The Meaning Makers

March 22, 2017 | Posted in: Myths & Folktales, Psychology

Cover of Nuevo Mundo, vintage magazine published in Madrid, 1920.

Cover of Nuevo Mundo, magazine published in Madrid, 1920.

“Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”
–Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle


A few days ago, my partner and I nearly had to evacuate our home due to a looming fire up the Boulder Canyon. We awoke to the alarming smell of smoke and planes dropping blood-red slurry behind the ridge of the nearest hillside. Our apartment building was only four blocks from the required evacuation zone, so we hustled ourselves with some frantic packing.

Even as I rushed around grabbing books, jewelry, dresses, then finally remembering my computer, passport, and wallet, my mind was already at work creating different stories depending on the moment:

Panic told me that anything I left behind would surely be turned to ashes, so I better try to bring all my books down to the car asap.

Superstition told me that my life was suddenly astir with strange chaotic happenings (ex. my computer was hacked last week and I was locked out entirely, requiring a complete wipe) and given that I just turned 30 it must all be connected somehow.

Rationality told me that was stupid, and that I should first pack more essential items before carrying out piles of books to the car.

Humor told me at least I’d have a good story to tell.

Empathy told me to check on my elderly neighbor, pack my cat’s favorite toy, and feel terrible for all the people who’d already been forced from their homes in the early hours of the morning.

The Circus, Frank X. Leyendecker, cover of Collier's National Weekly Magazine, 1906.

The Circus, Frank X. Leyendecker, cover of Collier’s National Weekly Magazine, 1906.

It was a circus in my head, flitting about from one perspective to another. But it reminded me how much we humans are story-makers. We seek to explain the happenings in our lives, taking on different perspectives depending on our current mindset.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, with each passing moment of experience we’re interpreting it into story: the story of who we are and how things are. An event is occurring, and we’re busy telling ourselves whether we’re the perpetrator or the victim, worthy or worthless, right or wrong, happy or sad, in control or out, liking our experience or not. I’ve written before making jest of superstitions, but of course I’m often guilty of seeking to make meaning of the weird happenings of my life, knitting together a picture that makes sense of all the individual threads.

“Story is the way we dribble sweetness over the often harsh realities of life’s grind, dollop by dollop, rolling what happens on the tongue until we discover the nugget of meaning, humor, heartbreak, insight.” Christina Baldwin

At times I’ve argued back and forth with myself: does this meaning-making have value or is it just self-delusion? After all, while I might like to believe that all the happenings in my life fit some grand design, have some great meaning if only I’m able to see it clearly, this story would require accepting as fact a belief that is ultimately unprovable. So, I seek to leave space for possibilities, for magical or serendipitous thinking, but avoid a dogmatic surety.

It’s true, I often make meaningful connections between events and experiences that I cannot prove. I think we all do this. Because to be human is to be a myth-maker, a storyteller of our own lives, of our societies, of our species as a whole and the reason for anything existing at all. Some of our stories are based more on shareable experiences or the best understanding science has offered us at the time. But it’s always a work-in-progress version of the truth, never the full picture itself. We’re locked in subjectivity, inescapably.

Final Scene [Schluss Szene], Alexander von Salzmann, published in Jugend, german art magazine, 1911

Final Scene [Schluss Szene], Alexander von Salzmann, published in Jugend, a German art magazine, 1911

“Everything happens for a reason.” A sentiment that makes me cringe (convinced as I am of the elemental force of chaos that rends and romps through the universe with no reason whatsoever) but I understand the urge that gives rise to it. Some of the stories we tell ourselves are limiting, negative, some are glorious, liberating. We are the meaning makers, the tale-tellers, sharing our stories every time we call up our friends and describe our days, our joys and worries, our loves and losses.

We’re all the authors of our own lives, so consider from time to time what stories you choose to tell…

“Everything can be taken from 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 way.” Viktor Frankl


Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.