Reflections on What Meaning Means

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One major aspect that makes Existential Psychology stand out from other models of psychology is that we use a different Psychological Currency. What we value is Meaning as the great contributor toward an individual’s psychological health. Without meaning in one’s life, there is little to help the individual live with vitality. Other psychologies emphasize instincts, thought patterns, stimulus and response patterns, but meaning is our ingredient. Recently, I have begun to ask myself what meaning is. Like most good questions, I have found that this is not an easy question to answer. But I will humbly share some of my initial impressions and reflections on what meaning means.

Meaning is built through intentional daily habit. It is safe to say that people are engaged in meaningful projects on a daily basis and that we work toward goals that may only be at the periphery of our reflective awareness. A project such as raising our children to be productive adults is something that parents try to work on in each action that they engage in. Meaning is made, in these cases, one action at a time. When we solve a particular crisis well, we are pleased with our patience and craftiness since we hope that our children may imitate our approach in the future. Likewise, when we handle situations poorly, we recognize that our children might also copy that action, and so this is a moment for us to review our methods and take a look at our self. Taking a look at our self is the most human act because it puts us face to face with our own vulnerability and acknowledges that we have some choice about our actions. Meaning, thus, is built every day in our actions and intentions. It is built in a slow “tapestry” through all that we invest our time in and also by the fact that we sometimes choose to waste our time.

Meaning is the coat hook of experience. Certain events have a life-altering quality to them. Not all experience is given the same psychological weight by the individual. Important events may be considered as “defining moments” in our life. Some of the moments have been long in coming like the child graduating high school; others are those that can appear suddenly as twists of fate. These major events are the ones that have a “coat hook” quality to them. These are events that a person can see a significant shift in where one was going and where one ended up. Looking back, a person can often see that their whole life was altered by a few of these important experiences. Very important parts of our self “hang” on these few events. If you would review the most important moment in your life, it is quite probable that the closest person in your life would probably only know about a few of them. Meaning is built slowly but also coagulates around self-selected moments.

Meaning making means creating a container for the disorganization of being. Human beings desire that events in their lives make “sense”. We might say that all culture, religion and science are attempts to make order out of the apparent unpredictability of human life. These disciplines are trying to answer the basic question: “Why did this happen?” Meaning making is the process of trying to find that thread that runs through a chain of events and makes them coherent. When we were young, many of our parents read us fables that would end with a moral. The moral of the story is the “take home” message that clearly interpreted the action into something useful for the child to remember. Meaning is what we take away from events so that we can better anticipate how to respond when we are in a similar situation in the future. Meaning must be made, though. A person has to reflect on the action, and this requires that we reflect on an episode in our lives. Reflection is a kind of phenomenological process that attempts to boil down experience into a digestible lesson that we can store for future use. The most troubling events seem to have pain but no meaning.

Confusing, emotional, surprising events call us to process them so that we can build meaning into them. When a group goes through a harrowing experience, they frequently gather together to talk about what just happened. For example, after a family fight, we may find a family member and pull them aside to debrief. In that debriefing, we replay the event and try to tease out the intentions of the major players in the dispute. What did he mean when he said this… Was she trying to stir to the pot or was she trying to calm things down when she said that. The two persons work through the scenario to come to some agreement on what the sides were arguing about. If we are unable to make an event meaningful, it disturbs us. We often lose sleep over it. We are plagued by the uncanniness of the occurrence. Feeling like we understand what happened is enough for us to let it go—even if we don’t have the ‘whole’ story. The meaning of complex experiences can’t be made all at one time.

Powerful experiences might have multiple meanings that may emerge at different times. Often, psychologically painful events are those that are first understood as tragic experiences because they seem to close off possibilities that a person had been working toward. The immediate meaning from this event is that it is destructive to the self in progress. We might also struggle to understand “why” these things happened to us. But, as time goes by, another “possible self” and different futures are created. Then, these “tragic” events can be re-understood as transformative moment in one’s “positive” re-creation of the self. For example, the heartbreak of the loss of one’s first love may eventually lead to a more mature envisioning of a love relationship; this new vision might lead to more thoughtful approach to dating. Thus, it may potentially produce a satisfying long-term partner. A single experience can be initially meaningful in one way and then later understood in the exact opposite. Meaningful events are often paradoxical in that they are both: an end and a beginning and moments of danger and opportunity.

It is worth noting that positive experiences can also change into their opposites. Positive experiences might bolster our self-esteem and become a coat hook of our self-definition. Crowning achievements and masterful works are often projects over which we have toiled for many years before reaping any significant reward. To a certain extent, these achievements are experiences that can never be taken away from us. Oddly, this too can limit one’s growth. For example, it is surprising how athletes are revered for events that happened 20, 30 or 40 years in the past. Some athletes make careers out of reliving a single event over and over: signing autographs, attending card shows, and opening supermarkets, all based on a deed done decades long ago. Imagine retelling a thousand times the story of a particular event, as if nothing has happened in your life since that time. Meaningful events can become their own trap as the person worships those past glory days. We call this living in the past.

Trauma is an unprocessed tragic event. Trauma is a deep, rich, powerful event, and yet, it is destructive of one’s projected sense of becoming. The traumatic events take away some imagined possibility or some world of the person. An accident that causes the amputation of hand removes the possibility of being a piano virtuoso (at least in the traditional sense). The traumatic event not only has to be processed in the “why did this happen to me” way but also in the “who am I now” fashion. In both cases, trauma is often a question posed by the experience to a person who is not prepared to answer that question at the moment. In addition, to those questions, there are often powerful emotions that one will need to give voice to. Many times emotions like guilt and shame keep the traumatic event from being processed in a liberating way. Those emotions can lead to psychological paralysis rather that vital responsiveness. Thus, meaning creation may take years and some psychological distance before the person can even pursue some kind of meaning for the event. Until the person can put the trauma into meaningful words (or symbols), the event will “haunt” them.

Therapy is an act that helps people process past events so that the future can come into focus. Talking about our experience is the major way that human beings make meaning. Some experiences are so painful that people do not want to talk about them. This is the sign of trauma. Silence and avoidance act as a negative spell that keep us focused on the past rather than on the future. The therapist’s goal is to get the client to talk about the events that one does not want to talk about. The major part of the healing done in psychotherapy occurs when the deep dark secrets are exposed to the light. Talk gives the amorphous emotional ooze some form. The power of therapy is in its ability to shape the past into an understandable experience, to take the lessons we have earned the right to see from that experience and to free one’s self from the haunted backward gaze. The future is enriched now by the lessons of the past and the person, having let go of the backward gaze, can turn one’s attention toward one’s possibilities.

In conclusion, meaning is portable experience. Meaning is made in our daily projects. What we dedicate our time to in some way reflects what is meaningful to us. The meaning of a particular event can change over time, sometimes evolving from a positive event into a negative event and vice versa. Trauma is pain without meaning. Only when we can make an experience meaningful are we freed from its chains. Therapy is an act that aims at liberation through transforming trauma into meaningful pain.

— Richard Bargdill

Today’s guest contributor, Richard Bargdill, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA, and is currently the membership chair and a member-at-large for the Executive Board of the Society for Humanistic Psychology.

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