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Life meanings

Updated: Oct 23, 2021

Life meaning depends on our ability to reflect on our present experiences as they relate to our past and our future: how we got where we are, and how our current situation can lead us to where we want to be.

Aging gives us the ability to interpret events in the context of a larger framework, and life decisions offer themselves for new interpretations. Meaning can hardly be seen in the heat of decisions; it requires time. Nevertheless, we are always required to promptly find a reason for our life decisions, especially those that threaten the conventional wisdom: Why did we end a "good" relationship? Why are we quitting a well-paid job? Why did we stay in a "bad" relationship for so long? Reasons for decisions are either very contextual or, according to psychoanalysis, deeply rooted in childhood trauma. But reasons are not as interesting as the meanings the events actually develop over time. There is a subtle but critical difference between why and what for.

Amos Tversky, one of the fathers of behavioral economics, pointedly noted that events generally associated with major decisions don't reveal much about who we are because they are almost random and statistically not representative, unlike small actions rooted in more systematic decisions[i]. And that's why life turns are better detected long after they're gone in the ripples and structural changes they ended up creating. Apparent life turns (marriage, career change, break ups, etc.) are generally the external manifestation of internal tectonic shifts that occurred way before these events and may not be so visible. So-called life events may not be relevant at all –important, yes, but not significant or meaningful. Some of our life decisions have been made 100 times before in our head, rehearsed and finally acted upon– a hairline crack in porcelain. The revealing events are the original small cracks that became the culprit for our actions, the introduction of something possibly different.

Interpretations come with perspective, and change over time. Life stories participate to an ongoing process, indefinitely rewritten. Our life stories are very different from our life history: they are lessons of personal growth.

Time anchors can be described as these moments when we finally make sense of past events. They are moments of understanding where we can revisit our decisions in a way that makes us feel at ease. We articulate a story we feel in control of. We were not in control of the particular events of our life, which were always unpredictable, but we become aware of the principles behind them. All our expectations, our disappointments, our failures, our successes, are pointing to our unique personal perspective on this world. We can hope others will see what we see and understand us the same way we understand ourselves, but it is unlikely. The real common ground with others lies in our search for meaning, not in the meaning itself.

[i] The Undoing Project, By Michael Lewis, 2016, p.101

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