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Meaning • Posted: Aug 22, 2010 17:44:19Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

Several recent conversations have me thinking about meaning, what meaning is and how we derive it. It's a question that has relevance, I believe, for not only making photographs, but for living life. One such conversation was with a long time friend who expressed dismay that a friend of hers, who is facing late stage terminal cancer, had completely given up on life, wanting only to lie in bed and die. She told me she could never do such a thing, just give up like that. Another of those conversations was with my son, who had recently begun to feel the process of managing a business he'd started had become meaningless routine, prompting him to consider major changes in his life. And yet a third conversation was with an extremely talented young photographer who reluctantly described a growing disinterest in making new photographs.

Some would suggest, I think, that all three conversations point to the possibility of depression taking hold. But teasing out whether physiological changes are the cause of darkening mood or whether a poverty of perspective, and resultant lack of action, is dampening physiology has never been clear to clinicians. Hence, some concentrate on treating physiology, others perspective, and still others assume both possibilities may simultaneously be valid. Most of us are not clinicians. And so most of us quietly explore notions available to us that might lead to renewed enthusiasm for a narrative that makes sense to us, and hence gets us moving again. We look for inspiration. We look for meaning. We might find that inspiration or meaning in conversation with a friend or parent or advisor, or we might find it in an essay, or a photograph, or within some work of art.

The brain and its workings are so very interesting. Whether there is such a thing as a soul, something related to our personalities that has existence outside the workings of our brains, isn't clear. But just looking at the facts as they present themselves, it is certainly clear that the way the human brain works allows us to imagine we exist with some uniqueness and with a certain amount of free volition. It also seems true that if we did not have the developed capacity to think of ourselves and the potential consequence of our actions with some kind of abstracted objectivity, the question of whether or not we have a soul or what it means to be alive might never occur to us. The structure of human brains, and likely of some other creatures, makes it possible for sense data to be stored, recalled, modeled, and manipulated with volition. We do not just react to things, as we reflexively withdraw our hands from something hot. We perceive, consider, and then act. That capacity to consider is what allows us to question if "meaning" is present. And if it isn't, we are lost.

But what exactly is meaning? In the previous post The Sense We make of Things I noted that two processes underlie the sense we make of things: one, categories, and two, story or narrative. Categories allow us to break up the continuum of sensory input we experience. Story allows us to arrange those categorized chunks of sensory input into relationships that seem meaningful. People differ both on how many and what type of categories their minds readily employ and on their abilities to both fabricate and appreciate stories of useful or engaging content. But there is no perception of meaning unless the story being contemplated includes us in some engaging and inspiring way. Without understanding that inspires committed engagement, there is no meaning. Without meaningful engagement, we become nameless outsiders peering in.

That old poster of Uncle Sam pointing to us is an attempt to engage us. But what is the story? Engage us in what? What are the categories? What are the relationships? What are the costs? What is it that needs to be done? What are the likely outcomes? Politicians and advertisers both seek to engage us and involve us like that poster of Uncle Sam. But few succeed these days. We are jaded from lack of fulfillment. The stories they offer us are hollow and empty of meaningful consequence. So we wander the Internet, spin through media channels, thumb through books and magazines. We believe we are staying informed. But we are losing our sense of meaningful narrative, a narrative that includes both us and our neighbors in a substantially compelling manner. That isn't a new theme. It's an old theme. We are waiting for Godot. But Godot is very late in coming. Or maybe, Godot has already come and gone and it was, for the most part, a non-event.

The struggle for meaning is a daily endeavor. May your struggles yield meaning that will inspire and engage all of us.

Wednesday, June 23rd, 1971