What Did I Mean?

December 20, 2011

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” ~Lewis Carroll

Recently, I posted these words on Facebook: You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading your last one. I didn’t consider this to be a profound or controversial statement… not until the responses started rolling in. The first response, “So very true Michael. We must continue to move forward!” was followed by, “Hmmm. Memory whether we like it or not, exists and is triggered by many causes. To not read your past and put it into perspective, could be very damaging to the individual. A form of suppression. You can start the next chapter but need to keep the narrative going, otherwise you will become a deluded person.” And so it began…

As I read down the line of comments, this thought came to mind: Contrary to what many writers may believe, readers bring their own meaning to our words. While writing The Power of Teamwork I stated, “The dictionary defines words… we give them meaning.” Words mean different things to different people at different times and places. Eventually I weighed in on my post with this response: “Growing from our past is productive… attempting to live there isn’t. Yes, it’s fine (and sometimes healthy and productive) to occasionally revisit our past. Like re-reading a ‘good’ book… the content remains unchanged, yet we find new meaning… and sometimes profoundly so. That’s because we’ve changed—our perspective is different. The opposite can also be true… sometimes we re-read a ‘good’ book and discover the magic it once held for us is gone. When I wrote my original post, I was thinking about getting unstuck… moving on. Many people struggle with this ‘stuck’ condition. They can’t get past the past. When we continually attempt to re-live moments, we inadvertently let the past control our present. Change is constant… and life isn’t a stagnant event. Each moment is an original page… an opportunity to create something new… something unique and meaningful. Regardless of where we derive our inspiration—whether it’s reflecting on our past, projecting our future, living in the moment… all or none of the above… life continues on, with or without us.”

As readers and writers, we each bring our own meaning to words. My original post, “You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading your last one,” now carries a different meaning for me than when I first wrote it. While words remain the same, the context of life is ever changing… and over time, the more layers, the more perspectives… the more significant these changes become. Imagine what happens to words over thousands of years. What did or didn’t the authors(s) really mean? You tell me!