Making sense and finding meaning

Is it all just in your head? (copyright by TEDxPioneerValley2012 on flickr)Returning from the funeral of a relative I kept thinking about how we deal with the raw and messy experiences live hands us every day, make sense of them and find meaning. How we turn all these sights, interactions, feelings, observations into one coherent story. The death of a loved one is a perfect example for how we do this: While the experience itself is overwhelmingly direct, in most cases we rather quickly turn it into a meaningful story that can be told in a few sentences – whether it is about the lost son who had to find his way home before his father could go, about the man who lived wild and died wild (“He wouldn’t have spent his last years as an invalid” they say), the widow who died on her husband’s birthday or the mother who died in peace after seeing her last child settled in marriage. I am not saying that the bereaved make these stories up, that they are not true. But how do they turn this messy experience into a meaningful story? I am interested in this because it shows how we take complex reality and find those aspects of it that help us make sense. And I do think that we actually “make” sense, it’s not just out there.

This ability that becomes so central in these extreme situations is something that runs in the background all the time, that we use every day, turning our experience into stories. To understand better how that works, let’s look at why two people can go through the same experience and still it means something very different to them? And why are some people so much more inclined to turn their lives into stories, find meaning and lessons in their experience than others?

I think making sense it something that requires two things: Detecting patterns and applying belief systems.

Most of this happens in our unconscious mind so splitting the process up in two distinct clean steps is somewhat artificial. But you will see that it helps us understand better what happens in this grey area between experience and (personal) history.

To turn the thousands of impressions that bombard you in any situation into something that makes sense, you have to reduce the complexity and you do that by picking just a few impressions that fit into a pattern that makes sense to you. You won’t necessarily remember the smell of grandma’s sofa or what the weather was like, but you remember every nice gesture the grumpy old man showed before dying (if that is what your story is going to be about) or every loved one who visited before the old lady passed away. Detecting patterns means you have to find things that are similar to each other and strip away all the details that are different. Some people seem to be hardwired to do this better than others and this influences whether they will see an experience as a singular, detailed messy experience or whether they will reduce it to a story that makes sense and has a certain meaning.

Now, what kind of pattern you look for and how you interpret the patterns you find has a lot to do with your belief systems. Imagine a child dying in an African village. Depending on your belief system you might be looking for patterns in the way your neighbors looked at her to detect evidence of the evil eye. You might look for patterns of sinful behavior of the parents to detect that this death is punishment for the sins of the fathers. You might look for patterns of waterborne diseases or malnutrition to detect a medical reason for the death. Or maybe looking at a larger picture of mortality along tribal, wealth or religious lines will tell you a story about social injustice as a reason for this death.

We make sense and find meaning in our private lives without even being aware of it. But the reason why I write about this here is because I know we (as researchers, program planners and implementers, evaluators etc.) do the same thing in our professional lives as well. And we do it the same way, we use our ability to reduce complex realities into patterns and we do that colored by our belief systems. This process is so intuitive and automatic that we don’t have to be aware of our belief systems and often would even want to believe that what we talk about is “reality” and not some kind of sense that we have created or meaning that we have found. And if someone else finds a different meaning to the same story, we are quick to belief that they didn’t do their homework, made a mistake in their calculation or are trying to manipulate the facts. I think we often get further in understanding what actually happened and also stay more honest, if we admit that all of us seek and interpret patterns based on our own belief systems. And when we disagree about the sense and meaning, it is much more enlightening to look at the underlying belief systems instead of just the resulting story lines.

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