NUMBER 631• 10 NOVEMBER • MEANING-MAKING
It seems to me that one of the most important issues we face in the world of helping troubled young people is the specific role of the ‘self’ in the helping relationship (see for example, Fewster, 1987, 1990; Garfat 1998). Meaning-making, the way that we as individuals make sense of that which we experience, seems to be the place where self and experience interact most directly in impacting on ‘other’ (See, for example, Bruner, 1990). For example. the way that we make meaning very much influences, and perhaps even determines, how we respond to them. Thus, it is the place where the ‘issues of self’ play themselves out most directly in the helping relationship.
I guess we have to begin with the question of ‘what is reality?’. Is there really such a thing? Is my reality the same as yours? Is there a real world out there that we can all agree on? Is there an objective reality that we can point at and say "There it is?! That’s what’s real!" Paul Watzlawick (1990), a noted therapist from the United States, once said in answer to this question that "as far as I know, the belief in ‘real’ reality has survived only in psychiatry’ (1990, p.134).
As Watzlawick indicated, there seems to be a substantial belief that reality and meaning are created by the individual experiencing them: that there is no ‘real’ reality. In essence, we all make up whatever reality we experience. However, it is also seems to be true that many helpers, be they in foster care, social care, social work, or some other helping profession, act as if meaning is absolute: as if the meaning of something, as they perceive it to be, is the ‘real meaning’. They think that how they see things, is the way things really are. They frequently fail to recognize that the meaning that they have adopted was accepted or created by themselves in the course of their experiences. As Watzlawick (1990) has stated, if these people do believe that reality is constructed, they "assume that all other reality constructions are false" tp.137) and they behave in a manner that opposes or attacks those other constructions.
Inherent in the foregoing paragraph is the idea — the belief if you will — that there is no such thing as an objective reality: that the meaning of things is made up by the individual; that each of us creates that which we see; that we all make our own meaning. If this is so, and it does seem to be generally accepted that it is, then the question comes up of how one makes meaning. How does one create that which they perceive? How come your reality is different than mine?
As one would expect, in the absence of an absolute truth, there are a variety of approaches to understanding how one makes meaning of a particular person, thing or event which are reflected in the writings and practice of philosophy, psychology and the helping professions. Ultimately, however, one makes a decision and takes a position (Ricks, 1993) about what one believes about meaning and reality and through this lens-of-belief, one acts in a particular fashion, all too frequently closing one’s mind to alterative ways of seeing things (Watzlawick, 1990). In other words, we decide what we want to see and then we see it - and nothing else. This helps to explain some of those arguments that we have with youth in foster care about what they did - they see it one way and we see it another. Each of us decides how to see it, and we stick to our way of seeing things.
My own belief is that meaning does not exist independent of it being ‘given’ by the individual. It is also my belief that the individual, through an experience or an act of will can reconstruct meaning. After all, if we decided that something means one thing, we can also decide that it means something else. There is great freedom in this idea. It means, for example, that we all have the freedom to change our minds, no matter what we thought initially. It also means that it is possible that you can influence how another person sees things; that there is a chance that she can come to see things the way that you do; that values and beliefs can be taught by. for example, a foster parent to a young person.
Goffman, (1974) said that we all interpret things through our own particular ‘frame’ which is. in essence, our own chosen way to see things. The way in which I have chosen to experience things predisposes me to interpret them in a certain manner (Schon. 1983). I believe that I create meaning through how I interpret the persons, things or events that I encounter in the specific context within which I encounter them. I believe, as philosophers like Bruner, (1990) and Polanyi (1962) said, that "only a speaker or listener can mean something by a word, and a word, in itself can mean nothing" (p. 252; italics in original). As Yalom (1989) the great therapist, said "each of us is the author of his or her own life design and we create our own problems through how we structure our experience of the world around us" (p.8). In essence, then, what you see, is what you choose to see. You see things a certain way because that is how you have learned to see them. Just because a young person does not clean her room does not mean she is a slob. That’s just how you have come to interpret it. Having accepted that meaning is ‘made’, the question, especially in relationship to helping others, becomes one of ‘how’ meaning is made by the individual.
Garfat, T. (2002) 'But That's Not What I Meant' Meaning-making in Foster Care. Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies, Special Edition A Celebration of Foster Care.
Fewster, G. (1987). The paradoxical journey: Some thoughts on relating to children. Journal of child care, 3 (3), 1-8.
Garfat, T., (1998). The effective child and youth care intervention. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 12(1-2), 1-168.
Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Watzlawick, P. (1990). Munchhausen's Pigtale: Or Psychotherapy and Reality. New York: W. W. Norton.
Ricks, R. (1993). Therapeutic Education: Personal growth experience for child and youth care workers. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 8(3), 17-34
Goffman, E. (1974). Frame Analysis. New York: Harper.
Schon, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books.
Polanyi, M. (1962). Personal knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Yalom, I. D. (1992). When Nietzsche Wept. New York: Harper.