Life is a long and windy road. As Steve Jobs once said, you can only connect the dots backward. You can’t connect the dots forward. So what are you supposed to do when you’re going forward and you can’t see where you’re going?
I’m reading a book right now called “The Prime Ministers.” It’s a book about four of Israel’s prime ministers and it was written from the perspective of someone who knew them from close up. The author served as speechwriter and English language secretary to Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, and personal adviser to Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin. I’m not usually focused when I read history books but this is one I can’t put down. The book is positively riveting.
One small detail that caught my eye was the author’s own life story intertwined in the history, particularly the way he came to this type of employment. He had been underpaid and engaged in a job that did not utilize his talents. Then through a friend of a friend, a “fluke of luck” as he calls it, he got out of his rut and began a completely new route where his talents could shine.
To think that all of that talent could have lain buried reminds that the “luck” of finding one’s place in the world is nothing short of miraculous.
As a therapist I have a person sitting in front of me or a friend or myself for that matter who is struggling to find his or her way. We don’t have the convenience of looking back and seeing all the connections.
We can only look forward. However, knowing that one day there will be meaning in looking back, we can look at what is right now and investigate to see what meaning we can find there. The investigation to see how the past and present can lead to the future in a constructive and self-initiating way is the aim that causes logotherapists to look for ways to affirm, reflect, clarify, highlight evoke and probe for meaning.
These are all different ways of listening to pick up meaning on our radar from the energy field in the room. Instead of focusing on the problem we want to bring him in touch with what is meaningful in his life and especially what life is requiring of him right now. Responding responsibly in the here and now will connect to a similar dot of meaning tomorrow and the next day. We’re allowing a space for an ever deeper process of discovery of self.
Four more kinds of meaning detecting after affirming and reflecting are clarifying, highlighting, probing and evoking.
Clarifying means asking questions with the aim of making things more clear where meaning is fuzzy. It means looking to clarify who this person is inside, to not give up on him but allow him to live the good part of himself and to help him distinguish truth from untruth.
Thus meaning-detecting must automatically include strength-detecting and value-detecting.
For the individual who feels lost, meaning will be weakly expressed. Highlighting meaning is done by making a weak expression into a strong one by speaking it aloud in clear language.
Meaning may be so hidden that we also need to probe deeper in order to find it by asking questions to uncover something left unsaid that is sensed from in between the lines of what was said. Then we can look together for the next step and for options.
If feelings of inferiority or dissatisfaction are expressed we look for the suppressed meaning behind it. We don’t give up on our faith in him. You don’t look at the problem but at how meaning was crushed, what the person has fallen captive to, what is the trust that was once there that got betrayed.
Every problem is a crisis or problem of meaning. It brings a misperception of “I’m not needed, nobody cares for me and my life is worthless.” We pick up on the dissatisfaction and say: “I’m glad you’re saying that you’re dissatisfied but it’s not true that your life is worthless and I won’t give up on you.”
The spirit of not giving up means that even if meaning is not expressed at all, not even dimly, we believe it’s there and we aim to evoke it. We’ll stimulate discovery of meaning by asking Socratic questions that bring the person to question himself
An example of connecting the dots backwards is my daughter who is studying film. When she was much younger she made a book report in school on the book “Midnight Magic.” She rounded up her brothers and sisters and neighbors and had them dress up as different characters in the book. She took pictures of them in various poses based on what was happening in the story. She got pictures off the internet that approximated the background for various scenes. She then put all of this into a book, with balloons over the characters heads saying things that had to do with what was happening in different parts of the story.
Her teacher wrote: “I have never seen or received such a special book report! This is and incredible piece of work, done with such creativity and really admirable effort! All the power to you and the whole cast of characters”
Looking back she can see now how the same strengths and interest she had within her that came to the fore in doing that book report are the same strengths and interests that brought her to study film several more years down the line.
Some of the dots we connect backwards are also made up of hard times. Yehuda Avner, the author of “The Prime Ministers” spent time doing grueling work moving rocks out of the way on the hard, parched ground to build Kibbutz Lavi. He could not have known that his having spent some time on a Kibbutz helped put him in a favorable light with Golda Meir’s socialist sensibilities.
When we’re looking to connect the dots forward we have to firmly believe in the meaning potential of every person’s life and we have to believe in the person’s ability to find meaning. From positive experiences we discover what we’re passionate about and what we’re capable of. From negative experiences we discover what we’re passionate about from the opposite direction. What was it about this experience that made us feel worthless? What strengths and capabilities were neglected? Which values were trampled on? It takes a bit more digging. That’s all.