Krishnamurti once said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”. This saying is ricocheting around in my mind today as I found myself visiting with an expert in the field of marriage and family therapy. He reminded me of all the standard concepts that exist within family therapy. Things like “It is expected for divorce to be contentious.” “In divorce situations it is normal for kids to feel like they are in the middle.” “Introduction of the step parents must be done very slowly because the new step parent is considered to be a threat to the connection with mom or dad.” I am silent in disbelief. My own life disproves each one of these concepts. In the middle of that silence, it is becoming obvious to me that I will have to write a parenting book one day soon.
Think of all the things that at one point in history were thought to be normal, but which now appear appalling. It does not feel good to be ahead of the times. Traditionally, being ahead of the wave means getting rejected and crucified and then years later adored and immortalized.
Meaning is the thing that lies beneath the surface of our suffering. We do not begin this life by generating meaning on our own. We look to the adults in our life to give us meaning in the situations that we encounter. We then have a choice. We can give them meaning that is painful or we can give them meaning that is not painful. We have to think very, very carefully about this decision because their life experience is built upon the back of the meaning that we give them. All the things that antiquated therapists are saying are accurate; provided that the meaning you have fed a child during a divorce is painful. But the standard approaches to healing in such scenarios do not deal with the root of the problem, which is the meaning itself that has been added to the experience. If we dealt with the meaning, we could throw the standard practices we adhere to right out the window. All other work is surface work. It is like trying to suture wounds to the skin, while ignoring a compound fracture.
Man is on an endless search for meaning. Mankind has been searching for the meaning of every experience it encounters for thousands of years. What does this mean for people in today’s world? It means people search for a way of interpreting the implication of every experience in their lives. Seeking out the meaning of experiences is an advanced form of consciousness. But as we know all too well, there are pitfalls to advancement. An example of one such pitfall is that one can be egotistical about being egoless. Humans are what I like to call apitfall species, where the very excellence of their particular form of consciousness becomes their very downfall. The ability to derive meaning is both something that sets our species apart as an evolved and rapidly expanding facet of consciousness as well as what causes us to self-destruct.
We encounter various experiences in our day-to-day life. Some we could consider positive and some we could consider negative. But the quality of our experience relative to those experiences is flavored by one thing and that is the meaning that we assign to the experience. It is well known that the experience of labor and birth can be drastically more or less painful from one mother to the next based on the meaning she assigns to the experience. Two people’s experience of the same event is often drastically different based on the fact that they interpret different meaning out of the same experience.
Think of it this way… if you started uncontrollably vomiting right now and you thought that the meaning of the experience was that you didn’t wash your hands well enough and had caught a deadly virus, your experience of that event would be drastically worse than if you thought that the meaning of the experience was that your body had begun to cleanse itself of all the toxins within itself so as to become renewed to a state of health.
It is critical to recognize that there is a difference between what actually happens and the meaning of what happens. We must see that meaning does not inherently exist in the world in and of itself. Therefore, meaning does not inherently exist in a situation. It is an interpretation. And it is best not to confuse interpretation with truth. If meaning does not inherently exist in an experience, we must and do assign it to the experience and then we mistake the event and the meaning of the event for the same thing. Think of this like peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter is the experience, jelly is the meaning we assign to the experience and if we stir the two together, we mistake them for one thing… a third substance. This disallows us to see the truth of an experience. We must learnt to separate the peanut butter from the jelly, or the experience from the meaning if we are ever to regain a sense of truth and learn to select meaning that benefits us instead of destroys us.
If you think this idea of assigning meaning to events doesn’t sound too serious, consider that you can destroy your whole life based on the meaning you assign to an event. Case in point, a little girl asks her dad to play dolls at 7 years old, but he is on the phone. He yells at her to stop bugging him. This is a traumatic experience for her at 7 years old. She takes it personally. Now let’s pretend the meaning she assigns to this event is “I am insignificant to my dad”. That was not the meaning of the experience of the event for the father. The meaning for the father was, ‘I’m busy right now’. But the moment that little girl assigns that meaning to the event, it is as if a colored lens comes up over her eyes and from that moment on, all things that happen between her and her father are filtered through that colored lens. The truth is now colored and distorted by that perception that the meaning creates. Every time something happens between the father and daughter that causes her to feel bad, it will automatically strengthen that meaning she’s perceiving her life through.
The colored lens gets thicker and thicker until anything that doesn’t reinforce it, cannot pass through. This father could really love his daughter more than anything in his life and do all kinds of loving things, but it will not matter because all his actions are now being filtered through the lens of the meaning she adopted at 7 years old. The father has no idea why she is so angry with him as she grows up. The girl in this scenario is likely to grow up believing she is insignificant to men, just like she was to daddy and will end up in relationships with emotionally unavailable men, covering up her misery with various addictions, wondering why her self esteem is so damn low. Looking at this analogy of the colored lens, doesn’t this account for why two people perceive the same thing so differently?
What I want you to consider is that the painful meaning you assigned to your experiences, was never the actual meaning of those experiences. What we must consider is that we’ve been punishing people or avoiding them for a meaning that we, ourselves assigned to that experience with them. We may even be punishing people or avoiding them for a meaning that someone else fed us about them. What we must consider is that much of the pain we are experiencing in our lives is not because of what we actually experienced but because of the meaning we’ve assigned to those experiences. Doesn’t this also make much more sense why we tend to be so confused about other people’s defensive behavior? It is important to note that conflicts about interpretation of meaning account for the majority of our more than frequent miscommunications with others.
Take a look back over your earliest memories. With each memory ask yourself, what did I decide that it meant? What did I think was the meaning of the experience? Then imagine that at that moment, your ‘meaning glasses’ went on and you interpreted everything that was to follow up into your adulthood through those lenses. Does some of your life make more sense now? Do some of your relationships make sense now? What if the meaning you assigned to an event was not an accurate interpretation?
We need to question the meaning we assign to experiences. For example, let’s say that someone gives you a really crappy birthday present and you feel your heart sink. Ask yourself “what am I making this mean? And the answer may be, ‘he or she doesn’t really care enough about me to figure out what I like and want’. At this point, instead of assuming that what actually happened is that they demonstrated that they do not care about you, you can either question this meaning you have assigned to the experience or you can authentically inform the other person of what you are making it mean and ask if that is in fact the actual meaning. This gives them an opportunity to set the record straight. It also gives you the ability to not put those meaning glasses on in the first place and thus to remain illusion free.
Separate out the peanut butter from the jelly and question the jelly. In other words, separate out the events that occur from the meaning you interpret from and assign to the event then question the meaning instead of assuming it. Take off those glasses that you put on so long ago… And prepare for your whole world to become a whole lot clearer.
I have made many mistakes in my life. Because of this blog, you know about many of them. But this is one area of my life where I have succeeded immensely. When my son’s father and I divorced, we could have made the experience mean that we didn’t love each other anymore. We could have made it mean that our son has to choose between us. We could have made it mean that mommy did something bad or daddy did something bad. We could have made it mean that mommy or daddy’s new partner was ruining the family. We could have made it mean that mommy or daddy loves their new partner more than they love their son. These are just some of the ‘normal’ examples of meaning that parents hand their children during divorce.
When we got divorced, being well aware of the lifelong damage done to children who are caught in the conflict of poorly handled divorces, we decided that above all else, we did not want to cause him damage. We did not want him to lose either of us. Instead of simply going our separate ways, we were adult enough to support each other through the grief of the divorce. We continued to live together. We figured that if we loved each other enough to be married for 6 years, deciding to no longer be in the role of husband and wife did not have to change that love to hate. We decided to transition our role with each other to friends who are still family and co-parents. We were conscious about the meaning we gave to our son about the experience. We gave him drastically different meaning than most children are given in tandem with divorce. We made the divorce mean that Daddy and Mommy still love each other and him. We made the divorce mean that Daddy and Mommy want to help each other get what they really want and what would really make them happy. When we decided to move into different homes, we made it mean that he gets two houses and not just one. When we started to date other people (with their own kids), we made it mean that he gets to have even more people to love him and more kids to play with. All of this came with the task of being very conscious to have our actions match our words. As a result, there was no trauma incurred from the divorce. Mommy being with a new partner does not mean that he loses, it means he gains. As a result of this meaning, he approaches new partners with excitement right off the bat… something the antiquated family therapists would see as “abnormal”.
As parents, it is not our duty to lie to our children or to shelter them by enabling their denial. It is our duty to question the meaning we ourselves add to experiences so that we do not pass on painful meaning to them. It is our duty to be deliberate enough to give them the meaning that will benefit them the most. This is the difference between consciously setting them up for a life of success and unconsciously destroying them. Meaning is like sustenance or food for the emotional self. When we feed them painful meaning, we feed them acid that slowly corrodes them from within. When we feed them meaning that benefits their life and adds to their feeling of happiness and security, we feed them vitamins that build them from within.
When we are faced with situations where we need to feel validated in our own pain and can only feel validated and accompanied in that pain by giving them the same painful meaning we hold about a situation, we are getting validation from our children at a cost. The cost is their life. Are we willing to pay that price? As therapists of any kind, we need to see that meaning is what lies behind the pain of the circumstances people present us with. We need to begin our therapy process by discovering and demolishing the meaning that people have added to the experiences that are causing them pain. By doing so, we set them free to love.
I am going to propose that from this day forward, whenever we encounter a trigger or an event that causes us pain, we ask ourselves, “What am I making this mean?” So that we can discern the difference between what is actually happening and what we think the meaning of the experience is. This gives us the opportunity to set the record straight. I am also going to propose that as parents, any time a child is faced with a potentially difficult situation, we ask ourselves, “What am I telling my child with my words or showing them with my actions that this situation means?” Their behavior will make complete sense if we look at them through this lens. We need to see the damage we are doing to them and their future life clearly in order to stop and make a change. And if we can take this a step further by being conscious about meaning before we say something or take an action, we can consider ourselves to be conscious parents. Ask yourself “What would I be making this situation mean for my child if I said this thing or did this thing?”
Friedrich Neitzsche once said “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering”. A person may be able to reasonably debate the idea that life is about suffering. But what is non debatable, is the role that meaning plays in one’s ability or disability to live a life worth living. It is meaning that imprisons us and it is meaning that sets us free.