“To be or not to be?” What is the meaning of this question? To live or die? To take decisive action or to passively do nothing? To be who you’ve always been, who you’re expected to be, or to embrace an inner-you that has yet to be realized?
The meaning of anything…of everything…is contextual and subjective. Too often, we just accept our first interpretation as the only option and our reality becomes superficial, habitual, and limited. Taking the time to contemplate the possibilities, as Hamlet (quoted above) does, invites some complexity and conflict, yet, through that tension comes an opportunity for more clarity and choice.
Life can be understood to take place on two planes of experience,
- What happens, and
- The meaning we assign to those happenings.
The first is viewed through a practical—if not literal lens, and the second—takes the form of a more emotional and thus unpredictable, irrational, and autonomous perspective.
Let’s use John, Jane and Jessie as examples. Each of them just returned from a short trip and each of them is waiting curbside at the airport to be picked up by a friend who is already 25 minutes late.
- John has previously been kept waiting by this friend and thus becomes angry, interpreting his friend’s lateness as evidence that he clearly doesn’t care that John is tired after a long flight and is now standing at the curb breathing in the exhaust of the drivers who managed to pick up their passengers on time.
- Jane has a history of feeling undervalued and abandoned which gets triggered by this experience and leads her to feel disheartened, depressed, and unworthy.
- Jessie assumes that there is traffic or some other reason for the delay and sits down to read the book they started on the flight.
Though they are all experiencing the same circumstances, the meaning they assign to the experience and the emotional results of feeling content, dejected, or angry, are worlds apart.
In many situations our initial responses stem from unconscious psychological complexes. It can take a lot of personal reflection and/or professional therapy to diminish their negative influence. Yet, many times we can consciously assign a positive and productive meaning to our experience. Below is the SANE model of simple steps to increase our ability to choose our own meaning.
Stop. Take a deep breath and create room for reflection.
Acknowledge the difference between the situation itself and how you feel about the situation.
Name your feelings (anger, frustration, disappointment, gratitude, contentment, optimism, etc.) and determine if they are being of service or disservice to the experience you want.
Elect how you want to feel and if it is different than what you named in the last step, choose something else.
Get curious, be flexible, realize that the more we are consciously aware of our attitudes the more able we will be to determine the meaning of the moment rather than have it determined for us.
Austrian neurologist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor E. Frankl (1905-1997) who wrote in his remarkable and still relevant book, Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Remember, you can’t find the meaning you crave if you don’t take the time to look for it. Make some time now to reflect on the following.
- What is a meaningful experience you had in the past, what did it mean to you then, and what meaning does it hold for you now?
- What is meaningful element of your life now? Is it inherently meaningful or do you project meaning on to it?
- What areas of your life do you wish were more meaningful? What will you do about it?
Stacey Zackin, PhD, MSW, PCC (Manager, WORK_SPACE)