“There is nothing either good nor bad but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet Act 2, scene 2
It is often said that the eyes are the windows of the soul. The idea is that when we look into someone’s eyes, we can see their soul—who they really are. But this goes the other way as well: when we look out of our eyes, we are seeing with our souls, but we are seeing through a framework—a window frame, if you will—that limits what we see. All our habits of thinking, all the decisions we have made about what the world is, color or even filter out things that don’t fit that reality.
When I wrote my post on finding meaning, I knew I was just touching the very tip of the iceberg. I could write an entire book on the topic, exploring such ideas as what meaning is, why meaning adds value to our lives, and, perhaps most usefully, in what various and practical ways we can learn to find meaning in our lives.
But since I have about half dozen other projects I’m working on now, I am going to spend a little time now and then writing Web log posts that add to the idea of finding meaning in life.
To return to the “windows of the soul” idea, it might be useful to explain how I see our existence in the physical world. First, I believe that we are all souls having a human experience. (We aren’t necessarily all human souls having a human experience, but that is a topic for another time.) Our physical being arises out of our soul’s creation.
Some people see it the other way around; that we are physical beings who have some component called a soul; our identity is the physical being, not the spiritual one. They talk about “my soul” instead of “my body,” and think that when the body dies, so does the soul.
Which leads to the second idea I hold about our existence (and, by the way, I do not think I am the only one with these ideas! Nor are these ideas new; they have been around for millenia), which is that our souls are eternal and indestructible. We choose to come into this world, live a life in a physical way, then return to another place that encompasses our physical existence, but that has other characteristics that are non-physical. Both in this physical world and in that other world, we have experiences that affect us, and to which we respond. (As an aside, there are many other worlds, which we can call dimensions, planes of existence, Candyland—whatever you wish to call them, they are infinite and infinitely varied. But the multiverse is not today’s topic.)
And it is in that responding that we learn and grow. How we choose to think about and respond to anything gives us further experiences that we can learn from as well.
For a very simple example, let’s say a man is with his date at a restaurant, and the restaurant is out of the meal he wanted to order. He could choose to go with the flow and order something different, or he could choose to be mildly disappointed or annoyed, or he could choose to be quite angry about it and to berate the wait person or even get up and leave. Or stay, order something else, but leave a small tip. None of those options are required by the situation; all those responses would be arising out of his beliefs and attitudes; his internal architecture, if you will.
And here is where having a commitment to finding meaning in life comes in. If this man believes that there is meaning to everything, then he is more likely to ask himself, “What is the meaning in this situation?” And his response to the situation could be added to the question as well. He could ask himself, “Why am I angry?” (or even “Why am I not angry?”). The answers to his questions, the answers that add meaning to his life, could be anything; it could be a personal insight, it could be an insight about the person he is with, it could be an insight about food, it could be an insight about the nature of life and the universe—that part is individual. Nor is there necessarily just one meaning to be seen. In approaching life this way, people add layers of meaning to everything in their lives. And any meaning can change as new layers are added to it, and as more connections are found between it and something else.
Sometimes, people choose not to find meaning in and learn from their experiences. They instead choose to think that things just happen and there is not only nothing that can be done about it; that whatever that experience was, it was just another confirmation of the belief that we are rudderless ships being tossed on the cruel seas of life. But that is just how they are looking at life; that isn’t the truth about life—except in that, because that is how they see life, that is also how they experience it.
In short, our experiences are neutral; it is in how we think about them that they become bad or good. Things happen, we judge them as bad, we decide that bad things happen to us, and then more things happen that we judge as bad. Or, things happen, we judge them as good, we decide that no matter what the surface appearances might be, underneath there is good to be found, and then more things happen that we judge as good.