Today I was looking through some old pictures and came across one of my sister and me on the ferry back from San Francisco. At the moment that picture was taken, there wasn’t anything happening that swung my emotion drastically enough in any direction to make a mark on the album of my life. 15 minutes later though was a different story and seeing this picture took me right back to that moment, the feelings I was having and what it meant… to me.
Events in our life can seem random, cruel, joyous or liberating. We can experience events that take us to a place of perceived nirvana or crushing despair and as different as those two experiences are, they have one thing in common, their meaning was determined by our view of them.
I remember sitting on the beach, at sunset, with a group of friends, sometime during the summer of 1991. I was living in Hawaii at the time and groups of friends often had folks who were there on vacation added to them, this group was no different.
One of the visitors commented that the sunsets they had experienced during their week in Hawaii were nearly enlightening and how fortunate we were to be living there. I pointed out that our spectacular sunsets were actually the result of a devastating volcanic eruption in the Philippines. To the scientific community, the same eruption had the potential to counteract global warming (NY Times Article)… everybody’s view was different.
My point here is that what happens soon disappears into our stories about what happened, and the stories are as numerous as the people on the planet… each with their own meaning.
Back to the ferry…
My sister was in town visiting along with my niece and some other friends. The plan was to spend the day in San Francisco, return to Napa and when it was nearing bedtime, I would go spend the night at my then girlfriend’s house to free up sleeping space in my home.
We were on the ferry back to Napa when I saw that I had missed a phone call, but there was a message… from my girlfriend. I eagerly hit the play button and listened to a message that went something like this (names omitted) “Hi, you can’t come over tonight because I have invited my ex-husband to spend the night with me. OK, bye.”
Now pause for a moment and imagine the anger, fear, frustration, confusion, etc., etc., that I felt.
What did it mean?
At the time, and for a long while afterwards, I carried my story of this and the story’s ever evolving meaning around like a yoke… a very heavy yoke.
From my view, this definitely ranked as one of those moments of crushing despair that would etch itself on the album of my life.
That ex-girlfriend has now been back with her former husband for a number of years. From their view, that day could have marked the reignition of their relationship, perhaps even one of those perceived nirvana events I mentioned earlier. Certainly a much different perspective than mine.
So, the meaning relied totally on which view you had.
Who was right?
For the longest time I was certainly convinced I was. In fact, I would be willing to bet that most of us would consider our meaning of any given thing or event to be the right meaning.
But, what I’ve come to realize is that it really didn’t mean anything. It happened, and everything else is just a story about it.
So, we’re both right and if her former husband has any meaning associated with that night, he’s right too.
The larger view…
I once read that if you took a drop of ocean water and knew everything about that drop of water, you would know the ocean. Applying this view to the meaning of the events I’ve mentioned would mean that if they didn’t have any intrinsic meaning then, perhaps, life itself has no intrinsic meaning.
Yes, I just said life has no meaning and in that we should find freedom. You see, it’s human nature to place meaning on everything. There’s probably nothing we spend more of our life doing than trying to associate meaning and purpose to ourselves and the world around us.
If we can accept that life has no meaning, it leaves nothing but a blank canvas to make it mean whatever we want it to. And guess what, whether we’re conscious of it or not life will mean whatever it is we tell ourselves it means. (Tweet That)
Any meaning that anything has begins with the story we tell about it… words. (Tweet That)
How would you describe the meaning of life?