Meaning: What Does It Mean?
The phone rings and it’s my father on the other end of the line: “Let’s have lunch, come over to the house, your mother and I would like to have lunch with you.” Immediately I start to wonder, “What’s wrong, what is the meaning of this lunch?” My mother has knocked on deaths door so many times, and my father has been dealing with skin cancer for years. It’s not uncommon for me and my father to go out for lunch, but it was the way he said it, his tone, that left me curious.
I showed up at the house and it was just lunch. There was no news of pending death, it was just lunch. In fact, it was just a delicious toasted, tomato, avocado and mayo sandwich. I was amazed at how far off my intuition, ability to read tone, and the meaning of lunch had lead me astray.
What I didn’t know would happen at this lunch is me and my parents would have what I consider one of the most meaningful conversations of my life, and when the day comes when they are no longer with us, I will remember lunch and the meaning I created from it.
My parents volunteer much of their time, energy and passion to the women of the state prison. They provide spiritual guidance, entertainment, friendship and they help prepare them for the days after their release. During lunch, my father shared the fear that these women express to my parents about their release. They fear returning to families, friends, and jobs if they are lucky, because they have worked so hard to change while in prison and upon release, their social network expects them to be the same person they were, or they will struggle to believe that they have changed.
“We are meaning making machines.” Our brain, the most complex computer ever created, doesn’t ask permission before placing meaning on everything, and I mean EVERYTHING! Take a moment: what meaning have you given to the items around you, and how does the combination of those meanings create who you are?
My parents invited me to lunch, and I created the meaning that it could be anything other than just lunch. There were a vase of flowers on the lunch table, so I asked my father, “What do those flowers mean to you?”. He replied, “They mean that I love your mother.” My mother interjected, “They mean he is sorry.” And because they weren’t flowers that I purchased for someone they just had the meaning of flowers as far as I was concerned. One vase of flowers that we were all experiencing at the same moment had three different meanings. What meaning do you create from this image of flowers?
“Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you. … You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life.” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/06/opinion/david-brooks-the-problem-with-meaning.html?_r=2
Now, picture that incident in your life that you replay in your head and live over and over again, like a record that has a deep groove in it that the needle just can’t seem to move past. Imagine for just a moment being in prison and having the time to play that incident over and over again, constantly being reminded of the deep groove that you just can’t seem to move past. So what is that incident? What happened?
When I was asked to think of this incident in my life, I struggled to think of anything in my life that I haven’t been able to move past, learn from and grow. I have experienced divorce twice in my life, and yet am not stuck in the grooves of bitterness, hatred or resentment. Like anyone, I have lived life and therefore have experienced pain, heartache and failure, and yet I struggled to think of a deep groove in my life. I was asked to think of something I say frequently to myself when I look in the mirror, or to other. I publicly and privately repeat like a record stuck in a deep groove, “I am not a good provider!”.
As I sat there in my chair, it dawned on me at that moment that I created this meaning, “I am not a good provider.” I started to chuckle to myself as I realized I created this meaning and it would be valuable to trace my steps back in time to the incident in which I started telling myself, “I am not a good provider.” Most recently I remembered my second ex-wife informing me that part of the reason for our divorce is that she didn’t feel secure as I was not a stable provider. Traveling back further in time, I recalled failed businesses, credit card debt and multiple bank statements claiming I was overdrawn. And then I found it, like hidden treasure buried under the sands of time. It was that moment when I was 23 years old, right before going to my job as a server. Without a care in the world, me and my girlfriend stared at a positive pregnancy test.
That night at the restaurant my first table paid in cash, and with a naive element of pride, I walked up to the pregnant bartender and said “Here is some money for the baby.” I can’t remember exactly what my girlfriend said in that moment, it could have been, “No thank you,” or “You will need that to check out at the end of the night,” or “Hey loser take your baby money and shove it.” All I know is in that moment she didn’t accept my money and “I”, not her, created the meaning that, “I am not a good provider.” This belief was only reinforced as we didn’t keep the baby. “How could we? I am just a server. I am not capable of providing for myself, let alone a baby.”
I picked up the phone and called my friend, former girlfriend and ex-wife and told her what I had discovered. It was empowering and liberating to discover that it was me this whole time that created meaning that I was not a good provider from an incident in my life. And if that is true, then I have the power to create new meaning for my life. This realization was interrupted by laughter on the other end of the phone. My ex-wife, former girlfriend, friend and hairstylist said, “Craig, when I cut peoples hair they often ask, what does it take to be a hairstylist? And after telling them how many hours of school and training it takes, not to mention the financial investment, they ask ‘How were you able to do it?’ I tell them that you provided me with the opportunity to be a hairstylist and that has provided me with my livelihood and the opportunity to live in San Diego.” We shared those incidents, pregnancy test, marriage, hair school and divorce and yet from it all, created such different meaning.
So no matter if your incident(s) landed you in prison or if they just have you locked up in your own personal hell, you and only you created the meaning and the world you live in. If there is any meaning that you take away from this, I hope that it is that you have the power to create. You give meaning to your life as you are its creator. Create wisely, create passionately, create an amazing life, because it only means whatever meaning you create.
Yet what do we mean when we use the word meaning?
Because meaningfulness is built solely on an emotion, it is contentless and irreducible. Because it is built solely on emotion, it’s subjective and relativistic. You get meaning one way. I get meaning another way. Who is any of us to judge another’s emotion?
Because it’s based solely on sentiment, it is useless. There are no criteria to determine what kind of meaningfulness is higher.
Because it’s based solely on emotion, it’s fleeting. When the sensations of meaningful go away then the cause that once aroused them gets dropped, too. Ennui floods in. Personal crisis follows. There’s no reliable ground.
The philosophy of meaningfulness emerges in a culture in which there is no common moral vocabulary or framework. It emerges amid radical pluralism, when people don’t want to judge each other. Meaningfulness emerges when the fundamental question is, do we feel good?
Real moral systems are based on a balance of intellectual rigor and aroused moral sentiments. Meaningfulness is pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/06/opinion/david-brooks-the-problem-with-meaning.html?_r=2
What does it mean, when it is said “Life is Meaningless?” The first time I heard this, I experienced one of the most peaceful moments of my life as I envisioned a blank canvas as my past and a blank canvas as my future. I took responsibility for the creation, the meaning of my past, my life up to that moment, and every moment since. I envisioned a blank and meaningless future canvas in which I could create freely without fear of what it might look like to the rest of the world.
Imagine you receive a canvas covered with writings, kids scribbled with crayons all over the canvas, and someone threw paint on your canvas like Jackson Pollock, and then you were asked to create a new image on the canvas. You could attempt to cover up the writings, crayons and paint, but wouldn’t it be easier to create from a blank canvas? Now imagine the canvas of your life. How difficult is it to create your future when you current canvas is splattered with self doubt, colored with fear and the writings of failure? You are the creator of your current canvas and you too are the creator of your future.