Why There’s No Meaning Without Context — And How to Shift the Way You See the World

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I used to joke that, in college, my communications major was so easy that there was only one right answer ever. If you said it, no matter in what class or to what question, it’d be right.

“There’s no inherent meaning. All actions are inherently neutral. It’s the context that ultimately defines meaning.”

What I didn’t realize at the time is I was kind of onto something. Maybe it wasn’t just my major that was that easy. Maybe it’s that life is that easy. Maybe context really is all that ever matters.

The classic example we always give is murder. We can all pretty much agree that murder is a bad thing. That taking a life is wrong. But then we look at war, where it’s condoned. Or euthanasia. Or the decision to take an incapacitated loved on off life support. And suddenly the ‘inherent meaning of the action’ changes.

I remember when I was in middle school. And holy shit was everything a big deal. Someone made fun of me, and I thought my world would collapse. I’d do something embracing, and I thought I could never show my face again at school.

I remember even when I first started my business. Everything seemed so scary. Every mistake seemed so dire. The stakes seemed ridiculously high. And then I got some perspective. And nothing seemed quite as scary. Because, by perspective, I mean context. I mean I changed the vantage point I was looking from, and therefore the context. And it changed everything.

I’m a big fan of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. And, to me, the relationship between action and context can be likened to the relationship between the personal and the collective. After all, the collective society a person is in is simply their context.

In Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer, the 17-year-old murder victim and plot McGuffin, lives a very dualistic life full of shame and scandal. She presents herself to the world as perfect and cookie cutter, and yet she had dark secrets. Which is exactly the same as we come to find out about the entire town. Because she could only exist within the context she was raised.

Many ancient Native American cultures understood this idea. That the collective is the personal just as much as the personal was the culture. That a problem that existed within one individual was actually a societal problem. For the simple fact that that problem was born within the context of the society.

Even the definition of shame itself is contextual. Is it wrong for a woman to be overly sexual? Is it wrong for a man to express his emotions? It is wrong for you to believe in magic or witchcraft? Different societies and cultures throughout the world and time have had different answers to these questions. And it was the context that ultimately created the shame that could eventually wreak havoc on lives. And nothing else.

Context creates meaning. Every single time. Context tells us what things actually mean.

And there’s something strangely beautiful about that. Because it means we really are all One. We’re all interconnected. If nothing can exist without context, then who we are is just the story of our society, our world. Each of us is a container for our context.

If you want to know the story of a society, analyze one person in that society. And you’ll learn so much about what’s going on there.

It means we’re reliant on one another. We’re interdependent. As one person grows and changes, it affects the entire society. When one rises, we all rise. Literally. Because we’re changing the context.

It’s easy to talk about a personified external society. Like it’s ‘Society’s’ fault that things are as they are. We forget that we are society. We are part of that context. And so any personal healing we do is actually collective healing. Just as any collective healing is actually personal. We can’t separate the two. Because we exist within that context. Because that’s where meaning comes from.

There’s no such thing as inherent meaning. There can’t be. Because all things are Divine. So I guess the only meaning that can really be derived is simply Divinity.

But context allows us to parse it a little bit more and start to construct meaning. To understand that sexuality is appropriate here but not here. To understand that failure is a big deal here but not here.

And, if it’s not working for us, we can begin to change the context. Slowly healing our own shame and trauma. Rewriting the rules. Creating new meaning. And healing the collective along the way.

What meaning do you get out of life? And what would happen if you changed the context?

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