I once wrote on this blog that everything that happens in life, as it unfolds, is neither good nor bad but instead neutral, and that thinking about events after they occur gives our experiences meaning(s). It was a very sophisticated, quasi-spiritual approach. Today I’d like to make an adjustment to this concept.
There is no self without society, no thought without culture. Nothing in life is isolated; we never live out an event without considering how things happened in the past. We each have expectations before we encounter an experience—expectations based on our individual histories, our loved ones’ histories, and the culture in which we operate. All of these forces affect how we “feel” future events.
Meaning is thus constructed not just during or after an experience but before we approach it.
Take a first date, for example. However it turns out, I have a script in my head as I drive to meet my potential mate. I recall how my past dates have gone (usually terribly), I remember how my parents met years ago, and I turn to images from American pop culture, possibly referencing an episode of The Bachelor to determine how a date “should” work.
This entire process originates in the unconscious mind. It’s not as if we have an experience and it simply happens without our constant pre-framing, framing and re-framing. Complicating matters is the realization that often our expectations don’t mesh with reality. Also, nothing is static. We are never locked into one interpretation of an event but are free to re-frame our re-frames. (This is where psychiatrists and professional counselors make their money).
Though it may sound rather Zen that nothing has meaning in and of itself, the truth is that we can’t escape value judgments about anything. We want meaning even if the universe just throws experiences at us, and the meanings we provide often stem from forces outside our conscious control.