Last week my 15 year-old son, Aiden, broke his leg playing soccer. His foot got caught as he tried to change directions and his ankle rolled, breaking the tibia in his right leg. When I saw the look on his face as he went down, I experienced a rush of adrenaline and I ran out to him wondering if he was OK. For the rest of the evening, my focus wasn’t on the meaning of the event in the grand scheme of my life. Instead, I was anxiously focused on getting my son to the ER to diagnose the injury and getting him the care he needed. Meaning would have to come later.
We often struggle to create meaning in the midst of daily life. We’re either too stressed (like I was when my son broke his leg) or so busy that it’s all we can do to get through the next thing.
In life, meaning requires reflection in time. You must take time to reflect on what throws you off balance, what goals you’re pursuing, and what conflicts are working against achieving your goals. We have to step back from our lives and reflect on them to gain perspective. This helps us make choices that lead to growth, and to living a story worth telling.
Events in life aren’t meaningful until they become stories; stories are intrinsically meaningful.
How Stories Help Us Create Meaning in Our Lives
Our lives consist of multiple story episodes at any give time. My son’s broken leg is one episode among many unfolding in my life. These episodes follow the basic structure of story, which includes three components:
1. Inciting incident: an event that throws the hero's life out of balance.
2. Goal/object of desire: this is the conscious and sometimes additional unconscious goal that the hero believes will restore balance.
3. Conflict/forces of antagonism: these are the various layers of conflict (internal, relational, extra-personal) that work against the hero achieving his or her goal.
What creates meaning and moves us in story is what screenwriter Robert McKee calls aesthetic emotion . McKee tells us “the exchange between artist and audience expresses ideas directly through the senses and perceptions, intuition and emotion.” . Story doesn’t explain its view of life—it’s knowledge—in the form of abstract ideas. Instead it creates aesthetic emotion—the feeling of an idea. This is implicit knowledge—a knowing that comes from your emotions and experience. Stories carry knowledge within them, housed in the very structure of the sequence of events. Regardless of genre and specific content, the predominant meaning of a story is expressed or dramatized in the emotionally charged story climax. This is called the controlling idea.
In his final duel with Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker gets the upper hand and cuts off Vader’s hand. The Emperor incites him to take his father’s place as his servant. In that moment, Luke could have killed Darth Vader, but when he throws down his light saber refusing to kill Vader, we immediately feel the controlling idea of Star Wars: good prevails over evil when we resist our dark side and trust in a greater good of humanity (the Force).
The specific content of the controlling idea is as varied as the number of stories that have existed throughout time. However, the most resonant controlling ideas are those that have to do with good triumphing over evil at the societal level, and growth and love on the personal level. This works in story because it reflects a deep truth about the human condition. We are pre-wired to grow and connect to others. When we see these themes dramatized in story, we immediately feel a sense of meaning and fulfillment.
However, while good stories always have meaning, our lives are not automatically meaningful—especially in real time. We don’t always live a good story. But we can. Here are 3 steps to help you.
3 Steps to Create Meaning in the Story Episodes of Your Life
1. Reflect on the goals you are pursuing. For any given story episode that is unfolding in your life, you’re pursuing some goal to restore balance in your life. Is the goal you’re pursuing meaningful and worthwhile? Are you merely pursuing homeostasis, or growth? Are you avoiding your fears, or facing your pain?
Sometimes you’ll find that you’re pursuing a worthwhile goal, and other times, you may need to reset the goal. Sometimes the goal expands or morphs as the story episode unfolds. For example, when my son broke his leg, my initial goal was to get him the care he needed. This then morphed into finding the “new normal” in our family—restoring some semblance of balance and routine to our day to day lives. As I’ve reflected more on this story episode, the goal is transforming into being present for my son and helping him—and me—to grow through this trial.
It’s also important to reflect on deeper subconscious goals that may be sabotaging your conscious goal. In Story, the more complex characters have a subconscious goal they’re not fully aware of that is sabotaging their conscious goal. We sense this in the choices they make. For example, in the show Lie to Me, Dr. Cal Lightman consciously seeks to use his knowledge of nonverbal communication to bring about justice, while he unconsciously seeks to control others through his knowledge.
The reason these characters resonate so much is that we see ourselves in them. We know, at some level, that we sabotage our conscious goals. On one level, I want to be present for my son during this difficult time. Perhaps on another level, I want to avoid his suffering because it reminds me of my own suffering that I don’t want to face. There is a push and pull between these two forces as the story episode unfolds. There is truth in the tension that I must face. Art and story live in the tension, and they speak to our hearts because they reflect a deep emotional truth that we recognize as our own.
Some goals are inherently meaningful and help us to live a good story, and others aren't. Goals that are inherently meaningful in the sense of being fulfilling include:
- Contributing to the well being of others through interactions and the work you do.
- Making your greatest contribution to improving your little corner of the world.
- Expressing yourself through your unique motivators and strengths.
- Growing to become more fully human and the best version of yourself.
Different inciting incidents in your life will trigger different goals, so all of these won’t necessarily be active all the time. However, think about whether your goals fit into one of these buckets, or some variation that is inherently meaningful and worth pursuing. If not, reflect on what’s driving you to pursue an unhealthy goal and reset your goal to something more positive.
2. Identify the conflict between you and your goal. Sometimes the conflict in Story focuses on the global/societal level: good versus evil in Star Wars. Sometimes the conflict speaks—implicitly—to the relational and psychological levels of our lives. In this case, we feel an idea about how relationships impact the human psyche, including our own. In The Martian Child, science fiction writer and widower David Gordon adopts an orphaned boy, Dennis, who thinks he’s from Mars. Throughout the film, the conflict of the story is dramatized. Dennis retreats more into his own psychological cocoon while David struggles with the desire to give up on his new son. At one point in the movie, David gives voice to his internal conflict: “Maybe,” he says to himself, "I don’t have what it takes.” In that moment, David told the truth and began the journey of overcoming his internal conflict.
Whatever your conflict is, identify it and give voice to it. Put your conflict into words, and tell the truth. Then you’ll know what your facing. Share it with someone close to you so you're not alone in the conflict. Next, think about what you can do to face your conflict one small step at a time.
3. Narrate the controlling idea of this story episode.
As your story episode unfolds and you come closer to achieving your goal, ask yourself: What is the idea I'm feeling in this story episode? When you feel this idea, it produces aesthetic emotion. Putting it into words helps you to capture and experience the meaning of your story episode more deeply. This is what I call the knowledge spiral. It brings together two types of knowledge: explicit (conceptual) and implicit. You feel an idea, and then you think about it. As you think about it, it gives you more access to the meaning and develops it further, which in turn crystallizes it in your mind and soul.
We can do this for stories we encounter and the stories in our lives.
In The Martian Child, after a series of relational breakthroughs and set backs between David and Dennis, Dennis finally runs away and climbs a tower to wait for his Martian people to come take him home. David finds him, climbs the tower, and reaches out to Dennis with an emotional plea: “Dennis, you’re my son, you belong to me, and I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever…. leave you.” As Dennis runs into David’s arms, we immediately feel a profound truth about how relationships work: Love overcomes loss when we face our fears and reach out to one another. As in story, the knowledge we gain from relationships in real life is implicit—the subjective truth of how relationships work for us based on our unique relational experiences. But capturing the idea in words helps us grow and live a better story. It strengthens our sense of meaning and helps us learn from the conflict we’ve faced.
As I’ve reflected on the story episode of my son breaking his leg, the idea I’ve come to feel is this: special bonds are forged when we enter into others’ suffering with them. While I certainly don’t wish this pain for my son or me, meaning and growth have emerged from this painful incident. We've developed a stronger bond having gone through this together. I hope it does not just imbue these past days with a sense of meaning, but impacts my future choices such that I live a story worth telling.
Whatever story episode is unfolding for you, I hope the same for you. I hope the meaning emerging from your stories are life-giving and that you more and more live a story worth telling.
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. Robert McKee, Story (New York: HarperCollins, 1997).
. Robert McKee, Story (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 111.