Saturday, December 5, 2009

Meanings, Media, and Therapy

One last comment about meanings, and I'm done on that score.

It occurred to me that one thing I could have added to my comments on meanings is this: I think that even people who cannot articulate deep meanings are nevertheless aware of them unconsciously. Things (actions, statements, etc.) that are in harmony with the deep meanings are simply perceived as "feeling right" on a gut level, while things that violate those deep meanings arouse a vague sense of unease, resistance, suspicion, or discomfort -- some sense of "something just doesn't feel right." Our ability to detect lies is probably connected to this gut-level sense that something doesn't quite resonate the way it should.

The same idea works in most forms of media. Some news stories capture the imagination and others, nearly identical in details, don't. Some people capture our imagination and others don't. I think it's because the ones that do are tapping a deeper meaning, either in us or within our culture, and we instinctively respond without always being able to explain why.

Myths have always articulated deep meanings (in fact, that's arguably their only real function). And if one thinks about it, contemporary compelling stories often echo the storylines of myths or fairy tales or the characters in them. That's because the myths and the news stories are both touching the same fundamental idea in us. It's why the myth has survived thousands of years and it's why the news story captures us.

To take just one example: Natalee Holloway certainly wasn't the only teen to disappear in 2005. But she was the one who became a media sensation. Why? Partly "missing white woman syndrome," a habit of television news to focus disproportionately on white and female victims to the exclusion of minority crime victims. And that in itself reveals deeper meanings: that "white woman" and "victim" are still deeply connected in people's minds, and that we are all too prone to believe that young white women are helpless in the face of dark-skinned predators.

More than that, though, the case captured imaginations because it featured a pretty young woman endangered in a place that was supposed to be safe and beautiful -- think Snow White in her castle, Rapunzel in hers. There was a frantic mother searching for her -- think Demeter and Persephone. It pushed the "damsel in distress" button of all fairy tales and medieval stories of knights. When a black teen vanished from her housing project the same summer, though, America yawned and looked the other way. Because we knew, unconsciously, that if we followed that story, we would have to face questions about poverty, substandard housing, racism, and a lot of other questions we've spent decades avoiding. We didn't do it consciously, but news organizations and news viewers together opted for the satisfyingly mythic over the uncomfortably real.

Great literature also works by tapping deep meanings. A lot of books may be well-written, even brilliantly written, but not stand the test of time because, whether even astute critics can articulate it or not, the books are devoid of the deeper meanings that resonate with us and make us want to read the book over and over again or urge it on others. Literature that becomes timeless does tap into those themes. Shakespeare's genius was in creating plays that, however flawed (and critics do recognize all kinds of flaws in every one of his plays), always touched on something very deep about humanity. That's the secret of his deathlessness, an innate ability to draw from the deepest wellsprings, and people recognize it, consciously or not, and respond to it.

I commented in Buddha on the Backstretch that only a few of our personal experiences resonate enough for us to become the stories that we tell about ourselves. All of the big experiences in our lives shape us, yet we do not usually use all of them to define our character. Even within our own lives, we have our own deep meanings (and I would venture to say, our idiosyncratic meanings have a shared resonance with larger cultural meanings in most cases). When the events of our lives touch on those deep themes, then those events become our key stories. We use them to tell ourselves and others who we are.

Where therapy comes into this is in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy. If you've ever had counseling or talk therapy, odds are it was cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. The three key assumptions of CBT are:
  1. Individuals are active agents with the power to bring about change in their own lives;
  2. People actively engage in the emotional and intellectual ordering of their experiences, which can be called "creating a personal narrative"; and
  3. The ways this ordering is carried out underlie a person's sense of identity.

According to CBT's theory of depression, some people create overly negative narratives in which they depict themselves as ugly, unlovable, worthless, incompetent, and so on. The job of the therapist is to get the patient to verbalize those images so that the patient and the therapist together can challenge them and alter the narrative to be more realistic, nurturing, and compassionate. One psych writer says, "Changes that occur in narrative metaphors are at least as important as changes that occur in specific behaviors."

It's no accident that therapy is aware of both personal and cultural myths and the way deep meanings affect us. The founder of CBT, Albert Ellis, wrote that the system "particularly stresses philosophy. Why? -- because I borrowed so much of its theory and practice from ancient and modern philosophers rather than from professional therapists. Its main theories are therefore philosophic and include profound religious and spiritual elements."

Is this sounding like Buddhism yet? It should be. Buddhism looks beyond surface meanings to find the deeper ones, and it focuses on becoming a better person by paying close attention to the state of our minds in any given moment. Moreover, it asks us not to blindly believe everything we think, but to question whether each thought is as kind and helpful as it can be. Buddhism encourages us to accept the occurrences of life without adding a great deal of personal narrative to them, to respond from our highest selves, and then to move on cleanly, without clinging or regret.

The Dalai Lama sums up this link between narrative, metaphor, meaning, and therapy, and I'll leave him with the final word: "If we can reorient our thoughts and emotions, and reorder our behavior, not only can we learn to cope with suffering more easily, but we can prevent a great deal of it from arising in the first place."

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