Making Meaning

Sep 11, 2010   //   by Steve Wooding   //   A Slice of Lemon, Articles  //  No Comments

IN SHORT: We are the authors and editors of our own ‘life dictionary’ and, just as language evolves and the meanings and usage of words changes over time, there’s no reason at all that the meanings and usage of our daily experiences can’t be changed for the better over time too.

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is,
but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.”
[Viktor Frankl, 20th-centrury neurologist, holocaust survivor, author & therapist]

“I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way
we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.”
[Hermann Hesse, 19/20th-century novelist & Nobel prize-winner]

(1288 words, approx 7-10 mins to read)

“They’d left the place in a total mess. The home cinema equipment and his brand new TV along with his laptop had been taken. The contents of the cupboards and shelves, at least the stuff they hadn’t taken, was strewn across the floor and coffee table. Then he saw that the framed photo of him and his grandfather on their last fishing trip had been trampled during the ransacking of the room and now lay in pieces with the frame broken, glass shattered and the picture torn beyond repair. It was this that upset him, more than all the rest.”

Nearly every one of us has some object or picture, a letter or other keepsake that, for us at least, has some deep meaning attached to it – a memory of a place or person, a significant event that stirs us deep within. They provide us with a tangible connection to the intangible at an emotional, visceral level, beyond the objective, factual definitions that our head gives us.

For example, I have several pictures, cards and photos stuck to the inside of my wardrobe door that are either of my children, or were drawn or made by them when they were younger. On top of my cupboard in my office stands a (now empty!) bottle of French brandy bought as a thank-you by one of my first presentation coaching clients. Perhaps you could just take a moment now to look around (or imagine looking around) a room at home – how many items are there that have some meaning like that attached to them?

But those same items would be meaningless to someone else. That pebble from the beach where you had your first kiss is really just one pebble amongst many millions. The first picture your child managed to legibly sign her name on is simply just a piece of paper with wax crayon scrawled across it, like so many others. They only have meaning and value because we give them meaning and value – as a deliberate act of our heart and mind. Without that, those keepsakes are just clutter, rubbish, another bit of the humdrum stuff that pops up in everyday life.

Why, for example, should a lithograph of a baseball player, printed on card and sold with cigarettes or sweets a century ago, be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars? The simple answer is because someone, somewhere decided that’s what it’s worth, and the rest of the memorabilia world agree.

Why should a t-shirt with a designer name printed on the front be worth ten times as much as the same shirt without it? Because the designer says that’s what it’s worth, the shops label it as such, fashion culture follows, and we go along with it, that’s why.

What we think and believe, the associations we carry in our minds and hearts about each of these objects, whatever they are, are what actually creates that little piece of personal magic that transforms ubiquitous lead into emotional gold.

We do the same thing with much more than objects. We do it to words, facial expressions, actions, glances, bodily sensations – in fact everything that we experience in life, inside and out, is basically ‘meaning-less’ until we transform it and give it meaning. And, yes, we even do it to the people around us too.

(Those of you with a philosophical bent or education should remember I’m not getting all nihilistic here and saying that all things are totally meaningless… well, not quite..!)

But all to often, instead of transforming those things into gold, we can transform them into much more dangerous implements.

Let’s say, for example, you try your hand at something new, but can’t quite get it to work as you’d like. You can transform that experience into ‘total failure’, making it mean that you’re no good at it, can’t learn, even that you’re no good at anything really, that you’re worthless: you’ve mutated that experience into your own personal poison.

Or instead you can choose to transform that experience into ‘useful feedback’ or even ‘another step closer to success’  and focus on what’s working and what you need to improve on, until eventually you are as good as you set out to be, or even better.

Maybe you could find an unexpected lump or experience unusual pain somewhere but this is simply a medical fact. You can either mutate it into meaning that you must have cancer or some other disease and create fear and dread, or take it to mean that you need to get a little professional judgement to decide what to do next.

If you’re single, you could be mutating the fact of your current lack of a long-term relationship into meaning you’ll never find the right person, that you’re unattractive, or that ‘all the good ones are already taken’ and so be creating sadness or despair. Or you could transform it into meaning that you’ve just not found the right person for you yet, and that you won’t settle for second-best.

Simply summarised, it’s this:

We create meaning and worth
from the ‘facts’ of our experience
with our own imagination.

Ultimately, and powerfully, that creative ability of ours gets tuned in on ourselves, often without us realising it – and we have to decide on our self-worth and the meaning our life has or should have.

Unfortunately though, we can all too easily let external influences make that decision for us and dictate to us what a thing, a person, or ourselves mean and how much it or they are worth. Those influences my come to us as parents, governments, colleagues, managers, friends, partner or spouse, the press, religious leaders, TV, advertisers – the list could go on and on…

In some cases, these outside influences can (and indeed should) be wholly positive and life-affirming – many do find wholly positive meaning and purpose in their faith, good managers connect with their teams in healthy and motivating ways, and healthy relationships build each of those involved up.

But in all to many cases the opposite is true and manipulation, abuse, dictatorial authority and even subtle psychology are used to try to make us feel less worthy unless we do as we’re told, love as they want, fall in line, perform as expected, or buy their products.

In the end though, even in these situations, the choice of meaning-making is still ours: we can choose to go with what those outside influences try to make us think and feel, or we can choose instead to deflect their poisoned darts and decide for ourselves.

So, here’s a challenge for the next few days at least, and longer if you realise how useful it is:

Whenever you see, hear or feel something around you that you respond to with any kind of emotional sensation, whether positive or negative, stop for a moment and do the following:

  1. First, notice what it was that triggered your response.
    For example, it might have been an object, or a person, or something someone said or did.
  2. Now ask yourself what meaning you’re giving that object/person/word/action that your emotional response is part of or is pointing you towards.
    For example, you may feel a sense of pride when noticing an award or certificate for one of your achievements
  3. And then ask yourself how useful that meaning is for you.
    For example, is it positive and affirming, building you up, or is it negative and destructive,  pulling you down.
  4. If the meaning is negative, ponder what meaning you’d like to give to it instead – what would you need to do, think, feel, change or let go of in order to redefine it as neutral, or even positive?

We are the authors and editors of our own ‘life dictionary’ and, just as language evolves and the meanings and usage of words changes over time, there’s no reason at all that the meanings and usage of our daily experiences can’t be changed for the better over time too.

Until next time,


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