I think of “meaning” as a sort of master pattern that we piece together from the past to help guide us into the future. It’s a conceptual road map of our world view that puts the full range of our experiences and observations in the context of a larger pattern, explaining the past, putting our current situation in context, and pointing us in directions that are consistent with the ways we think the world works. Meaning helps us make sense out of our world, both literally and figuratively. It orients us in life. It shows us the way. It adds logical predictability to our thinking and creates palpable sensations when we engage with our world. In order to have means, we need an end, and meaning shows us the ends toward which we are (or should be) moving.
We expect our lives to unfold in a certain way, with an expected series of events that lead to the next “logical” step in our meaningful lives.
When everything is going “according to plan” the way you’ve been assured it would, life is full of shared meaning with the larger community. It gives us a way to connect with others, to orient ourselves, and figure out what we can expect on down the line.
Sometimes life takes some unexpected turns, and parts of the pattern change.
And when tragedy strikes, the imagined future is canceled out, turning life into little more than existence for those who relied on an expected unfolding pattern for a sense of meaning and purpose.
We navigate the world constantly with our expected patterns in mind. Most of the time, we’re not even aware of it. They’re “loaded” behind the scenes, like images and scripts downloading in your web browser which just seem to belong there. We don’t give a lot of thought to those patterns, for the most part, when they work for us. But they tell us exactly where we need to go – and why.
A man lies in a pool of blood babbling incoherently on a sidewalk not far from an “iffy” part of town, and people think that means he got drunk and fell, or that his blood is poisoned with a deadly virus and they need to stay away. Or someone realizes that he might have extremely low blood sugar, and on top of that, his head injury has made it impossible for him to speak clearly, so that means he needs medical help right away. You go for a walk and see your neighbor sitting quietly in her garden. Others figure that means she’s just stopping to rest – the way she often does. But when you pass by, you notice she’s acting an awful lot like the guy who needed your help just a few days before, and that means you need to help her. Each interpretation draws on past experiences or related knowledge and tells us what to do about new details we’ve just perceived. Meaning turns the details of our lives into a series of signposts, so we can understand the use them to progress further along a path that makes sense to us in the context of our own trajectory.