So, I’ve been chugging along with the rest of my life, leaving the posting to this blog on autopilot, while I launch some other ventures. I’m starting to teach college students (and others who may be job seeking) how to connect effectively with recruiters, so they can get the work they want… and avoid the work situations they don’t want to get into.
More on that later. Now, dear reader, we’ve arrived at a section of the book that’s near and dear to my heart. Let’s talk about meaning!
As I said in my last post (and my book):
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.
So, yeah, yeah, whatever. That’s nice, Kay, but what difference does that make?
Actually, it makes a lot of difference. Think about it. we’re living in strange times. Absurd times. And all the roads seem to lead either to nowhere, straight off a cliff, into anticipated danger, or in some indeterminate direction that could take us either to paradise or the brink of destruction.
A lot of of literally have no map of the road ahead. Who the heck has a map? Tell me, because I want to talk to them.
Meaning is our map. I can’t stress this enough. Each and every one of us has our own way of finding meaning in life (don’t get me started about how life is supposedly meaningless). And when we lose touch with the internal map we use to guide ourselves through life, well, our lives can seem meaningless. They’re not. But we think they are. And that’s a problem.
A couple of posts ago, I defined “meaning” as
the significance we give to the ebb and flow of our lives in this confusing, overwhelming world. Meaning is hugely important to us, and according to Merriam-Webster, “mean” is one of the top 1% of words looked up at their website. We usually think of it in terms of significance or importance, direction or purpose. What something means is central [to us]. It leads our understanding down a certain path and lets us “design for . . . a specified purpose or future”.
You see, in certain contexts, the word “mean” indicates someone heading in a certain direction. A few examples jump out at me.
- A means to an end… where something provides a kind of bridge from where we want to go, to reaching our ultimate destination.
- Living within your means… is about living in harmony with the resources that make it possible for us to achieve our goals.
- A person of means… indicates someone with the resources to get from where they are to where they plan to go.
So, “means” has a tangible, practical significance to us. It’s what gets us from one point to another in our lives, in a material way. And we use the word and understand its … meaning… as if there were never any question. Because we get it, in those contexts.
However, when we look at philosophical, psychological, or spiritual Meaning, we pretend that it’s something ephemeral… otherworldly. But it’s pretty much the same as material means, conceptually speaking. Just like “means” can be about having the resource to make it possible to get from Point A to Point B (or C, M, X, and Z), “meaning” is literally about our mind having the capacity to see a future course for us, based on existing resources – i.e., the patterns we’ve seen in the past.
Those patterns are more than just fanciful ideas we cling to for whatever reason. There’s a physical component to them, as well, that makes them every bit as tangible as a fistful of money, or a wallet full of credit cards. Whether we’re aware or not, our prior experiences are biochemically, emotionally, mentally embedded in our human systems. And based on those different signals we picked up along the way, we construct a veritable bridge to our future. Out of the minuscule biochemical building blocks that load up our systems, we pave the path that we detect ahead.
Having a sense of meaning adds purpose and direction to our lives. After all, you can’t have a purpose, if you can’t see an ultimate destination. And there’s no point in going in any direction at all, if you can’t detect which one will work. We make these judgement calls all the time – snap judgments that “just work” for us in the moment, which we assume are right on. Because they feel right. They fit. They confirm our biases or they widen the world ahead of us.
But meaning doesn’t just happen by itself. It’s something we construct. Out of our past experiences. Out of what we think are empirical data points. We observe. We process. We detect. We assign significance. And then we decide what it all means… where it’s taking us.
Now, I know there are some folks who say “life is inherently meaningless”. But I think it’s much more hopeful — and, in fact, more accurate — to say that “life is infinitely meaningful”. Because it is. It is full of patterns, full of choices, full of signals. And they can be combined and recombined in any particular way we like. Of course, they don’t arrange themselves. We have to do that part. But life isn’t stingy at all, when it comes to patterns or indicators or pointers to some distant destination. It’s overflowing with meaning.
We just have to pick the meanings that work for us.