is pass symbols full of meaning that people "get" without analyzing. Thus the saying, "Show, don't tell." Story writers are the premier symbol passers.Primary Contact.
I haven't written this series for myself. I have more meaning and purpose than I know what to do with. Someone once looked at my intense activity and said, "Get a life." I replied, "I already have six and my wife won't let me have any more." And I am frequently confronted by those close to me, and associates, and others who search for meaning and purpose in their lives. I wish that I could hand them a card and say, "There's your answer." I don't have "the" answer, but I can identify with others difficulties. I too know the negative side of life. I have been "burned out," from too much caring and too many struggles, to the point of really not caring. From the embers, I have rekindled the flame, but some days I get depressed. Some days I even wonder why I bother. But mostly my days are fulfilling.
I can share from my own life, as I have tried to some in this series, some things that have helped me or that I believe.
Other things are often important to us because they have to do with our own growth and development. There is something for us to conquer or establish just to show the extent of our abilities - proving ourselves - a benchmark, permanently establishing a sense of self-confidence (competence, intellect, accomplishment, ability, character, discipline). Sometimes these challenges are the mysterious paths we take that don't seem to relate to anything. And then sometimes they are a lifetime goal. These often give us the confidence to tackle other aspects of our lives.
Sometimes restrictions are impossibly providential, and sometimes they are just obstacles. I think that some dreams were meant to keep us going while we wrestle with other important problems in life. Other dreams are things we could have if we really reached for them. We make our choices and we live with them. I like to differentiate between what we appreciate in an idealized way and what we really really want - want badly enough to stretch for, and even sacrifice for. I also like to differentiate between what is possible and what is probable. It may be possible for most people to accomplish a purpose that requires extreme measures, but it is not very probable that most will - only a few.
What is really important to a person, I suppose, might be the final words a person says to the rest of the world - an epitaph - a few brief lines on a tombstone. A sense of humor is an important trait to have, and some epitaphs reflect a sense of humor. Others reflect love, etc.
If you had to write an epitaph for a character in a story you are writing, what would it be? What would his life have stood for - what meaning - that you could sum up in a few words on a headstone? Following are some quick thoughts with no particular order or message:
Here lie I, martyr to abuse, gave my entire life to say mistreatment makes refuse.
I can't lie here, because 'I can't' stopped me from ever doing anything.
I tried to find myself all of my life, and now here I am.
I never grew up, never grew old, lived until I died.
Lived hard, died young (loved it, pain and all).
Don't worry, be happy, splat!
Lost cause. Lost to everyone, cause I refused to care.
If it was a negative story, what could he do differently to take positive control of his life and change it? What would the new meaning be?
A story demonstrating differences in perception and interpretation
Series References for the Life Stories section:
Gendlin, Eugene, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning: A Philosophical and Psychological Approach to the Subjective, 1997. (Note: I highly recommend this book for those looking for tools for understanding meaning in a relativist framework.)
Aftel, Mandy, The Story of Your Life: Becoming the Author of Your Experience, 1997.
Anderson, Greg, Living Life On Purpose: A Guide To Creating A Life Of Success And Significance, 1997.
Aziz, Robert, C.G. Jung's Psychology of Religion and Synchronicity, 1990.
Bateson, Mary Catherine, Composing A Life. Life as a work in progress - the improvisations of five extraordinary women..., 1990
Cole, Dorian Scott, The Last Prophet, 1979. (Used for reference only, not available)
Cole, Dorian Scott, Covenant Expectations of the Immediate Future In Some Post-Exilic Prophets, 1978. (Used for reference only, not available)
Linde, Charlotte, Life Stories: The Creation Of Coherence, 1993.
Turner, Robert Griffith, The Fire and the Rose: Human Core Needs and Personal Transformation, 1996.
Vaughan, Frances, Shadows of the Sacred: Seeing through Spiritual Illusions, 1995.
Whitmont, Edward C., The Symbolic Quest: Basic Concepts of Analytical Psychology, 1969.
Young, Jeffrey E., Reinventing Your Life: How to Break Free From Negative Life Patterns, 1994.
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