Posts Tagged ‘Meaning’


Posted: June 14, 2017 in Uncategorized
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By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so

William Shakespeare 

New ways to discuss the uncertainties of life and mysteries of self are irresistibly intriguing.

Often described as “old wine in new bottles,” trends in theoretical frameworks and jargon can be tiresome, but some offer a chance to see things differently.

I have been (and continue to be) a fan of Happiness theory, but have also had wonderful encounters with critics who argue that the pressure to be happy, whether from an internal or external source, can be deeply problematic, even damaging. My friend Matt Schlagbaum’s work Smiling through Gritted Teeth explores the stress and strain of pretending to maintain a cheery demeanor. The brilliant Barbara Ehrenreich’s work Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America considers the many ways behavior does not align with the ideals purported by happiness experts. I teach an excerpt from Ehrenreich to my unsuspecting students who gamely struggle with the troubling ambiguity. If happiness isn’t the answer, what is?


That feeling of feeling, by Matthew Schlagbaum

Apparently, meaning and purpose have come to transcend happiness, becoming the buzzwords du jour, a trend I suspect will last. In fact, a promotion for the book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters reads, “In a culture obsessed with happiness, this wise, stirring book points the way toward a richer, more satisfying life.” Thus, we are asked to change course, and set sail to pursue meaning and purpose.


The mutability of meaning seems certain. I am rather fond of the slipperiness. In my teaching, I encourage students to shift their thinking back and forth, from concrete to abstract, underscoring the struggle of knowing anything at all. Can we be satisfied only with the thing as it is? The bird, the book, the bay. Or do we take into account the feelings and associations tied to each word, each concrete thing infused with seemingly infinite possibilities for abstraction and interpretation.

Mazes of meaning ensnare. Semiotics, semantics, and linguistics: oh, my!


Purpose possesses incredible potency. The necessities of utility. The search for meaning is inevitably tied to a perception of our roles or duties. Why are we here? To what end? Why do one thing and not the other? Why do anything at all?

Contemplating the underlying purpose of a thing can create a core understanding, a renewed sense of things.

Lately, I have been lamenting my arm fat, apparently an unpleasant symptom of age. No matter how or what I try, my arms stay flabby. Arm fat is deeply vexing.

However, even if I cannot change my arms, I can change how I think about them.

Inspired to employ a different approach, I determined to consider attributes to love about my arms, rather than focusing on what I hate.

Employing purpose, I paused to consider what my arms do.

I realized, of course, how often my arms help me experience and express love: my arms form warm hugs for greeting family and friends, my arms wrap tightly around the man I love, my arms lift my favorite children high into the air, my arms hold babies in all their soft perfection: my arms create an unending circle of embraces. Suddenly, my arms become infused with an emotional power that decimates any anxiety. My arms are treasures, the source of remarkable strength and limitless joy.

Thus edified, I shall reconsider Monday mornings, daily challenges, demanding relationships.


When things seem hopelessly imperfect, imagine an alternate perfection, accessed through meaning and purpose.


Words, Words

Posted: July 16, 2015 in Uncategorized
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By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty


Librarians love reference books.

The acquisition of words is remarkable to behold. Lately, I have been in the happy company of one incredibly curious and eager new reader and learner. A few days back, he asked what “superstition” meant. I suggested we look it up, because he enjoys looking up words (is this a great kid, or what?) He read the definition aloud, after which I provided relevant examples to help him understand more fully. I taught him how superstitions include “knocking on wood” when hoping for a reprieve, and throwing salt over a left shoulder was thought to stave off evil spirits. His pragmatic father added the insight that “superstition” is nonsense, which is also true, and the word means much more. One word can encompass an awfully long lesson.

Flaubert famously searched for “le mot juste,” a heroic quest. What is at stake is not only what we know and experience but how we might communicate those myriad meanings.

The tension between abstract ideas and concrete specifics permeates the nature of words, communication, meaning, connection. The tremendous complexities of words and diction were a recent topic in NPR’s piece, “The Magic of Words.” The intangible quality of ideas when compared to the tangibility of specific examples I typically associate with the duality of experiences: intellectual (or cerebral) and visceral (or physiological), two facets of being, developed and augmented by and through words.


Seems simple enough.

The instability of definition inherent in abstractions practically demands elaboration, clarification, qualification. I start here, encouraging a balance of abstract ideas and concrete example in my writing and writing classes, believing that the best writing creates equilibrium between these impulses. Conveniently, thesis statements and topic sentences tend to be populated by ideas, appropriate space for abstract words and concepts. Then the rest of the paragraph can be “fleshed out” with concrete, specific, tangible examples. I could stay in this territory for weeks, navigating the nuance of implication, the complexities of denotation and connotation. The private, local, regional, national, and global meanings; the notion of words as living things, evolving in content and purpose: awesome!


Follow me!

I ask my students to create a list of abstractions in order to practice constructing illustrative examples. Since college students yearn to succeed, the abstract idea “success” is a constant companion, one they attempt to embody with a college degree, a high-paying job, a fancy car, a big house. Success invades their days and nights, but will often remain as ethereal as most undiscovered dreams.

Experiences can resist definition. In such moments, I pause and think. As I struggle to describe, I arrive at these words: intense, overwhelming, amazing, all of which are insufficient.

Art can provide new names to call the matter of life. Poetry and song powerfully express love and longing, see Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence. The multitude universes alive in the eyes of love, only poetry or song can manage to convey.

As a teacher and student of all things literary, I am in the business of grappling with words. I marvel at their power and writhe in frustration at their inefficiencies, and my own.

All our words are as tangible as the light from the stars; still, I am a lover of words.