Making Meaning

…I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered.

Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, p. 19

I read this excerpt this evening and paused. In my work as a therapist, I rarely come across individuals who believe that the meaning (or even a meaning) of life is readily apparent. Part of our daily existential struggle relates to determining what kind of meaning we will ascribe to life. I tend to believe that, as humans, we are actively engaged in making meaning from everyday events, even if we’re not entirely aware of the process of doing so.

My armchair philosophical stance is a constructivist one: we each create our own version of reality. Things get interesting when I try to communicate my version to you, and vice versa. Will our realities overlap? Are they totally disparate?

Sometimes I think of individuals’ meaning-making appartuses as intricate lines of code, with input coming in from all over the place. Our parents write part of the code early on, and our siblings, friends, coworkers, and others add additional lines later in life. Temperament, genetics, early environment, culture, successes, failures – these all contribute too. Bit by bit, the code is constructed; it’s iterative, dynamic, and constantly changing. And all along it’s being executed.

We meet a new friend, feel the rain on our skin, lose a job, get stuck in traffic, watch the sunset, and all the while, our meaning making code is churning away in the background, adding up our experiences, comparing them with past experiences, crunching the numbers, and spitting out a meaning (or multiple meanings) that are somehow more than the sum of the individual incidents. As a non-techie, I know I totally mangled the metaphor, but hopefully you get the idea.

One of the roles of therapy in this process can be to add new lines of code, new ways of understanding and experiencing life. It can also help to delete some of the code, especially the lines that cause the system to crash or hang. Rewriting or adding to the code is ideally a collaborative process negotiated between the therapist and the client. In the telling, re-telling, and re-visioning of their stories, clients can come to understand their own meaning making code and how it has both shaped and been shaped by their life experiences. They can start to write not just new code, but also new stories – ones that are meaningful to them.

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