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We Are the Meaning Givers

By: Dr. Jim Goldstein

We Are the Meaning GiversI’ve noticed that whenever something awful or wonderful happens in the news, there is an attempt by the media to find out the cause, the things in a person’s life that led up to the incident in question. Interestingly, it is never hard to find something in a person’s past that explains or accounts for their adult behavior. That’s one of the problems with looking back; history always seems like a linear progression i.e., this led to this which led to that which led to…the criminal act (or the heroic act).

It’s probably not that simple. One of the wisest things I ever heard was this: It’s not what happens to you when you are young that determines your future – it’s what you do with what happens to you that matters. In other words, our life depends fundamentally on what we make the incidents mean. It’s not that we grew up in a ghetto but, rather, how we interpreted growing up in the ghetto, that’s important. What did we make it mean about our self worth, our chances for success, our view of the world, our view of money?

Not everyone raised in the ghetto has a predictable future. Bill Cosby was raised in the ghettos of Philadelphia but interpreted his surroundings very differently than many of his childhood friends. Neither does being raised in an affluent neighborhood determine our future. Sometimes folks raised in what seem to be ideal circumstances commit heinous crimes. There are so many things that happen to us growing up from which we could (and do) make life changing decisions depending on what we make them mean.

The Good News

We may not be able to control the events in our life but we have absolute control over the meaning we give to these events. It’s part of what makes us human. We are the meaning givers. Our interpretation of events determines our future (and our remembrance of the past) more that anything we’ve been through. This is great news! Since we can assign meaning to any and every event in our life, doesn’t it make sense to come up with interpretations that make us feel good rather than ones that depress us?

The next time someone doesn’t return your phone calls notice that you have a choice over how you interpret their behavior. It could mean that they are ignoring you or that you are not important to them. It could mean that they are angry with you and letting you know by not responding. But, how do those interpretations make you feel?

What else could it mean? Maybe they are out of town, maybe they are swamped and can’t get to their phone messages. Maybe they did call you back and you missed the message. Maybe this is just a communications glitch that doesn’t mean anything about their relationship with you. How do those interpretations make you feel?

No matter what has happened, I recommending assuming that you are in partnership regardless of the evidence to the contrary. Make up the most charitable interpretation you can. You’ll feel better and you’re more likely to preserve the relationship than if you acted on your negative interpretations. What you make it mean is entirely up to you and has everything to do with how happy you ultimately are with your life.


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