Creating Meaning

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Creating Meaning

** Warning: The word “shit” is used frequently in this post. **

When I was in middle school – which was an especially chaotic time in my life, I settled on a general philosophy about how life works, loosely based on the super fun smiley faced t-shirt from the 70s that bluntly stated, “Shit Happens”. My philosophy is as follows; “Shit” does happen. Sometimes you step in it, and you have to clean your shoes. Sometimes “shit” hits the fan from every direction, and it rains down on you like a whole “shitstorm”. You can be miserable and talk about how much “shit” stinks, or you can hunker down under your umbrella until the storm passes, put on your “shit” kicking boots, get out your rake and fertilize your lawn.

With fertilizer, water, and care, beautiful things can grow.

No amount of worrying or being miserable is going to stop “shit” from happening but worrying and making yourself miserable will most definitely make you less resilient when things start going sideways. Because we cannot control everything, we are better served by focusing on what, where and how we can influence ourselves and our situation, then accepting that things are going to be what they’re going to be, even if it isn’t always going to be the way we’d like them.

Richard Bach said, “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly”.

This brings to mind Martin Seligman’s work in Positive Psychology regarding helplessness and resilience. As we have new experiences, our perspective may shift in a small way or dramatically. We become helpless (not literally helpless but we can sure feel like we are) when we take things personally, believe things to be the permanent state of things/that they are unchangeable, and create a pervasive world view based upon these negative beliefs. When that helplessness begins to permeate everything around us, our thoughts and talk begin to sound something like:

“It’s my fault that it didn’t work out because that’s just my luck or how things go for me. It always has been this way and always will be this way because I suck (or something else about me that is defective or worth-less” [yes, I hyphenated on purpose]).

Joseph Campbell, creator of “The Heroes’ Journey”, shows a pattern in storytelling predating the written word. Part of that story arc is that the protagonist of every story must go through a trial (or trials) which seems to cause the foundation of their worlds to crumble from beneath them so that they feel broken down, they go on a quest or an adventure which alters their perspective, helps them to find some deep inner strength, and the protagonist/hero returns having been transformed. This transformation, though painful, is an unavoidable process that the character must endure so that they can fulfill their purpose. The quest or adventure wherein the protagonist finds that deep, inner strength, is the unknown. The unknown is what happens in the space between what no longer is, and what has not yet come to pass.

Navigating this middle, unknown space, seems to be the longest and one of the most difficult phases of post-traumatic recovery. We have survived the physical threat, but we haven’t gotten to the other side of it, to that space where we feel reconnected to ourselves, to others, and reconnected to a higher power or sense of purpose… something greater than ourselves. Many people get stuck in this unknown and believe that they will never again feel whole, that they will never again be able to safely connect. They can flounder. They can feel lost, unmoored.  In these times, it can be a painful and disconnecting experience to hear someone say that “things will get better”. You might feel so deep in the “shit” that your body feels physically stuck in quicksand and the more you try to get out, the deeper you get sucked in.

I think one of the ways that we can get in our own way is that we try too hard to make our circumstances mean something too soon. The dust hasn’t even settled on a situation yet and in the midst of feeling overwhelmed, we make the choice that everything that feels bad must also mean something bad (personal, permanent, pervasive). We are making these huge decisions without having all the information. When we do this, we go into a mode of faulty data collection because now, we have a confirmation bias. We start to disqualify any information or data that may be contrary to the story we’ve already chosen to agree with… and then we get stuck in the unknown, feeling helpless.

Sometimes it is very helpful for us to change our circumstances – to leave an abusive relationship, to work a program and live a sober life, to leave a toxic work environment. AND even when our circumstances change, if we do not also address our dysfunctional inner processes, we will continue to find ourselves attracted to and reacting to the same (but maybe just slightly different) versions of the chaos we just survived. When we also work to shift our perspectives, are using our Wise Minds to be intentional about the meaning that we attach to our lives and circumstances, we can empower ourselves to thrive and grow in ways that we never imagined possible.

Martin Seligman’s “3 Cs of Stress Hardiness (Resilience)” are as follows:

  1. Challenge: “This is hard, but I’ve been able to face other challenges in the past. I can do this”.
  2. Control: “I will focus on what I can control and plan to cope with what I can’t”. Cue the Serenity Prayer…  “…grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.
  3. Commitment: “I know what I can do. I am willing to follow through on what I can reasonably do about this situation/these challenging circumstances even though it won’t be easy, I know I can get through it and that it will be worth the effort”.

Not everything boils down to “mind over matter” AND our perspective/beliefs/the meaning we attach to whatever it is that we happen to be going through will create either the key you need to unlock your prison cell, or it will keep you locked inside on a life sentence with no possibility of parole.

If you are unsure of what meaning you might assign to something that will help you, practice at allowing something just to be what it is until you can choose.


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