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Copyright © 1998,
Dorian Scott Cole
Sixth in a series about adding 
meaning to characterization

Introduction | A few notes about myself | What is meaning? Purpose? | Toward meaning-making | Seeker of truth | Vision in work | The winds of change | Preparing for change | Meaning-making | Examining meanings for new meanings


Change, growth, meaning, and the human condition, the subjects of this series, are central to characterization and stories, and to humanity. This series talks about real people and real life - that's what characters are made of. So far this series has contained few thoughts that would concern the average reader, and has applied directly to characterization. In keeping with that intent, this article, instead of being a challenge to anyone's beliefs should anchor their beliefs and meaning on firmer ground. 

Wherever a person or character is in life in a philosophical, social, psychological, or religious sense is not the point of these articles - I'm not trying to challenge your position or influence character types. The purpose of this site is to challenge people so that they dig deeper when creating characters so that writers don't perpetuate some of the stereotypes and over-simplifications that have dominated stories in the past. (The other major purpose of this site is the concern over what kind of world we create.) The ideas expressed in this article do apply to characterization, but my concern is also for the reader. I don't think it is possible to study the human condition for characterization without being personally affected - even for the writer. My writer's oath that I placed at the bottom of the main page says, "Challenge people, but do no harm." 

If you prefer not to consider these areas, please stop reading. However if you feel you want to know more about change related to meaning and purpose in your life, or you want to be better able to portray characters who are changing, or if you just want to become more tolerant of others beliefs about meaning and purpose, then read on. 

A few notes about myself

Labels that we stick on people are very misleading and usually not representative, but I do use a couple of terms with respect to myself. I read and converse with others who use these same labels and we differ in many ways. My philosophical leaning is Postmodernist and social constructivist. I don't say this lightly. I am very uncomfortable with some of the people who call themselves Postmodernists - particularly with those who feel that Postmodernism and existentialism (relativism) mean that there is no meaning, or that all meaning is shallow and superficial, or those who think that these same words are against people's values and religion and all they hold dear. Just today I briefly tuned into a religious station and within minutes heard that there has been a massive shift in the world toward Postmodernism, and Postmodernism "means that everything is relative and there is no God." For Postmodernism, people will have to sacrifice their religious beliefs on the altar of tolerance. Interesting view of pluarlism - so much for respecting other's beliefs. I guess it's either all out religous war or "resistance is futile... the Borg have arrived - you will be assimilated into 'their' idea of truth." Sometimes the irresponsibility of religious groups makes me sick, and I can see why people would run from them and fear ever becoming involved with religion.

Well, probably the most cohesive statement I can make about Postmodernism is that nothing really represents it or defines it. Although some who call themselves Postmodernist feel that everything is relative and there is no God, they aren't the first to have these attitudes. I think these are extremist attitudes, and are gross and irresponsible interpretations. I know many people who consider themselves Postmodernists, and they seem to have strong religious beliefs that they act on. Existentialism (which spawned relativism), the precursor of Postmodernism, has its roots in religion and the terror of war and Nazi concentration camps, and I know that men like Viktor Frankl and Rollo May were/are not against religion or meaning. Postmodernism is a way of looking at things, a philosophy, and it is not a religion nor for or against religion. It's more like an attitude.

In simple terms, what "Postmodernist" means is that I look for the real meaning behind the things we do (as a society or individuals), and I tend to discard the parts that are without foundation. History tends to leave a lot of frayed edges that lead nowhere. I look at how people develop through life and recognize that we all change, even in our most basic beliefs, so I understand how relative, but meaningful, it all is. Relative does not mean immature or untrue, which I will explain later. I won't bore you with the details of Postmodernism, but for those who are interested, you can go to the What Is Postmodernism page for more information. (For various views on Postmodernism, just do an Internet search on the word.)

The label "social constructivist" simply means that I don't see human beings as totally independent from each other. I see the society in which we live as giving us a "meaning structure" which gives a lot of the meaning to our lives. We are dependent on others for how we interpret our lives. When people are removed to foreign lands and thrown into foreign cultures, their lives often lose a lot of meaning. Even when people move to another location and no longer have the same friends, or lose a loved one, or retire, their lives lose a lot of meaning. But I also believe we are able to see new meaning in our lives both from seeing new things in our old source of meaning (constructionism), and also from creating entirely new meanings (constructivism). 

For example, you might write a story in which an aging man has a close relationship with his son, but not his grandchildren. The relationship with his son has a lot of meaning for him, and gives him a lot of purpose, but he has always kept his distance from his grandchildren so that he wouldn't be thought of as interfering. He had never had a grandparent himself. His son gets injured and can no longer do things with his children for a few weeks. His son requests the aging man's help. He replies that they still have a father. The son says that's right and they need a grandfather. The grandfather's role is not to raise kids, but to do special things with them. The aging man sees meaning in this for himself, and purpose. This role is a new construction for the grandfather - one he could not see before because he lacked the experience and the insight. 

Another example is the game of baseball (or other sports). Mankind didn't begin with a baseball in its hand (maybe an apple). We invented the game (probably based on other human interactions, which is constructionism) and gave it new meaning (constructivism). For those who loyally visit the day games in Chicago, watching the Cubs usually lose, the game has developed a new meaning. 

What is meaning? Purpose?

By meaning, I'm not talking about semantics, or ultimate truth, or the meaning that society sees, or even what one supposedly "should" find meaningful. I'm talking about something that is very relative to the person who sees meaning. I can describe meaning in this way: "Meaning exists for a person when the person perceives the relevance (relationship and significance) of an idea, thing, person, activity, or event, whether real or symbolic." If the meaning spurs the person into activity, then the meaning provides purpose. Not everything that has relevance to people also provides purpose. People who smoke generally know the relevance of smoking to their health and lifespan, but they often continue smoking. People can believe in God, but not find purpose in God that moves them into action. In fact, if their attitude is self-oriented, or conformist to peers who are against religion, then they are not likely to be "active" and may even become antireligious. Smoking and religion are good examples of how attitude can influence (heighten or subvert) the purpose that meaning could provide. 

I can talk about meaning in a sketchy way, and talk potential purpose, but seeing purpose in meaning is up to the individual. 

Toward meaning-making

By meaning-making, I'm not talking about the reinterpretive process used in psychotherapy. I'm talking about actually finding new purposeful meaning for one's life. I'm talking about a process of change that we all go through - often many times during our lives. In talking about meaning from my point of view, I also have to talk about some religious concepts, or spiritual ideas. Those who think Postmodernists are against God and religion, might want to cover their eyes and ears now. 

What does it mean to make meaning? What does it mean to take charge of your life and find meaning in it? At this point in life, can a person do that without understanding that we are physical, psychological, social, and spiritual beings, who are part of a larger world? Because if a person denies these things, then that person probably is going to continue working to understand the significance of those things in his life and this article would be a waste of time for him. 

Wisdom from the past:
"But as time goes on, and their hearers advance in years, and come into closer contact with realities, and have learnt by sad experience to see and feel the truth of things, are not the greater part of them compelled to change many opinions which they formerly entertained, so that the great appears small to them, and the easy difficult, and all their dreamy speculations are overturned by the facts of life?"
- Sophist by Plato
One can't deny the physical - the law of gravity, aging, death, the need for a healthy lifestyle, the need for and power of money... we live in a physical world. One can't deny the psychological - the power of the mind to build us or destroy us, or to do good or evil. One can't deny the spiritual - our connection with a world of ideas, influences, experience and growth. One can't deny that we are part of the lives of others, and in a much larger sense, that we are part of this entire world. One can't deny the role of God in our lives - the being of pure love who offers guidance and often much more, who is as close or as far away as we need in our growth. 

Our growth brings change and through this we see that the rules and ideas we once lived by are relative. But that doesn't mean that they have no value, and it certainly doesn't mean that they aren't valid. Many look at such ideas as relativism and declare that there are no values. It is an easy point of view to arrive at. Prior to that point we believe there is "an" ultimate answer (what is the meaning of life?), pointed to by symbols such as science, religion, institutions, and by having answers we feel satisfied at having a corner on truth. Not knowing - uncertainty - creates turmoil in the minds of many, so any answer is better than none. But when we begin to understand how relative symbols and systems are, our first tendency is to throw them all out. Those who aren't able to see that there are values, probably aren't able to fully grasp the meaning of it all - they simply don't belong to this discussion. I don't mean this as a put-down. We each visit and revisit different points of life. I will be revisiting second grade soon - something about sharing candy. 

It is a wider point of view that lets a person see the many points of view - to see that a wide point of view has much more value to many more people than the solitary value/no value point of view of held by one individual. 

I recently read a book in which the author restated the timeless maxim that the emptiness that people feel inside is the lack of God. He went on to explain that he wasn't just talking about believing in God, but in having a personal relationship with God. He went on to expound that we expect God to draw close to us and answer every request, and to believe in all of our hopes and dreams. But we don't expect to draw close to God and have any hopes and dreams put on us. And once again I was smacked in the face with another half-answer, another half-truth, another one-sided perspective that would not fill emptiness by itself. What about loneliness, sadness, clinical depression, boredom, failure, and many other things that make people feel empty inside? Many people who are religious and seem close to God, still feel empty. 

Becoming close to God may eventually bring you to a better life that is more balanced. That is, if you are able to keep in perspective the thing that many people seem to lose sight of, and that is that we are individuals who have lives, and "giving" those lives to God is not really "walking with God." I get the feeling from some people's attitudes that their idea of religion is creating uniform drones, zombies, or dead saints - not living-breathing-creative-striving creatures. Those who are interested in this aspect may want to read my screenplay, Priest of Sales. Gina's journey is her challenge to religion and is her loosening of bonds.

Why walk with? It's the difference between being told what to do, and deciding what to do; between taking responsibility and giving it to someone else; between being creative and just duplicating what has been; between becoming a new creation and becoming another of a pattern. From what I see of the variety of the universe, I don't think the point is to make more and more grains of sand. I believe understanding the balance of life and taking responsibility for one's life is a key to personal growth. But I don't think it is the role of religion so much to promote this as to be the mediary - a communicator between man and God.

I draw on the Judeo/Muslim/Christian religious tradition for historical background. When the Hebrews left Egypt, the people were asked to go onto the mountain and God would speak His commandments to them. They were afraid and refused. They delegated that responsibility to Moses. So it fell to Moses, his assistant Aaron, the leaders he appointed, and those people Moses led, to intercede for the people in their relationship to God. Moses spoke for the people, and he spoke for God. That type of role is an influential part of many religions to this day. 

At that moment of history we can see something very important happening. God left it up to man as to how they would communicate. There were priests before, and the angel of God visited Abraham and his sons in earlier times. Did the people now want visitation or other proximity to God, or did they want priests? The people made a choice - they would pass the responsibility on to others - they weren't ready for angels and gods to visit them personally. They weren't able to live up to that kind of expectations. God responded to man's needs, coming to where man was, finding an acceptable way to communicate. 

The lesson about responsibility came often to the Israelites. They often substituted religious ceremony for proper treatment of their fellow man, and the prophets often foreshadowed hard times that would come to them for their irresponsible behavior. Finally Christ delivered a new way of thinking to them. Paramount in their minds should be love, not law. Love is the premier demander of responsibility toward others. Instead of a list of "don'ts" it includes "dos." Love your neighbor, your enemy... The word love as used here is not a touchy-feely word. It means to be responsible toward your neighbor, your enemy. It especially means, to be concerned enough about them to do the right things for them. I believe that individual responsibility is one of the major goals of religion, and individual responsibility is the window that opens allowing you to see the innumberable possibilities of life. I see spirituality as expansive, not restrictive. 

An unfortunate thing tends to happen to us when we begin to confront change that comes from our growth. We begin to see how relative things are and before we can latch on to new beliefs we often tend to reject all systems of belief as just fairy tales. We outgrow our old beliefs and have nothing firm to replace them with and nowhere to turn. We end up in a nomad's land of disbelief and our development can't proceed. This sometimes lasts a lifetime. Perhaps it happens because we can't see the broader picture. Perhaps it happens because we try to protect ourselves from being "fooled" again. Perhaps it happens because we enter a group that keeps spirituality in the closet, out of sight.

The point to all that I write here is that none of our beliefs are untrue or unimportant. In becoming a pluralistic society that embraces, or at least tolerates, those of other beliefs, we have the opportunity to step aside and gain a wider view of our own beliefs. If we call the beliefs of others "lies," then each day becomes a larger and larger task in trying to convince ourselves that the entire world is in error. Because no matter what religious belief an individual holds, that belief is only a small portion of the world's variety of beliefs. The world will never survive that strain.

If we can understand that each of our beliefs shows us only one aspect of God, and that we are typically incapable of seeing the whole, we can at least understand the structure of spiritual and religious faith even if we can't understand the whole. For example, research scientists examine human cells and atoms - things they can't see or understand - to investigate life and the universe. They have theories that they think might be a correct description. They test and find that some point in the theory is incorrect and another is correct. Then, rather than discard the entire theory, they modify it. And they continue modifying until their testing tells them that they have formed a complete theory that is true to the best of their ability to research and understand. But when they find one part is incorrect, they don't throw the entire theory away or give up trying to understand. 

I think that what scientists do is very similar to what we do in a spiritual sense. We see something - God - that we don't fully understand. We experience God through history, religion, and personal faith. We grow. At some point in time we often outgrow the religious and philosophical beliefs that we have. Sometimes our religion is able to absorb and support our change. Sometimes not. 

Seeker of truth

I count myself among those who are seekers of truth. I have found that while you are preoccupied with finding ultimate truth, you can cheat yourself out of the journey of life. I came to understand that living and experiencing new things is how we learn, how we grow, how we sort out what is "true." You can't really learn much from an armchair just reading about life or philosophizing about it. 

Wisdom from the past
"You cannot realize the Absolute without participating in the dance of the relative. You cannot understand the play of relativity without being immersed in the radiant stillness of the Absolute." 
- Ramakrishna, as quoted in Shadows Of The Sacred, by Frances Vaughan
I was raised in "the Church" and was sincerely and actively involved in it. The "seed" fell on fertile ground. However, as a young man as I looked at the world and religions and God, nothing really made any sense. I wanted to know "truth" - wanted to know I wasn't being duped. In this journey toward the truth, one of my big discoveries was that things don't always make sense, and things that appeal to us just because they "make sense" aren't always right. If you just want to find something that makes sense, there are plenty of comfortable ideas out there, but really all you have to do is make something up - that's a perfect fit. 

The more I looked at religious history - all religions, not just my heritage and the various other beliefs that I experienced, the deeper the puzzle became. How could a "god" who helped others invade other lands, kill innocent people, demean others, and condemn them to eternal flames just for being alive, also be a "god" of love and peace? Hmmm. Could it be that the more I learned about love (kindness, concern, mercy) and living in a way that was beneficial to myself and others, the more I struggled with these other pictures of God? The more I was transformed and saw what is good, the more I ... eh, well, I'm not that good. But my perspective on life and God changed. For example, I saw as Jonah saw, that the gloom and doom of the prophets was primarily to get people's attention and instigate change - to get them to treat their fellow man better.

Wisdom from the past
"When there is change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well."
- Bible - Hebrews
Who changed? God... is. He perhaps never changes. I saw different aspects of God as I changed and looked from different perspectives. And it's funny, every time I changed, I looked back at that old religion or philosophy and hated all the things that were wrong with it. But as I look back now, I see how necessary those things were to my development, and I see the good in them. I don't know the ultimate "truth," but I feel I am experiencing the many aspects of truth. 
Wisdom from the present(?)
"We don't know God until we have experienced all of his faces."
- Scott Cole

Vision in working

As I have mentioned before in this series, I began my career life as a radio announcer. To some it sounds like a glamour job, but it quickly got me over any desire for celebrity. As soon as I had gotten good at the basics, I became bored with it. That was probably my earliest lesson about being responsible for one's self and for having a fulfilling life. At that point in my life I had no idea what it meant to invest myself in my work. I got out of work as little as I put in of myself - or less. As I looked back at that job over the years, I began to realize one of the secrets about working: you don't get anything out of it until you put yourself into it. Creativity, effort, vision, constant striving for improvement and newness - all these things are necessary to turn a dead-end job into a career with open-ended possibilities. Meaning-making begins where we have chosen to be.
Wisdom from the past
God changes not what a people has until they change it for themselves. 
- Koran

The winds of change

These experiences I mention about growth apply to spiritual growth. Three researchers in psychology have demonstrated that as we develop we base our growth on previous stages. Jean Piaget found that our minds and our ability to reason develop linearly through several stages. We don't skip stages and suddenly develop new abilities. We go through each stage and we can't go on to the next stage until we complete the previous one. Each stage in cognitive (mental) development is based on what we learned in the previous stage. 

Lawrence Kohlberg similarly found that our ability for moral reasoning also develops linearly through several stages. We don't continue to develop until we grasp the current stage. (I'm still working on this sharing candy thing.) We don't change overnight from not sharing candy to building houses for the homeless for free. Just as Piaget found, the stages of moral development are the same in every culture. Kohlberg also found another thing necessary to change and growth: experience. We have to be making moral decisions to learn how to make them. He also found that we develop at our own pace, and we tend to get stuck at one stage or another, sometimes for life.

Erik Erickson, from a psychoanalytic point of view of healthy individuals, has identified essential stages of growth that we go through socially and in developing our personalities. He found that if we fail to complete a stage successfully, then it is a hindrance to our growth in successive stages. 

James Fowler found that faith also develops in stages. There is evidence of linear development, but I prefer not to value one stage over another or to say that any series of steps is necessary to any individual. But the stages of faith do tend to build on each other, and seem to be across cultures and religions.

Change is a normal and essential part of life, and each stage teaches us "truths" that we need to know. Change doesn't mean rejecting what has come before, or degrading it, or calling it an untruth or lie. Change means seeing a new aspect of things - seeing a bigger picture than we saw before. We gain a fuller understanding when we are able to integrate the experience. My personal view of life is that it is like a vortex. We cycle through things over and over again, touching on experiences and reinforcing what was previously challenging, until we understand from all perspectives.

The most important thing is not to sit on the sidelines, aloof from the process, waiting for "truth" to reveal itself, afraid to get involved. Following that approach is likely to draw the individual into a crisis which will propel the individual into the closest option with no time to consider - for example, a cult. The most important thing is to get involved and stay involved. 

Wisdom from the past
"Moreover, there is nothing that remains the same even for two consecutive moments; for the Five Khandhas, or Groups of Existence, are in a state of perpetual change, of continual dissolution and renewal. They die every moment, and every moment new ones are born. Hence it follows that there is no such thing as a real existence, or being (Latin esse), but only as it were an endless process, a continuous change, a becoming, consisting in a producing,
- Buddha, The Word
Preparing for change

The Hebrews were a people in transition. They had lived for hundreds of years as strangers among the ancient Egyptians who were their masters. They had different customs and they worshipped a different God. Suddenly with Moses, they escaped Egypt and fled into an arid region with little food or water. Now in the wilderness, they were removed from everything they knew, and were led by religious leaders who communicated with God and demonstrated God's power in ways that were very strange and unheard of to them, and they were faced with responsibilities of daily life with no way to make shoes, or gather food, or find water, or put a roof over their heads. Free of oppression and the requirement to act in any particular way, they went about the task of surviving and and acted in different ways - even rebellious ways. They faced life as many of us would - they passed their responsibilities off to others, they partied, they pretended religion by creating safer substitutes (idols), they whined and rebelled and caused trouble, and they did everything but move forward or accept responsibility. 

Change sometimes comes suddenly and unexpectedly, catching us off balance. Even changes that we expect can knock us off balance. It is helpful to have stability. I think that the most stabilizing thing we have is the past. In the past we see where we have been and know that we have learned so much from it that we are at our present state of mind. It is our experience that has taught us about some aspect of life. We love it, or we hate it. The past has answered some questions and led us to new ones. The past is solid knowledge to build on, and a solid platform for us to reach forward. On the other hand, sometimes our past tells us how much we don't know. It is a goad to find solid ground. 

For most of us, the people in our lives are our anchors. They don't leave us or change just because we are changing what we think. They are often stabilizers who prevent us from going too far off the deep end. But sometimes change is threatening to them, so they won't allow others to change because it might affect them. In the recent (Sept. '98) TV special, Forever Love, (suggested by a true story) a woman falls into a coma when her child is young. Twenty years later she awakens. Her husband has taken care of her for all this time, but not without some support - her best friend and her husband had an affair. With twenty years of change to cope with in her world, and with events like the affair, and her child's impending marriage, she finally has to go off by herself to allow herself to catch up with the world and to change from who she used to be to her new self. She had to cope with the impact of twenty years of change, and she had to find herself. 

Other anchors in our life are religion and beliefs, family, social community, peers, our work community, God, and a certain amount of foresight mixed with the hindsight of what we have learned from this time in our development. 

Change is often full of fear. We fear loss of community, loss of friends and loved ones, disorientation, loss of values, and the newness of ideas and values that we haven't become accustomed to. Yet few things in our life actually change very much, it is mostly our perspective that changes. 

Wisdom from today: 
modern song: "closing time, every new beginning is some other beginnings end."


It always impressed me that a writer can open a window on a new world for people. When others look out that window, they can see an entire new world to explore. What I am trying to do here is open a window for those who want to look. We live in a very restrictive world - a world of walls and doors in which passage and sight are very well regulated. The society in which we live imposes many of these restrictions, or at least sets patterns that we accept for ourselves. Many restrictions are self-imposed. We "buy into" this or that thought about what one ought to do and ought not to do. We derive much of our meaning from these things we tell ourselves about what life means - those things that are "important.". 

If we assembled all the "should dos" that we subscribe to - those things that we think are good and will make us better people and keep us out of trouble - would there be enough time in life to do half of them well? But those things are there, constantly begging for our attention. Some of them we actually bring into our lives and live them, so that there is some meaning that comes from them. So many things have slipped into my life, and then during some transition faded from view. There is never enough time to do it all - our focus shifts and a new group of things becomes important. 

Meaning-making is a way of life - it is opening our eyes to a wider vision so that we can see the possibilities. It is moving from: 

a closed system of absolutes and "onlys" in which things outside ourselves are given a disproportionate share of responsibility for our lives and control over our vision,
an open system with fewer restrictions and new possibilities, plurality of meaning, and accepting the major responsibility for what we do with our lives. It is dissolving the restrictions placed on meaning and finding meaning in new things and finding entirely new meanings. 
It helps if we are not cheating ourselves by ignoring our core values and chasing after the illusory symbols of fulfillment - power, money, and gods and religion that represent the kinds of success that separate us from other people and kindness to them. But then if we never chase after anything, we never discover anything. 

Wisdom from the past
Solomon (paraphrased)
All is vanity... is there anything new? - it has all been done before... everything man does is striving after the wind... the same end comes to us all... and whatever we create goes to undeserving fools... for all of our toil and strain we get days full of pain and nights without rest... The wicked prosper as the righteous... All that we build is reduced to nothing... All we are is dust in the wind... So I hate life, and despair over my toil. I followed a great king - there is nothing great that I can do. So I considered wisdom and folly. There is nothing better than to eat, drink, and find enjoyment in your toil... Enjoy life with your wife... The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill... Dust returns to the earth and the spirit to God who gave it... all is vanity... For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to harvest; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together, a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to cast away; a time to rend and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace. 
- Solomon, Ecclesiastes 

Wisdom(?) from Scott
"We always look for fulfillment at the journey's end. It is only through making the journey that we find the end. No journey, no end. It is the journey that is engaging, fulfilling, and full of truth. The journey and the end are the same."
- Scott Cole
Examining meanings for new meaning

What kind of things do we tell ourselves that create meaning for our lives that boxes us in? There are literally thousands of things, and they are different for each person. But I'm not going to let that be an obstacle to giving examples. Aesop's Fables are a good example of little stories or situations from which we derive meaning, yet as we mature we see the story from a different perspective and gain a different meaning from it. From the new perspective, the moral of the story isn't wrong even though it has changed in our view. But sometimes we get stuck, telling ourselves the moral of the story and never giving it another thought. Following are some of Aesop's stories and a review of the morals they teach. 

The first story shows that Aesop understood relativism, and reinterpreting or changing perspective, but how true is the moral that he drew from this story? It is one of those morals that we often tell oursleves. 

The Hares and the Frogs

The Hares were so persecuted by the other beasts, they did not know where to go. As soon as they saw a single animal approach them, off they used to run. One day they saw a troop of wild Horses stampeding about, and in quite a panic all the Hares scuttled off to a lake hard by, determined to drown themselves rather than live in such a continual state of fear. But just as they got near the bank of the lake, a troop of Frogs, frightened in their turn by the approach of the Hares scuttled off, and jumped into the water. "Truly," said one of the Hares, "things are not so bad as they seem:

"There is always someone worse off than yourself."

Remember the similar proverb, "I had no shoes and complained until I met a man who had no feet." These are good object lessons. They do help people put their situation in perspective. But if we keep telling ourselves this story and we keep settling for the least good that life has to offer and the most misery life has to offer, are we improving our situation any? A willingness to suffer, be patient, and not be greedy are certainly worthwhile qualities that serve us well in life. We do improve our character through applying the moral of this story, but continuing seems like a game of diminishing returns - the longer you play it the less character development that happens. Improving our situation in life is often done by maintaining high standards. Does this story seduce us with a false moral? No - it is quite true and serves us well, but as we mature we see that the moral isn't the entire story, just an aspect of it. 

What might be a Postmodernist's approach to a story like this? I see three actions. First, find the kernel of truth in it. That we have already done in the preceding paragraph. 

Second, it is a story drawn from real life by real people, and then put into a story with parallel meaning. Animals are used in place of humans probably so that we can look at it objectively. But they are symbols of us. The story may be rich with meaning, so the social constructionist part of me looks for additional meaning. I learned to do this partly from learning a way of approaching and interpreting ancient literature - the Bible. Theologian Brevard Childs created commentaries that offer various approaches to meaning. The texts have held meanings for people for thousands of years, and the same texts have had different meaning for different groups throughout religious history.

Well, in the Hares and Frogs story, here are people living in terror, and pushed to the limit they feel it is better to destroy themselves than to live with the horror of it all. This seems to the role of terror in our lives. First we fear something, then after a while the repeated shocks have so traumatized (conditioned) our minds that we throw our hands in the air and run away yelling and screaming in terror at the mere thought of the demon returning. What turned the people in the story around? The sight of their friends and neighbors running in terror from themselves. Sobering. Was this debacle really something so terrible? The hares knew that they themselves were nothing to fear, but the timid frogs jumped even at the sight of a hare. The frogs didn't know what the hares knew, and if they had they probably would have calmly remained in their place as the hares came by. 

So from my newfound point of view, I know that if I can understand something, I need not be afraid of it and I can conquer it. For example, this is true of electricity. Household voltage, 110 volts, can kill. I have worked with 600, 3000, and 365 thousand volts with enough power to vaporize me like a bug zapper. Household voltage we become accustomed to and know if we don't get crazy then we are protected from it. We respect and are careful of electricity, but we cease to fear it in our homes. If we have to work with it directly, learning about how it can hurt us and how to prevent dangerous situations removes the fear and leaves the respect. What are many of life's fears then, but things that we don't understand. 

But that isn't all. I not only look for meaning in terms of things I currently understand, I look for new meaning in things - an opportunity for future growth - constructivist. From this story, I can see that it isn't difficult to become sensitized to difficulties that have once defeated us, or that we haven't even thought of standing up to. Those things that hide in the shadows of life seem like they can suddenly spring upon us like a herd of stampeding horses. They produce great fear. But if we can begin to experience them in a controlled way, and get to know them, we can conquer them. So when we are hesitant to do something or to experience something, we can look at our feelings and know that there is fear there. The more times we experience the fear and turn away from the experience, the more conditioned or traumatized we become until finally we turn those shadows into monstrous creatures. So I realize that the way to conquer the thing, and the fear that it produces, is to understand it and understand what it takes to conquer it. Confronting it without preparation, or hiding from it, can make it worse. 

We challenged a fable. We have looked deep into it and seen a great deal more than Aesop probably had ever intended. The fable is about real life, which is not a shallow subject. We've seen that the original meaning is true, and we have seen different aspects of the same story and found not just one, but many morals. From one fable, we have found a lot of meaning that anchors us in the truths of the past, shows us a lot of cohesive meaning about our experience in facing today, and challenges us with meaning for the future - confronting our fears in more constructive ways. 

A final point. What if everyone thought themselves so wise that they declared untrue or unnecessary the first meaning of the story - the change in relative perspective (others have it worse) - and went right to the idea that we need to set high goals for ourselves in order to improve our lives? High goals are very difficult to attain. Setting high goals without proper preparation for the journey necessary to reach them is just setting one's self up for failure. Failure often feeds on itself and demoralizes us. How many New Years resolutions reach pay dirt? Lofty goals, little success. No preparation. The things that the first moral teaches through applying it - keeping things in perspective, being patient, not letting greed or other things tempt us to move too quickly - are all essential to reaching high goals. Get these morals in the wrong order and growth is not only zero, it may teach us how to be failures. 

The Lion's Share

We often use the expression, "He got the lion's share." It comes from one of Aesop's Fables that has a moral about people who have great power. But it is also one of those stories that can be a trap.

The Lion's Share
The Lion went once a-hunting along with the Fox, the Jackal, and the Wolf. They hunted and they hunted till at last they surprised a Stag, and soon took its life. Then came the question how the spoil should be divided.

"Quarter me this Stag," roared the Lion; so the other animals skinned it and cut it into four parts. Then the Lion took his stand in front of the carcass and pronounced judgment: The first quarter is for me in my capacity as King of Beasts; the second is mine as arbiter; another share comes to me for my part in the chase; and as for the fourth quarter, well, as for that, I should like to see which of you will dare to lay a paw upon it." 

"Humph," grumbled the Fox as he walked away with his tail between his legs; but he spoke in a low growl. "You may share the labours of the great, but you will not share the spoil."

This moral teaches that the powerful are greedy. Are they always greedy? What do I see in this story from a Postmodern perspective? This story may be about a foible of Aesop's instead of a fable. The disparity between the wealthy and powerful, and the poor, often creates a bias of one toward the other. Aesop either saw more than his share of greed in the wealthy, or his own situation made him more sensitive to the disparity and colored his outlook. The wealthy are no different than any others, they are just in a position to show their nature and for more to see it. Some are benevolent, some are greedy - just like the rest of us. If we continue telling ourselves this kind of story, we create enmity between the groups that becomes a barrier to communication and association. It blocks off that part of life. 

The Man and the Serpent

A Countryman's son by accident trod upon a Serpent's tail, which turned and bit him so that he died. The father in a rage got his axe, and pursuing the Serpent, cut off part of its tail. So the Serpent in revenge began stinging several of the Farmer's cattle and caused him severe loss. Well, the Farmer thought it best to make it up with the Serpent, and brought food and honey to the mouth of its lair, and said to it: "Let's forget and forgive; perhaps you were right to punish my son, and take vengeance on my cattle, but surely I was right in trying to revenge him; now that we are both satisfied why should not we be friends again?" 

"No, no," said the Serpent; "take away your gifts; you can never forget the death of your son, nor I the loss of my tail." 

Injuries may be forgiven, but not forgotten.

According to this story, human nature does not allow for reconciliation. It is a very important story because it is very true and everyone should be aware of it - people don't easily forget injustice done to them. It is one of those basic things that we all should learn early. 

But from another perspective, I see a different meaning. People who have been at war with each other often reconcile. The "serpent" reacted to defend itself - an automatic and justifiable reaction. Crime victims sometimes reconcile with their offenders, although the court and legal system wisely keeps them apart. 

From another perspective, some who have built up centuries of enmity find it almost impossible to reconcile. 

For more about this subject, see the article on guilt and forgiveness.

Following are some more of Aesop's Fables that you can examine and reinterpret yourself. I have followed each by questions that might help to start you thinking. Perhaps a story idea will come from examining them.

The Fox and the Crow

A Fox once saw a Crow fly off with a piece of cheese in its beak and settle on a branch of a tree. "That's for me, as I am a Fox," said Master Reynard, and he walked up to the foot of the tree. "Good-day, Mistress Crow," he cried. "How well you are looking to-day: how glossy your feathers; how bright your eye. I feel sure your voice must surpass that of other birds, just as your figure does; let me hear but one song from you that I may greet you as the Queen of Birds." The Crow lifted up her head and began to caw her best, but the moment she opened her mouth the piece of cheese fell to the ground, only to be snapped up by Master Fox. "That will do," said he. "That was all I wanted. In exchange for your cheese I will give you a piece of advice for the future. "Do not trust flatterers." 

Is everyone who flatters us only trying to get something from us? One could miss a diamond while watching out for the unscrupulous. But when talking to sales people, I myself always tend to disregard their flattery - in fact it makes me immediately suspicious of the sales person.

The Woodman and the Serpent

One wintry day a Woodman was tramping home from his work when he saw something black lying on the snow. When he came closer he saw it was a Serpent to all appearance dead. But he took it up and put it in his bosom to warm while he hurried home. As soon as he got indoors he put the Serpent down on the hearth before the fire. The children watched it and saw it slowly come to life again. Then one of them stooped down to stroke it, but the Serpent raised its head and put out its fangs and was about to sting the child to death. So the Woodman seized his axe, and with one stroke cut the Serpent in two. "Ah," said he,

"No gratitude from the wicked."

What we have learned about some animals is that their basic natures don't change much even after training. Their actions are largely instinctual. If it senses the need to protect itself, whether real or imagined, a snake will bite you. A snake does not have the power to determine our intentions, whether good or bad, so it sees danger even when we don't intend harm. But these stories aren't really about animals, they are about humans who are symbolized in the story as animals. Does the same thing apply to human beings? 

The Fox and the Stork

At one time the Fox and the Stork were on visiting terms and seemed very good friends. So the Fox invited the Stork to dinner, and for a joke put nothing before her but some soup in a very shallow dish. This the Fox could easily lap up, but the Stork could only wet the end of her long bill in it, and left the meal as hungry as when she began. "I am sorry," said the Fox, "the soup is not to your liking." 

"Pray do not apologise," said the Stork. "I hope you will return this visit, and come and dine with me soon." So a day was appointed when the Fox should visit the Stork; but when they were seated at table all that was for their dinner was contained in a very long-necked jar with a narrow mouth, in which the Fox could not insert his snout, so all he could manage to do was to lick the outside of the jar.

"I will not apologise for the dinner," said the Stork: "One bad turn deserves another." 

How will this philosophy serve one in life? Does doing something mean to another help win friends and influence people? Or does kindness to another more often win the day? Are there some people who only understand power and meanness?

The Bat, the Birds, and the Beasts

A great conflict was about to come off between the Birds and the Beasts. When the two armies were collected together the Bat hesitated which to join. The Birds that passed his perch said: "Come with us"; but he said: "I am a Beast." Later on, some Beasts who were passing underneath him looked up and said: "Come with us"; but he said: "I am a Bird." Luckily at the last moment peace was made, and no battle took place, so the Bat came to the Birds and wished to join in the rejoicings, but they all turned against him and he had to fly away. He then went to the Beasts, but soon had to beat a retreat, or else they would have torn him to pieces. "Ah," said the Bat, "I see now, 

"He that is neither one thing nor the other has no friends."

Is this true? Why did the others refuse the bat? Because he was different, or because he refused to join them. 

One of the dangers of reinterpreting situations is that many proposed meanings may be totally bogus. Reinterpreting may get us past a temporary obstacle, but become a hollow victory that when exposed won't win another battle. I strongly object to reinterpretation that isn't based on reality and meaning that anchors us in the truths of the past, shows us a lot of cohesive meaning about the experience and situation we face today, and challenges us with meaning for the future. It is meaning for the future that is our growth area - that thing that provides meaning and purpose to keep us involved in life. 

In searching for meaning and purpose, I think each of us have a basic tendency to look for "ultimate truth" - a fundamental approach to finding that thing that will give ultimate meaning to our life, and if we just find it then everything will fall into place and we will have something to live for. That kind of life-changing experience comes infrequently. The kind of result that inspires passion and creates major change in our lives is most likely to come during times of crisis - when we have lived without growth for longer than we can stand. At this point, a new vehicle is necessary to carry us into the future. Passion is also likely to come when many things in our development finally click and we are able to experience some purpose in newness and or to its fullest extent. But even those who seem like they have it all together and have found what they were looking for or want to do, burn out and move on or add new areas to their lives. 

The rest of the time, it is the small things in life that add meaning to it, plus the knowledge that we can control our future and seek out new meaning and purpose. For example, breaking down an old barrier in thinking - some story we told ourselves that was limiting us - preventing us from being what we can be. And seeing something new for ourselves to do that previously wasn't even considered. And experiencing new things that open up new possibilities. 

There are literally innumerable of things which can give our lives meaning, both in large ways and in small ways. Sometimes it is finding things that are in harmony with our core values. Sometimes it is necessary to get the old fables and foibles out of the way and see stories from a new perspective. Sometimes it is seeing things in our lives from a new perspective, such as being a grandfather who cares. Sometimes it is seeing a spiritual idea that resonates with us, which is the subject of the next article. 

The final two articles in this series are:

Meaning: Symbols and Plurality.

Life Stories: Seeing Meaning, Composing Meaning


Vaughan, Frances, Shadows of the Sacred: Seeing through Spiritual Illusions, 1995.

Fowler, James. Stages of Faith, 1981.

William Bridges. Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes, 1980. 

Project Gutenberg: Aesop's Fables and thousands of other books in electronic format.

Note: The links (except Project Gutenberg) are in association with Amazon Books, an Internet book sales service. This is for your convenience. There are other Internet book services, such as Barnes & Noble. For textbooks, the online bookstore Varsity Books at offers a 15 to 40 percent discount on a very large selection. 

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