tulip and daisies After being tossed an opportunity to list the most significant events of my life, I watched the parades of memory march by – different parades on three different passes of the question. My notion of what ‘significant’ means began to crumble.

The first pass included the usual suspects: outer events that changed the course of my life, including “I am born”, along with acceptance letters, disasters, key meetings, etc. Left off were some that friends and family might’ve liked: pictures of me being proud –awards ceremonies, evening gowns, impressive places – and some that turned out to be petty disappointments and embarrassments.

The second pass took days, as I realized that many life-changing events were subtle, quick, and meaningless without context. My favorite was a conversation in one of those freeze-frames that recall every detail of a crisis (for good or ill):  a colleague hoped to transfer an assignment to me because he was overwhelmed, and he knew I loved the topic. He said, “Do you want to handle it?” and I said, “Sure.” The next 25 years of my life were defined by that moment, offering me some of my greatest thrills and favorite achievements. It would take an entire story to convey the significance of those seven words (akin to “I do” or “You won” or “Rest in peace”), even if some stories can be told in six words (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”).

The third pass was chaos. Major events I’d repressed (buried under the achievements) came to the surface. Other moments that didn’t show on the outside suggested they were as or more important than the visible ones. Soon, an overarching philosophy drummed into me that nothing in earthly life is significant in the long run or the big picture.

So I was forced to look it up, to see what ‘significant’ means.

Turns out it’s from the same root as ‘second’ and ‘sequence’, meaning it’s involved in following. A sign or signal, or magical sigil, all the same root, follows the symbolic meaning of what’s already happened, summing it up or showing a way to backtrack to its causes, or it causes other forces to follow it, once it gains the potency of a symbol. Even ‘scarlet’ is the same word – waving the flag (frequently red, with insignias) that militias were to follow. So ‘significance’ is about context, intent, focus, and results – not some stand-alone quality.

I wondered how this would play out in a story – not just a ‘significant’ clue in a mystery, or a pivotal piece of action or dialogue, but a larger dimension of voice, of point of view. It occurred to me that if a person in a story cooks shrimp, it’s significant if her guest has a fatal shrimp allergy or ethical dietary restriction, or if her family were Gulf shrimpers and lost the business after Deepwater Horizon, or if she can’t afford it but does it because she’s in love and is sacrificing herself. Significance is about the story’s core, exposed in character and action, not composed of them.

Looking for an even larger sphere, beyond overt storytelling – i.e., for the storyteller’s inner art of autobiography and self-image – it seems to me that meditatively re-living one’s most powerful experiences in ever-spiraling depth, down to first causes, first feelings, when one’s small-s self became another self, would encourage the signs and symbols and moods of those moments to bubble up, in both direct and metaphorical ways. And then everything in life that was like that, at an essential level, would follow this cue (queue) of revelation. Even listing columns of grand and devastating moments can reveal patterns: experiences that left deep shape-changing impressions (for good or ill) may’ve seemed unrelated until they’re placed side-by-side.

A strange new coherence, an apparent trajectory, might then float to the surface. It could uncover the interplay of beneficial and detrimental forces, perceptible from a vantage point above the fray, a story to be told by a compassionate and supportive witness as a narrator of fiction or non-fiction. Sometimes the interplay is easiest to see when the seeming good and the seeming bad are posed as opposites, along a horizontal bar. With this polarity line as a base, drawing a triangle upward to a point literally points to a transcendent space above the conflict, a space that contains the essence of the issue, beyond the paralyzing energy of opposition. Discerning what that essence is (love, respect, capacity, contentment, or something else that holds and unifies the opposites) creates an open space that’s universally shared.

Elements previously felt as harmful or helpful lose their power to mandate next steps (since the mind can be prisoner of victories and expectations as well as catastrophes), and all the energy of significance can flow into a more expansive unfettered Self.

This newly coherent trajectory might yield visions of new potentials grounded in, and empowered by, deeper synergies of all that’s gone before. (I’ve said before that my truth-test for ideas about human potential is that any claim needs to be true for a child with third-degree burns and missing limbs in a war zone, and that is true here.)

This exploration of significance is making expansion easier and easier for me, and I’m enjoying trying to share it with you.

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Photo Credit: Sara Sandberg via stockxchange