Making meaning in the world

“Life is not a problem to be solved; but a reality to be experienced.” Soren Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher who lived in the nineteenth century and is widely acclaimed to be the first existential philosopher. He was also a theologian, poet, social critic and religious author who had a fondness for metaphor, irony and parables (myths).

Much of his philosophical work addressed issues of how we live as a single individual in a world that fundamentally lacks any inherent meaning. A world that, ironically, without meaning, appears absurd and evokes within us a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread. His point was that we each had the privilege of personal choice about how we interpreted the world and brought meaning to our experiences, as well as the opportunity to be committed to those things in life that were important to us passionately, sincerely, and authentically.

Choosing our experiences

One of the great privileges of being human is our capacity to choose what we think, although for many, this is an unconscious insight. Through societal and cultural conditioning, we are taught to think and act in certain ways in response to some sort of stimulus, whether it be mental, physical or both. For many people, the response to that stimulus appears in their mind to be almost automatic. That is, without choice. Of course, if that stimulus was real or perceived as life threatening, then an automatic response would be essential. In these circumstances, it is often referred to as either the fight or flight response. We all possess it and it is fundamental to our physical survival.

However, leaving aside real or perceived life threatening situations, we often respond automatically to other “metaphorical” life threatening situations in a similar manner, except in these circumstances the life under threat is not our physical life, but the life of our ego. To put it another way, we often personalise circumstances, making everything mean something about us. Something happens in the external world and we instantaneously make it mean something about us in the internal world of our minds. The reality is however, that the external circumstances have no independent meaning seperate from the meaning we bring to them.

Three different approaches to finding meaning

To demonstrate, I have a good friend who, back in 1983, lost their family home in the Ash Wednesday bushfires in Victoria, Australia. His family consisted of himself, his sister, and his father. The meaning my friend brought to the loss of the house was to be reflective, sentimental and philosophical. The meaning his sister brought to the loss was to be devastated, deeply scarred, and forever fearful of future fires. His father brought a stoic pragmatism to the loss and simply started designing a new house; one that he always wanted to build. So, one fire, one house lost, three very different meaning making experiences.

The same can be said of all experiences. We bring an array of influence to our thoughts including our feelings, discriminations, values, beliefs, knowledge, experiences, faith and morality. And whilst some of these influences maybe deeply ingrained, they are nonetheless lacking of any independent reality. They are created by our minds, and so, to Kierkegaard’s point, we can therefore choose what we make them mean.

Learning from our experiences

To go a step further, the Buddha said that all adversities were opportunities to exhibit virtue such as patience in the face of anger, kindness in the face of disservice, generosity in the face of greed, and so on. Aristotle said not dissimilar things. Each advocated that the development of our virtue was contingent upon the learning that we took from the collective experiences of our lives. Aristotle called it phronesis. The Buddha called it Pragña. Both words essentially mean wisdom.

Making the unconscious conscious

Confucius said that we learned wisdom one of three ways: through reflection, the noblest; imitation, the easiest; or experience, the bitterest; and it was from our experiences that we learned about the wisdom of our life. The famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said “that which does not kill us makes us stronger”, implying that adversity teaches us about our wisdom and our innate capabilities. Capabilities that are often hidden in our unconscious minds. Carl Jung said that “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” And so it goes on.

Finding wisdom in reflection

All experiences evoke feelings and they too need to be honoured. The point of taking wisdom from our experiences is not to rationalise away our feelings, but rather to honour them fully and, over time, sometimes a long time, come to understand what it is they taught us about ourselves, not from our egos, but from the wisdom of our minds.

Reflection allows a richer and deeper exploration of our experiences. Over time, the meaning that we bring to those experiences changes, sometimes radically, often subtly. This is a good thing. It means that we are finding the deeper purpose to the experience and the opportunity to find the ‘gold amongst the mud’. Amongst the complexity of adversity lies a blessing that only a mind of wisdom can come to realise.

Deriving wisdom from adversity takes great courage and skill. We need to shift the focus of our minds from a deeply held sense of self, derived from our ego or self cherishing, to a sense of higher self upon where our wisdom resides. To Kierkegaard’s point, by reflecting upon the previous experiences of our lives over time, we come to understand what those experiences have meant to us, how they have shaped who we perceive ourselves to be, and with wisdom, to take from those valuable experiences a deeper understanding of what is important to us passionately, sincerely and authentically. It also allows us the opportunity to claim back our power, particularly when the experiences were adverse and painful.

The things that shape us

The past however, is not a place to dwell or reside. It is the place from which to learn so that we can move forward into the future with greater confidence, competence and faith that we have gained the skills we need to continue navigating our lives in a way that honours and further nurtures those things we are most passionate, sincere and authentic about.

So, if we look back upon our lives with wisdom we will come to realise that not a minute has been wasted. Every experience, whether good, bad or indifferent, has shaped us, crafted our life, and allowed us the opportunity, not to try and solve problems, but to live and experience life fully. They have allowed us to develop our wisdom, and to take back our power to choose. To choose what we genuinely believe to be both wise and beneficial for the greater good of ourselves and others, and to discard the rest. By so doing, we have the opportunity to liberate ourselves from any unnecessary suffering. Suffering that, through the unskillful bringing of meaning to experience, we inadvertently inherited.

Listen to the podcast

This blog post has a corresponding episode on the Allegorical Life podcast. Play the audio file or jump over to iTunes using the button below to take a listen.

The Allegorical Life Podcast Episode #9: Looking Back, Living Forwards

by by Mark Crosweller, AFSM