Notes regarding word definitions indicated by the blue text: Only uncommon words, or words with special definitions are defined in this series. Hold your cursor over the text to see definitions and explanatory notes. Works in advanced browsers. Definitions are from Microsoft Bookshelf: © & 1987-1996 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation. All rights reserved.
At some low level, that I won't bother to theorize about, our life can be expressed as form, pattern, and content. We often get confused about which is which. Form is like a shadow, an outline. We sometimes talk about form, and study form, and explore form as if we could tell from form what life is about. Form cannot really convey the full, richness of the meaning that form is meant to convey. Words usually describe form, and from studying Gendlin I am much more aware of the very diverse meanings that any word has, based on the manifold experiences and perspective of the person who uses the word. As I have said before, you really can't understand (or study) an aspect of life through binoculars - you have to be in the experience.
Two examples. OK, OK, there are more than two. One, you can stand on the sidelines and condemn the person who steals food, but until you have experienced the agony of hunger, the despair of alienation, the hopelessness of repeated rejection and failure, the fear of starving, and the abundance of food at hand, you really have no grounds for judging.
Two, the armchair critic can pontificate about religion, but until you have experienced its hope, needed its forgiveness, felt its transformative power, and stood in awe at its wise guidance, you're clueless. Psychology lacks the authority and power (although psychology has its own authority and power). Religion is often viewed as flourishing in the darkness of what we don't know, and receding further as we gain knowledge. We fail to see the miracle in the light - what is exposed loses its glamour and mystery - familiarity becomes contempt. We were the ones who look for God only in the darkness. Was He hiding there for amusement, or from us? In our conceit in our newfound knowledge, we forget to look for what religion can do in our own lives - that is where God is.
Three, you can deride the absurd behavior of someone who has fallen in love, but until you are in love yourself you are hopelessly blind.
Four, you can extoll the virtues of divorce compared to the agony of living together, but until you go through the agony of divorce with the broken relationship, the fractured lives of children, the pain of separation and hopelessness felt by all, the children's disillusionment and inability to trust that lasts into adulthood, the children's behavior problems and failure in school, the bitter feelings that don't go away, the difficulty of raising children alone, the difficulty of making time for the other parent to see his/her children, the difficulty in ever fully trusting again, the enormous task of finding a lovable partner willing to shoulder the task of raising hostile children and take responsibility, the impossibility of making enough income or paying child support, the guilt... divorce is just a word that seems like a positive solution.
Each word we use is a form - it describes an array of experiences that people have - content - and until you have had the experiences it is difficult to fully understand the word... the form. We know the form that the word represents, but the shadow has no color. I think it is important not to mistake a large vocabulary and precise definitions for content - the experiences that make us understand the words.
But we don't experience all of life at the detail level of individual experiences. We form perspectives and attitudes that help us interpret these experiences into something meaningful. And when we have repeatedly had similar experiences, we begin to know what is coming. We see patterns. For example, children are often surprised when their parent's intuition tells them that the kid has had his hand in the cookie jar, or has been up to some other escapade. When the kid runs from the kitchen and hides in the bedroom - we recognize the pattern.
Experience is one great teacher, and recognizing patterns is another.
Recognizing patterns is one of those things which gives us a clue that
we have begun to comprehend something important about life. And after we
have learned to see patterns in one area, we often need minimal experience
to begin seeing them in other areas. A pattern we know well becomes a metaphor
for a similar, but different, situation. We begin exploring life, thinking
in terms of metaphors, parables, allegories, and parallels. We may not
fully comprehend these other situations, but we clearly see enough to realize
we don't have to make all the mistakes or climb every mountain - we have
little to learn from that. Perhaps it is at this point that knowledge and
experience are becoming wisdom. Or perhaps that occurs when after realizing
that you don't have to steal bigger and bigger things, you finally realize
what stealing is making of you and you quit.
My interpretation is that people will look for just about any element to make some sense of the events in their lives - that is, to make it look as if they were in control, if control is an issue, or at other times to say that they would not have been happy in another career that was a step along the way. People tend to point to "expert" causes, such as a proverbial Freudian explanation that is often taken out of context, or an "expert" religious cause which often amounts to a temporary rationalization and is not seen in the context of an entire life, or even astrology.
I think that the most important thing that I learned from Linde's book is that we are desperate for explanations. I confess, I have had numerous careers and I have no idea where my life will eventually wander. I exercise some control over my life - it isn't a serendipitous journey - but my control is more so during the process, not as one standing outside directing the work toward a specific goal. I think one of the myths of our culture (a meta-narrative) must be that we must appear to be complete masters of our destiny. I urge you to drop that idea before continuing to the the Life Story Questionnaire section.
The second thing which Linde's book was helpful in was talking about the concept of coherence. Our lives often take a serpentine course and we often lack ready explanations for why. Sometimes we try things and find we don't like them - this is a very valuable piece of experience. And Linde quotes one man (p156) who says, "The skills I learned as a banker are helpful to me now in my candle shop." If we look deeply and honestly enough into our lives we see what these experiences meant to us. For example, I have discussed my early radio "career" on this site and have drawn from that example a couple of things. It was good for boosting my self-confidence, which I needed at the time. And the most probable reason that I didn't continue with it is because I didn't know how, at that time, to invest myself in my work. My experience in radio was beneficial, and it also reveals (now) areas that I needed to improve.
Linde also mentions the strategy of distancing. Basically it can be
thought of as talking about ourselves in the third person - with a sense
of detachment to that other self who lived through those things. "I wasn't
a very perceptive person back then - I shouldn't have been fooled." Or,
"I once was a wild and reckless teen, but I'm a very different person now."
Sometimes our past is difficult to own, and thinking of ourselves as a
person who is older and wiser now is a way of getting around that. We are
not talking about ourselves, but those other people we once were.
If a single word could communicate what we feel from our experiences, then our conversations would be very brief. "How did you like that movie?" "Funny. I laughed." But our conversations are typically much longer. "How did you like the movie?" "It was unsettling." "Howso?" "I laughed, but I was uncomfortable with laughing at it - you know what I mean?" "Yeah, it had kind of an uncomfortable edge to it...." And so the conversation lasts half an hour, and maybe comes up again over the next year as we try to comprehend all that was in the experience. One word, or even four words, just won't describe it.
Gendlin describes the experience of psychotherapists who listen for some time to a client expressing in conversation his experiences and feelings. At some point the psychotherapist comprehends the client's experience and feeling, and will usually try to attach a symbol to it - a word that describes the experience and validates it in the catalog of unsettling experiences. You and I might have to coin a word to describe what we commonly have shared through communication. Gendlin uses the word comprehension to indicate felt experience that takes more than one word to symbolize - comprehensive felt meaning from comprehensive experience.
What I want to point out by this, is that our experiences are individualized
and contain many experiences. Often there isn't a word that describes what
we feel from our experience. Trying to force a word to fit our experience
often cheapens it, misinforms, or robs it of vitality. There isn't a list
of words, currently, that will adequately describe many of our uncommon
felt meanings. To understand our felt meaning ourselves, we have to be
very descriptive. To convey our meaning we have to be very descriptive.
Applying the wrong word to an experience, especially a comprehensive felt
meaning, can mislead us and make us feel differently. It is very
important to not use the wrong words to describe our felt meaning.
Better no word than the wrong word.
How relative are our symbols that we use to express ourselves? Should we dig into the dictionary each time a word pops up and pin it to a specific definition? The words themselves are in turn defined by other words, which are in turn defined by other words. And many words can embrace a part of an experience without encompassing the entire experience, so that they all might be used at one time or another - inaccurately or inadequately - to name the same experience.
Yes, of course we all have a notion of what our common words mean - if we didn't we couldn't communicate at all, and we could not be aware of and anticipate future experiences described by others words. And the dictionary does tend to tie meanings down so that we do have a basis for communication. Otherwise, all would be chaos. But we don't carry dictionaries with us, and the reality is, words have different meanings to different people, depending on their experiences.
What if we have a concept formed by several words which symbolize experiences (felt meanings). Is there anything concise about a concept - are these meanings totally arbitrary? If the words we use have different meanings to different people, what do we make of this state of relativism? It is "concepts" that Gendlin points to as a key to creating meaning. Each word points to a concrete felt meaning. As we explore aspects of a concept, we learn about this undifferentiated experience, coming to understand it more fully. Gendlin asserts that knowledge does not become arbitrary - felt meaning is always directly referenced by symbols. But Gendlin shows us that the the experience and feeling (felt meaning) come before the logic and identifying symbols.
To go beyond Gendlin, he hints at meaning making and a more open system, but we are in an open system. In contrast, in a closed system, that some might prefer, each and every word has a precise definition, and growth and new meaning are frozen. This is like swimming upstream. The proliferation of new words and new meanings for words indicates that the world expresses itself in new ways and the words become canonized in the dictionaries. Language is a living and open system. Our language reflects us - expresses our growth. (Of course, the French have wisely specified by law that the growth won't be in English.)
For example, many computer programming terms have slipped into our everyday language to express concepts that we had never explored conceptually before. For example, to program has spawned programming a person. It is a little different concept than brainwashing. Computer programming got the term program from everyday language, as it did the concept of a virus. Other computer programming terms that we are beginning to use in our language are instantiate and parse.
It is again to the the richest sources that I turn, the Sufi Mystics, and other religious groups, for insight on understanding and interpreting what words are trying to communicate. The Sufis embrace and encourage multiple interpretations of meaning. They contribute their imaginations and explore multiple levels of meanings.
I think it is in the spirit of the preceding paragraph that one should
approach reflecting on their experience and composing their life stories.
Life story questionnaire - a tool for reflecting on experience and composing life stories and character backgrounds
Although it might be easier for those with considerable years of experience to write a life story, it can also be useful to those with less experience to look for dead ends that need reopened, and to look for new beginnings.
This inventory can be useful for developing characters, for writing your own life story, and for interviewing others.
This inventory is not a tool for defining what a life story is or what comprises the forming of a life story. It is simply meant to stir your thoughts. Hopefully digging in your memories will help you think of perspectives not even hinted at in this inventory.
This is not intended to be a brief exercise. You may want to do this over a period of three months or longer. I recommend periods of intense activity followed by a day or week of rest. Intense activity enables you to get into the depth of a topic. An interval of rest allows your mind to integrate new perspectives and you will find yourself going over the same material with a fresh approach. I also recommend completing this inventory and then returning to it after a month or two and adding to what you now see from a fresh perspective. You may want to do this every year or so. Leave the old and add to it - you will see how your perspective grows and shifts.
Life story is probably a misleading term. Each person's life is full of stories. Each person's life is about many things.
The elements that I consider important are the influence of others in your life, the ideas in your life, the events that helped shape your life (some events have no influence at all), the turning points in your life, and the resulting impact on you. The culture you are in creates a structure for interpretation of meaning in your life. How you interpreted influences in your life at the time of their occurrence is important, but it is also important how you view those same influences today.
Be careful not to fall into the trap of listing what others think is important, or listing events that are viewed by your culture as significant. Marriage, raising children, joining the armed forces, graduating school, etc. may have been very influential, but may not have been significant at all. Don't force them into significance just because someone thinks that they should be.
Also, write this for yourself with no one else in mind. It will be a lot more useful to you as an uninfluenced report, and not so much a tribute to yourself. When you are finished, if it might be useful to others, such as a legacy to your continuing family, then modify it as needed and give it to them.
Every person's life is about different things - no two of us are the
same. Many things are interwoven to create very unique individuals. None
of us really have any idea what other's lives are about.
Individuals who write life stories about themselves can post them on this Web site if they wish. Send them as an e-mail attachment to Primary Contact. . Postings can be anonymous. Postings should not contain the real names of other people - these will have to be rejected to avoid liability. The author will retain copyright and can request to remove the information at any time. Postings will be useful to other writers, people interested in other's experiences, and to those studying life stories. There is no length recommendation or restriction. Content: this is a family site that discusses mature themes. The author should keep in mind that once it is on the Internet it is recorded history.
Life has areas of development that can be useful categories for looking at our lives. There are no really fixed limits, and these interact. Development sometimes becomes negative as you confront obstacles, but these things are often turned into strengths. As you work with the questions, you might keep the following in mind:
What did your teachers give you?
What did your best friends give you? What did you give them?
Who were the three (or more) most most influential people in your life? What did they give you?
What did you learn from your childhood?
What did you learn from your twenties? Thirties? Forties? Fifties? Sixties? Seventies? Eighty plus?
What were the major turning points in your life? What drove them? What result did they bring?
What strengths have you given to your spouse?
What strengths has your spouse given to you?
What did you gain from your employment?
What did you gain from other activities?
Has your life work changed?
What were the major crises of your life? What impact did they leave (long term effect)?
Have you had a crisis in self-confidence? What got you through it (or over it)?
What have you given to the people you have touched in your life?
What were the most proud moments of your life? How did they touch you?
What events or people showed you areas in your life that needed improvement?
What about your life would you like to improve?
What about your life would you like to expand?
What new thing would you like in your life?
What new thing would you like to explore?
Are you a different person today than you were at seventeen in the way you treat people, temperament, your interests, knowledge, career, philosophy, religion, spirituality?
Has your life achieved balance? Did you have to prune it to get it there? At what price?
What would you like your epitaph to be - and if you can't focus it on one concept, narrow it to three.
Choose two main characters from the profiles below. Begin by writing a three page scene for each character that shows the conflicts and problems in their life, and their motivations. Include other characters as necessary. There are no psychopaths in these profiles - no evil people - just people with problems who might choose a good way to resolve things or a bad way. Any of them might be a protagonist or an antagonist - some more than others. Some might go to more extremes than others. Ask yourself to what extreme each of these can be pushed.
Continue writing for as long as you like, until they get their situations thoroughly worked through and resolved.
Jokin’ Joe. Joe can’t accept responsibility for anything. Everything is a joke with him. Everything in life is meaningless. If someone tries to pin responsibility on him, and is immune to his humor, he transfers the guilt to some other person.
Joe was given too much responsibility: caring for his single parent at age seven. He wasn’t competent to meet the responsibilities, and the consequences for failing were severe: someone might die; a lot of money could be lost; the house could burn down - all things he heard frequently from his single parent. He grew terrified of responsibility. At age ten, his single parent did die of a disease, and Joe went to live with his grandparents, who doted over him and never gave him any responsibility. As a result, he remained terrified of responsibility and never learned to take any. His grandfather was a very funny man, and Joe learned to use humor by imitating him.
At age twenty-seven, Joe still doesn’t hold a regular job, going from job to job like there was no end to them. He frequently gets rehired by prior employers who like his work but know he will mess up and leave within months. He is for marriage, but can never get that serious about anyone, and the women who date him give up on him. He currently has a job working as a parts clean-up man for a performance engine business.
Pistol Pete. Pete carries a derringer. No one but Pete and three friends know it. Actually word gets around and many people have heard the rumor.
Pete had a very normal childhood, but he wanted to do a lot of things that he was never allowed to. He wanted to rock climb - too dangerous. He wanted to race cars - too dangerous. Sky diving, bungy jumping, sailing to Hawaii, spelunking - everything Pete wanted to do was too dangerous. He has a high excitement threshold. So at age sixteen, there was only one dangerous thing Pete could get away with: carrying a derringer. Just knowing it was on him was exciting - it made him feel like he lived in a dangerous world. At age twenty-four, he is still packing.
At twenty-four, Pete works as an assistant manager in a grocery store. On weekends he rock climbs and goes white water rafting. He does target shooting a lot. He tried hunting, but doesn’t like killing animals. He doesn’t know how much longer he can do boring jobs like the grocery business. The women in his life are usually wild and stay untamed. He dates them, they excite him, but he never settles on any.
Uptown Larry, as in "Buddy can you spare me a ten?" So named by his fellow homeless people because he always asks for ten bucks instead of change. He gets a lot of laughs, which gets people to turn loose of more change, and he gets a few tens. He always has plans of starting a sidewalk business. When he gets a ten, he can’t find merchandise to start it. When he can find merchandise, he doesn’t have a ten. The tens always end up being shared with his fellow homeless. He berates them for being parasites, but he loves them and can’t stand to see them suffer, giving them his money without being asked.
Larry was raised by his uncle, a shiftless crook who wouldn’t do an honest day’s work and moved them every three months - whenever the landlord gave up on getting rent money and kicked them out. Larry skipped school, flunked out, and spent most of his time sitting around the house, or hanging with friends. When his uncle went to jail, Larry was on his own. After wearing out his welcome staying at friend's houses, Larry hit the streets. Unskilled and uneducated, he was largely unemployable. He pushed a broom in a financial office for a few weeks, which is where he learned the value of money and "high finance." They fired him for stealing from petty cash. He has high regard for people, but has no use for society’s rules. Oh, yes, one other thing: Larry has a brain tumor that is going to change his personality toward anger and vengefulness... before it kills him.
Jumpin’ Jimminy. Jim is way ahead of the pack - usually has jumped six squares ahead. It’s as if he has extra-sensory perception when it comes to business. At thirty-six, he is one of the city’s younger company presidents. He’s on the Mayor’s business advisory committee (the only one on the committee the mayor actually listens to). His advice has helped them lure several good companies to the town. Jim can get just about anything he wants, live any way he wants, do anything. He has power. And it feels good.
He’s just noticing that.
Jim’s life to age sixteen was very frustrating. His family never had the money to do anything, and Jim wanted to do everything. He wanted to go on the great vacations his friends talked about. He wanted to eat in fine restaurants with stuffy waiters - or even McDonalds. Own a horse and take it to shows. Own a pure bred dog, not some flea bitten mongrel no one could stand. Life was there to be experienced, but it forgot to give him money. He began his own business at sixteen. It gave him a little money. At seventeen his father sold patent rights and suddenly his family had money. He discovered just what it could do. He liked it. He went to go to a prestigious business school to learn how to make big money. He learned well.
Jim was like anyone else, as far as he could figure. He acted the same as everyone, and had the same wants and needs. But suddenly he was faced with a decision. A small company in town was doing well, but he knew a new process would be putting them out of business in about three months. They weren’t aware of it. He could buy their plant for next to nothing then, and expand his own business into it. Or he could tell them one little secret that would be the key to future success in competing with this new process, so the plant and all those jobs could be saved. Was he really like everyone else? In a cut throat world, the strong eat the weak. There are no villains, no heroes, only companies that survive the competition. That’s all business is, a competition. He could feel his power, and like a shot of strong whiskey it warmed him and the headiness let his rashness come through.
Survivor Audrey. Audrey is a frail looking, but pretty, thirty-four year old woman who manages a large department store. She is very pleasant, personable, charitable. But she has very keen business acumen, and fights like a wildcat when someone tries to take unfair advantage. She’s a survivor. Veteran of many battles.
Audrey was raised by overly zealous religious parents. They were extremely strict with her. She survived and grew from it. They taught her exceptional discipline and frugality. They gave her a righteous anger about injustice, and taught her that with right (God) on her side she can win against the most powerful enemy. She has mellowed in her religious practice, changed denominations, rarely even steps into church, but the same base feelings are still with her.
Audrey finds injustice no longer stirs her to anger. She worries her heart is growing cold. She is weary of the battles and just surviving. She looks for other ways to help others, but every problem seems to be defined by some kind of injustice. She wonders if it is just the way she is programmed to see the world.
Audrey likes children, though she has none. She doesn’t feel like she has to be a mother to have lived. She is not married. She has little time for serious relationships, or even dating, and she doesn’t feel like she has to have been a wife to have loved. She nurtures her business and her people well. Yet, although she enjoys her work tremendously, and helps many people, she often feels uptight and unfulfilled. It’s like something is screaming within her, "Is this all there is?!"
She enjoys beauty wherever it is found. She likes classical and popular music, and often attends concerts. She likes plays. Hates opera. Detests movies because they always surprise her with violence and grotesque things. Loves art and wishes she could sculpt or paint, but has no talent for it. Doesn’t drink, and has a dog that is dying from old age that she gives brandy.
Pepper. Pepper entered the world kicking and screaming, and she never quit. She can get loud and angry instantly. She is a very physical person who will kick someone in the shins just for winking at her. She can be attractive when she wants to, but most of the time "dresses down," which means loose fitting clothing, hair not fixed, no makeup, and old scruffy western boots that lost their shine before Teddy Roosevelt died. She can out arm wrestle any man afraid to hurt her, and the rest, well, she just puts her foot on their shin like she’s going to kick them, gives them a mean look, and they surrender graciously. She can out drink most of them, but she reserves her partying for Friday nights. And can she party!
What makes her the way she is? Well, she was born that way, and she and her parents will tell you the same.
Pepper likes horses and rodeos. When she’s not arm wrestling men, she’s roping some calf. She wants to rope steers, but her daddy threatened to hog tie her. At twenty-two, her mother is thinking it’s time she settled down, but Pepper isn’t keen on the idea. There’s a ranch next door she has her eye on. The owner has a terminal disease and can’t live much longer, and the banker thinks maybe they can work something out. Then she can rope steers on her own land and no one can say no! Some of the guys in town have threatened to have her X-rayed to see if certain organs have remain undeveloped, but she swears it will take an army of them to ever do it. They all know the truth - she’s all woman, it just hasn’t all been discovered yet.
Roamin’ Desire’. Voluptuous yet pert. Sexy. Feminine. A face that stays with a man long after he quits looking at it. Woman or fantasy? No one could ever be sure because this model never stayed in one city long enough for anyone to get to know her. Everywhere she went her career mushroomed instantly, but as soon as the national invitations arrived, she would pack up and leave. Months later, everyone would shake their heads and rumors would fly that she was hiding something. A man. A murder. Who knew?
She was hiding something - herself. No, she couldn’t let herself become too successful. She didn’t deserve it. Success had come easily to her mother, an actress. Money, fame, attention, love?, alcohol, drugs, insanity, suicide - and a twelve year old daughter as a witness to the entire mess. A mess her mother might have survived if she hadn’t had to drag her everywhere she went. Desire’ knew she was an imposition - her father never wanted her either. She hadn’t seen him in years. His marrying an actress had been a big mistake, and he wanted nothing more to do with it, not even the beautiful daughter that looked like his ex-wife. Beauty. It had led her to her death. Desire’ had inherited the curse - she deserved it - she was an imposition, a burden on others.
Desire’ tried to hide her beauty, but men wouldn’t leave her alone, and they all only wanted one thing - to own this prize piece of flesh. Power games! She hated them. Dueling egos fighting to own the most, the best, be better than everyone and have everything your way at the snap of your fingers. They relentlessly pursued her no matter how she dressed or where she hid, and they were never interested in her as a person. So she quit hiding her beauty and used it. But she could never trust any man. And she would never follow in her mother’s footsteps. Not too much success. She changed her name. She stayed out of the posh inner circles with their false lives and destructive habits. She never drank, not even socially. And when she got too close to being recognized by the bad guys with their tell all national cameras, she went back on the run. Another small city. Another job where her well endowed figure would earn her a living. Perhaps this time she would dance in the clubs again and watch the maggots squirm, teasing them, taunting them, pleased they were tantalized.
No, she was sick of it. Sick of pay backs. Sick of running. Sick of
the insanity she knew was pursuing her. The insanity was just a step away.
She could feel it. The depression looked over her shoulder like a cold
shadow. When would it overwhelm her and make her break a mirror and slash
her wrists. And who would be there to stop her? Who would care? Not her
mother. Not some man. And definitely not her father.
Series References for the Life Stories section:
Aftel, Mandy, The Story of Your Life: Becoming the Author of Your Experience, 1997.
Anderson, Greg, Living Life On Purpose: A Guide To Creating A Life Of Success And Significance, 1997.
Aziz, Robert, C.G. Jung's Psychology of Religion and Synchronicity, 1990.
Bateson, Mary Catherine, Composing A Life. Life as a work in progress - the improvisations of five extraordinary women..., 1990
Cole, Dorian Scott, The Last Prophet, 1979. (Used for reference only, not available)
Cole, Dorian Scott, Covenant Expectations of the Immediate Future In Some Post-Exilic Prophets, 1978. (Used for reference only, not available)
Gendlin, Eugene, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning: A Philosophical and Psychological Approach to the Subjective, 1997. (Note: I highly recommend this book for those looking for tools for understanding meaning in a relativist framework.)
Linde, Charlotte, Life Stories: The Creation Of Coherence, 1993.
Turner, Robert Griffith, The Fire and the Rose: Human Core Needs and Personal Transformation, 1996.
Vaughan, Frances, Shadows of the Sacred: Seeing through Spiritual Illusions, 1995.
Whitmont, Edward C., The Symbolic Quest: Basic Concepts of Analytical Psychology, 1969.
Young, Jeffrey E., Reinventing Your Life: How to Break Free From Negative Life Patterns, 1994.
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