The Psychology of Meaning – The Law Of Infinite Context
Our life experiences shape the meaning of our life. Yes we are born with certain traits and predispositions but in my experience it is our interaction with the contexts Life presents to us that shape the play, story, film, script that is our life. For me the experiences surrounding my mum’s death were difficult and very emotional (they still are) and I would still prefer her to be here today. But, they have also been beneficial and shaped a resilience in me that I am confident is far stronger than it would have been.
Simply stated The Law of Infinite Context is the hypothesis that:
- An infinite number of contexts (possible experiences) shape, influence and impact the meaning of our lives
Central to this law is the idea that while two individual experiences may seem very similar in reality they are never truly the same. Our brain is very good at averaging our experiences and grouping similar experiences together even though they are quite distinctly different in multiple ways. For example, say you support a particular team and go to all of their games. While you may be repeating the same general behaviour and there may be similarities in, for example, your game by game experiences (ie: you get the same train each week), you are in no way having exactly the same experience. No two experiences (or contexts) are ever the same –no matter how much you might think or feel them to be. Familiarity is not the same thing as commonality. There could be differences in: time, angle of viewing, weather, wind, positioning of people, or general noise. I go as far as arguing that it is impossible for any two experiences to be the same and if we accept this Law we can be open to finding and shaping an infinite number of meanings throughout of lives.
“So what?”, you say. Well it is an important law – because if the number of possible contexts (situations, events, encounters, experiences, etc) we find ourselves experiencing is infinite (and would be so if we lived forever) then the possible meaning of our lives becomes one of infinite possibility and we don’t even have to pretend or make it that way – it was simply how Life designed life.
How do we get from infinite context to infinite possibility? Well, as humans’ we are pre-wired to make sense of the world we live in – to make sense of the experiences (contexts) that shape ourselves. This is an inbuilt human process that prepares us to exist within a system (what I will term Life) that offers us an infinite number of contexts or possibilities; or to put it another way an infinite number of unique experiences. We make sense of each and every experience whether we are consciously aware of this fact or not. Our mind may well average these experiences by saying “I watch football” but that does not mean that each game is the same – on the most basic and practical level no two experiences ever can be.
Humans work at finding meaning, at making sense, and this work is infinite – it never stops because of the Law of Infinite Context. Imagine what your life would be like if you found the ultimate meaning (or what some might call truth) at the heart of it?
Some years ago I was working with a group of English 16 year olds who were considered demotivated learners. One of the exercises that I asked them to do was to envision what their life would be like at the age of 30 and to write down their experiences over the 14 years. With this envisioning exercise it is important to imagine that you are actually 30 and are looking backwards, writing down experiences as if they were past tense (I will explain more about this technique in a later blog). One of the students had gone into a lot of detail about what he had achieved, acquired and experienced. It was an impressive list and he was very satisfied with himself. I then asked him what it felt like to have lived that life and the following conversation ensued (S = Student, SF = Student’s Friend and M = me):
- S – well, its feels, um, ……
- SF- it must feel amazing mate
- S – yes – that is it – amazing
- SF – like as if you have been to the moon and back – just, just, amazing
- S – yes – that is it – it can’t be beaten – no way
- M – Wow – that is powerful alright.
I need to set some more context before I continue. I had asked all the students to use a sheet of A3 paper for this exercise, to turn the page landscape and draw a line right across the middle of the page. At one end they put their current age and at the other the age they thought they would live to. Based on this final age I asked them to position where 30 was. This particular student was adamant that he was going to live to 100 and so 30 wasn’t that far along the line and the gap between 14 and 30 was fantastically crammed with experiences he had lived.
The conversation continued as follows:
- S – yes it is – there is no other life I want other than an amazing one (Remember – this young man was considered demotivated!)
- M – so what is the difference between your end date and 30?
- S – well, I am not sure why you are asking that but it is 70
- M – okay – so if you have achieved and lived such an amazing life between 14 and 30 and it has felt like you have been to the moon and back
- S – yes [he looked at my quizzically]
- SF – ha – yeah – what the hell are you going to do with the next 70 years mate! (his friend loved art and all things to do with music – he shared many insights over the time I had with the group – he was one of the most insightful and creative young people I have met)
The look in S’s face was astounding – he was truly lost for words and believe me when I say he was a precocious contributor to the class. He sat back in his seat with an intense look and then rocked back with his face in his hands and said “oh shit – I don’t know – but it feels like I should”.
I believe that for a brief second this young man felt what it would be like to know the ultimate truth of his life – 100% of what his life stood for was defined by the time he was thirty and I could tell it scared him – it simply didn’t feel right to the point that it hurt his brain.
I am not interested in whether this law is right, wrong or can be proven. I am interested in our capacity for making sense of what we experience and what happens if we genuinely commit to the life longer pursuit of finding an shaping meaning. There is no ultimate truth that once found makes everything that comes after meaningless. Life has not designed life like that. Instead Life has said “here is an infinitely rich tapestry of experiences – make sense of them as you will or choose.” One can discover many truths in one’s life but not a single ultimate truth that sums up one’s life – that is impossible because of the Law of Infinite Context – new contexts just keep on coming – whether we choose them or not. It is this endless stream of Life context that results in an infinite number of life meanings – if we choose to seek them out.
I have met many people over my life that think they want to find this ultimate truth and have been very frustrated by the fact they don’t feel at all close to finding it. I have asked them why they are looking for it and they seem dumbfounded when I say “in no way am I interested in finding such a truth or believe it is possible”. Some have challenged me and said “ha – but what about when you die – then there are no more contexts – the ultimate truth of your life can then be found”. I agree with them to a point, when someone dies they stop contributing to their own story but it is picked up and continued by someone else. Even after death an ultimate truth is still evolving – just in someone else’s head. My mum’s story is still being written today, just not by her and so the contexts keep being created – she remains firmly embedded in my life and her story is still evolving in terms of its meaning.
There is also a healthy dose of irony surrounding this line of thinking – if some ultimate truth can be gleaned (like a central plot) from a person’s life it is not done so by them because they have died. Truths are possible, as are principles, key beliefs and enduring values. Some may be discovered or found and remain present throughout a life – but they do not stop the pursuit for more meaning or turn off what I call the Will to Meaning. This Will is inbuilt within us all and is shaped by a Life force that presents us with an infinite array of contexts and hence an infinite number of possible meanings. What a playground Life has created.
In a later chapter I will outline a technique that can you can use to make sense of any given experience, set of experiences or period of your life. For now I want to leave you with is a simple daily exercise that I also use. It is a derived from an exercise that I learnt many years ago called The Gratitude Diary. I have adapted that approach.
So our lives can have infinite meaning because of the Law of Infinite Context. This is the first hypothesis behind the Psychology of Meaning. Next week’s Blog is entitled:
- The Psychology of Meaning – The Law of Probability
Go well and remember the contexts of life are endlessly flowing so your search for meaning is never wasted and in fact the more you search the richer you become …. but in what?
New Meaning Foundation