Image by Ingorrr
Anything makes sense in context. Every thing makes sense in context. Meaning has to do with the relationship of the ‘thing’ (word, behaviour, object, whatever) to its context.
This probably sounds a bit abstract, so bear with me for a bit while and I’ll try and show why it can be so helpful to us.
Firstly, we perceive any particular thing in relationship to lots of other stuff that we aren’t focussing on. This computer screen you are looking at is surrounded by huge amounts of other stuff that you are sort of aware of but not paying attention to at the moment. Out of all the billions of possible things to focus on in the universe at any moment we are usually focussing on only one.
How can this help us?
It can be useful to look around. You can just play around with changing the context. The folk wisdom for getting over the nerves from public speaking (see all the people in the audience as bald (or naked if you are a bit less inhibited) is an example of this). Couples who feel a bit stuck in a rut can swap roles.
Secondly there are lots of different contexts. This computer screen you are looking at can be set in the context of the history of glass making, electronics, mathematics and algorithms, or computer coding. And much else besides: business practices and corporate law, human relationships and mass media or fashion and design.
How can this help us?
Flexibility can lead us to a greater appreciation of whatever we are focused on. Each context has the potential to enrich our understanding of what we are focussed on. Some other contexts will be a waste of time. My preference for caramel ice-cream doesn’t have much to do with my preference for Macintosh computers. Whatever I focus on only rates to some of all-the-other-stuff, not all of it. Getting a sense of which of the stuff that I am focusing on relates to, and how it is different to other things that also relate to this stuff, is my understanding of its distinctiveness.
Shifting the focus can change our appreciation of what we are focused on. The most remarkable example of this I know is how a person can look different after we have got to know them. Their stance or even their face can seem quite different to us: we learnt something about the person and so how we see them changed. The extra bit of context changed our understanding of them.
For people a lot of our context is the memory we carry in our heads. We all have significant experiences that have shaped who we are. Putting it as simply as I can: we carry around inside us answers to three questions – Who am I? Who are these others? What do I need to do to thrive/survive? The answers to these questions are as individual as we are. They in fact contribute to making us the individuals that we are.
That so much of our context is inside us can lead to much misunderstanding. We know our own intentions but often don’t know other people’s intentions. So we can easily misinterpret other people’s behaviour. Try this thought experiment. Find someone who looks like they are typical example of a culture. Then imagine they were bought up in a completely different culture. For instance: Imagine someone who looks typically Anglo-Saxon was brought up in Tibet. Would this change how you saw their words and behaviour? At my high school there was another student who had red hair, pale skin and spoke English with an upper-class English accent. He was a native Ghanian from Africa – his English teacher had been an upper class Englishman. (He couldn’t understand why we would think that a red-head wouldn’t come from Africa. It was obvious to him that they could.) Knowing his background in some sense it changed the way we heard him speak.
How can this help us?
When I find someone’s behaviour puzzling I find it can be helpful to imagine that it is a child doing this behaviour. (It works for understanding my own behaviour too.) This can help me ‘get inside their skin’, to imagine their behaviour in context. Sometimes it clicks and I think I understand – and I at least have a starting point for how to relate to them.
Here are some ways in which experimenting with changing our context can help.
When we feel stuck
- look around, there are other ways of seeing things
- try out different ways of looking at something. just playing can be the easiest way to do this.
With people (including ourselves)
- imagine the context in which their behaviour would make sense
Once we understand this process of meaning being to do with context our experience can become far more flexible and dynamic. I certainly found it a liberation.