July 15th, 2022

Meaning Making

Meaning is relational. Our understanding, our basis of knowledge, all of our knowledge, is based on a certain context, specifically, the context of the life we have lived. That sounds wilder than it is. We can’t know things if we haven’t crossed paths with those things in our lifetime. I don’t know much about ancient Rome, but read a ton of mythology growing up, took two years of Latin, and I loved Gladiator when it first came out, so I have a knowledge basis (some of my knowledge sources are more useful than others) based on what experience I have in my life relating to the topic of ancient Rome. I don’t have firsthand experience of ancient Rome, and I’ve never even been to Italy, but I have multiple experiences in my life that relate back to this random, obscure topic. And that’s true for all of our knowledge. My depth of knowledge is shaped by 14 year-old me being bored by my Latin teacher, 8 year-old me thinking the red planet being named after the god of war is so cool, and 22 year-old me playing Assassin’s Creed II and running through the Coliseum virtually. If my relationship with my Latin teacher had been different, maybe if he had been more interesting (or let us watch Gladiator in class!) I would have learned more. If my upbringing hadn’t been so sheltered I probably wouldn’t have been into the gory stories from mythology. But these seemingly minute circumstances shape our knowledge base, even creating the parameters of what we have the opportunity to learn about. Our relationships even affect how we feel about learning in general. And all of us exist in a society, society at large, but also our personal world of friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, and all those relationships expend influence on us and on what we know and how we know it. I think I could write actual chapters on this, but I’ll sum it up one more way: meaning is contextual, and our context is continually defined by our relationships, therefore, meaning is relational.

Well, we got the theory down, so, now what? Well, since meaning is relational, and we are relational beings, we need to practice being aware of the relationships that affect our meaning-making. With that awareness (and all types of awareness) comes the opportunity to make more intentional choices. It all adds up to the freedom (responsibility?) of being intentional with how we create meaning in our lives. That’s incredible! But let’s break it down for a moment. Let’s say you practice following a religion. You have (perhaps not intentionally, but still) chosen to ascribe a great deal of meaning to that religion’s chosen sacred texts, you perhaps ascribe importance to mythical figures within that religious context, and you likely commit some amount of time in your daily/weekly schedule to engage with concepts that are defined as important in that religion, maybe in an organized setting like a religious service or ceremony. All these super meaningful things to you don’t mean anything at all to your neighbor who is agnostic and spends money each month for a personalized horoscope and derives a great deal of meaning from that. And your other neighbor is a research scientist and thinks you’re a religious nut and the other neighbor is getting swindled by a phony psychic because this neighbor is far too clever for any of that and just follows what science tells them and generates meaning off of research. We can pick any topic and the point remains that different people get a great deal of meaning from very different sources. And every single one of these sources of meaning in our life is susceptible to our own personal biases, our brain’s cognitive biases, and intentional manipulation by large institutions. So, we need to be aware of where we get our meaning from, why we derive meaning from that specifically, and how that meaning gets changed and shifted based on our relationship to that source of meaning. That’s a lot. Like, just common cognitive biases by themself are crazy hard to stay aware of on a day-to-day basis. So I’m not pretending that saying be aware of meaning-making is an easy process or a singular event. It is a ton of work and it is ongoing and forever changing, evolving, and adapting given our life circumstances. 

And yet. I can’t overstate how freeing, how empowering, and how wonderful it is to put in the work of gaining this awareness, because once we get better at acknowledging our own meaning-making process, we can start to build some control over how to be intentional in creating meaning in our life. Other therapy figures might talk about dreaming, building a future, love-maps, manifestation, but all those fancy-pants words lead back to this idea that we can be intentional in generating meaning in our life. If we often refer to our partner as “the ol’ ball-and-chain” then that becomes part of the story in our brain about how we assign meaning to our relationship. If we routinely practice gratitude for our partner then the focus in our head shifts quite a bit to create healthier meaning in our life related to our partner. I talk pretty openly in couples therapy about my own marriage, and in that habit will find myself continually praising my wife and being thankful for the way she is. By doing this, I cultivate a positive reaction to her without her having to do anything at all, it’s merely meaning I make important in my own mind. And therein lies the power, all the vast potential benefits of being intentional in how we create meaning. The benefits of this then can grow exponentially when we have healthy relationships that allow for and cultivate joint meaning-making. What a powerful tool for couples to communicate about a topic and generate importance in their life together! Both of you put a lot of stock in raising healthy children? Both of you think of your puppy as the most important creature in the universe? Both of you think watching The Bachelorette every Monday night is the height of civilization? Whatever you might ascribe meaning to, creating time and space for that thing to be special for both of you creates a closeness and connectedness that is hard to top. That process, especially when done collaboratively and intentionally, can be expansive in the connections we feel with another human being. It’s crazy. 

Yikes, too long of a post already. Can you tell I get jazzed talking about this? I love this stuff. This is why I’ve committed my professional life to working with people on how communicate, how to tap into this powerful thought-process, and how to learn the skills and tools to do it as a couple. If you have questions or want to learn more, reach out and let’s chat more about it!