Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Does life have meaning? Does your life have meaning?
The whole world is on a quest for meaning. We try to apply a meaning and interpretation to just about everything that happens. There are times when things mean more than they ought. Sometimes we attempt to make them mean less than they do. Religions are created out of differences of opinion over interpretations of circumstances – all in search of what it all means.Â Whoever won a war all through history assumed they had divine providence on their side – that becomes the meaning of their victory. This is especially true if the victory seemed lopsided or even â€œimpossible.â€
So there’s that kind of â€œmeaning.â€Â All of humanity is constantly searching through patterns and events to apply meaning.
When we think of meaning, we also think about our purpose – what’s it all for? What does it all mean?
I’d like to touch on all of that today, but on a personal level. I’ll tell you the meaning of everything.
Or, to put it another way, you’re about to tell yourself the meaning of everything.
We are always attaching meaning to everything. When things meanÂ more, we’re making that happen. When things mean less, we’re making that so.
Events can have many meanings.Â We create our personal world by how we choose to interpret and assign meaning to our circumstances. The same event can affect us negatively or positively by varying degrees either way.
Someone snubs me. It could mean theyâ€™re mad at me, theyâ€™re having a bad day, Iâ€™m not worth knowing or simply that they didnâ€™t notice me.
Someone flirts with me. They could be a friendly person simply being nice, or someone who constantly needs attention and desire coming back at them, or someone openly expressing interest.
A friend criticizes me harshly and alters the relationship. My friend could have a legitimate point that needs consideration, or many other things could have been building for a long time that aren’t directly related to this criticism, or I made it difficult to communicate about it so it came out all at once with more harshness than was intended, or they have trouble communicating productively, or we never had the intimacy I thought we had, or any combination of these things.
A love interest rejects me suddenly, coldly and without warning. It could mean Iâ€™m whiny, mean, unattractive, unlovable, not ready for this relationship – or – I’m still wonderful, kind, deserving, and heâ€™s not ready for a mature, honest relationship. Or he’s simply not attracted to me for a million possible reasons. Or he needs something else and his need is best met by someone else (or no one else).
Someone lies to me. Perhaps I have a part in making it hard to tell me the truth by creating an unreasonable fear of consequence, or they are a perpetual liar, or they don’t respect me and decide to deprive me of my right to know the truth.
We apply meaning through our filters and experiences. The more open we are to other perspectives, the more likely we are to discover many options for seeing things rather than just our narrowest interpretation through our own circumstances. It’s often an extra effort to try to see things as they are. It’s a matter of stepping out of our own shoes. Examining motives. Stepping away from our own ego.
Rarely do we know for sure exactly what each moment means. We interpret. We apply the meaning. We decide.
You get to make your world. Itâ€™s all in the meaning you give it.
How do you give it new meaning?
Big, dramatic meanings
If you are inclined to define the meaning in your world dramatically (and negatively) it will hinder you.
- You give up on love because one of your loves (or two, or three, or all of them so far…) behaved selfishly
- You believe youâ€™re unworthy because a few people said so
- You interpret a bossâ€™s hostility and criticism as an indication youâ€™re not cut out to do what you do
- You pull away from people preemptively when you sense them pulling away from you
It would be best if these were not your default reactions. Others donâ€™t respond well to â€œdramatasticâ€ reactions. Using words like â€œalwaysâ€ and â€œneverâ€ are signs that you are over-exaggerating.
- â€œHe always says that.â€
- â€œShe never does that.â€
Itâ€™s rare that â€œalwaysâ€ and â€œneverâ€ are true. Use them cautiously, even in your own mind. Watch how you apply language to a situation because we can emphasize and create new meaning just by the words we use to describe life’s circumstances.
Take care with terms like â€œbestâ€ and â€œworstâ€ – this is the â€œbest day EVERRRRâ€ or â€œthis is the worst thing that could possibly happen.â€ These are typically over-exaggerations and skew our perspective. Appreciate fully, but don’t discount everything else. Notice a bad day (and how you could have made it better), but don’t give it more credit than it’s due.
Don’t look for attention from others through exaggeration even when you don’t think this is what you’re doing. Check yourself.
Superlatives usually indicate an over-dramatization of reality. Sticking in reality – eliminating emotion-laden rhetoric – is more productive and will help you maintain focus for what is really on your plate. Let others seek attention through exaggeration of circumstances – do your best to have integrity in how you describe your life, your emotions and your circumstances – even in your own head.
Instead of applying an overly negative meaning that shuts you down or paralyzes you, consider plodding forward even in the face of adversity. That is a skill and talent that successful people have. It’s a decision to be strong instead of weak.Â Sometimes itâ€™s called a â€œthick skin.â€ But really itâ€™s an ability to know who you are in spite of what meaning could be drawn from the feedback youâ€™re getting.
Know you can do it. Then do it.
If you focus on the unfairness of life it will impact you negatively. People may tell you that you deserve better than youâ€™re getting and it will feed into this inclination. Yes, completely unfair things will occur.
Sometimes you’ll get better than you deserve, but you’re not as likely to let that weigh on your psyche. It’s often that we’re granted an opportunity that would have better suited someone else or that people are extra gracious to us. We often get these bits of grace and gifts but they don’t make nearly as great an impression as the pain of unfairness. It’s important that we collect these thoughts and impressions in order to keep our perspective about the circumstances when fairness swings the other direction.
â€œWho ever said life was going to be fair?â€ Deep down, we expect it to be. We expect things like â€œkarmaâ€ or a divine fairness to be real no matter how much evidence we see around us that itâ€™s not operating in our life or the lives of others. Focusing on unfairness doesnâ€™t wave a magic wand and make it all fair again. Lamenting it, shutting down and focusing on the negative doesnâ€™t change anything.
Let it go. Move on. Do everything you can to create the world you want to live in – the one where you and others thrive – and donâ€™t worry about the rest. What can you do to counter how you were treated unfairly? Is it a matter of standing up for yourself when it’s appropriate? Is it a matter of letting it go and moving on to a more positive endeavor? Is there a lesson to learn and new information to take without you, allowing you to make better decisions?
Life will become more fair if you spend less time worrying about what everyone else is doing and getting and pay more attention to your focus on your life and goal. Whenever we’re assessing fairness, we’re comparing. Perhaps it’s in our best interest to let go of the comparisons.
Finding the balance
Figuring out what everything means from every possible perspective can be exhausting. Some of us do too much of it. We fret about and analyze every situation we encounter. And some of us donâ€™t do enough of it. We keep plodding through life and repeating our mistakes and bumping into the same situations because we donâ€™t learn the lesson the first time.
Find the middle ground. You’ll know it because it doesn’t keep you up at night dwelling on the negative, but the amount of introspection you’ve applied provides you with some new insight and growth to take with you on the rest of your journey.
How have meanings shifted over the course of your life?