The fact is, we live our lives choosing in a unique and characteristic manner what matters to us. Our days are filled with choices, and the basis for what we choose ultimately goes back to what matters to us. The constellation of ideals and values that we follow is partly a result of our environment–what is culturally valued, what our parents valued, and so on–and partly a result of our own reflective preferences. As we participate in our lives, we are continually faced with choices that force us to think about what matters. Is it more important to work late and be diligent or is it more important to get home and spend time with our families? Is it more important to take care of our health by exercising or do the chores around the house?
It is after all the mundane choices that form us as human beings. Each little decision moves us an inch closer to our ideals or an inch farther away. And as we move, we create ourselves over and over. We are agents of meaning making, and in the process we affirm what matters and strengthen our capacity to pursue what matters. Days go by and we hardly notice which way our feet are pointing, but over time, we see that our lives have been created, little by little, as a result of the meanings we have attached to different paths and the decisions we have made because of those meanings.
Making these decisions reflectively means we have thought about what matters to us and made choices that match what matters, even though those choices may not have been the easiest or the most obvious. There is always a loss and a gain in each decision: we have affirmed one path and closed the door on another. If I decide to go home and spend time with my family, I have affirmed my family connection as important and strengthened it, but it is possible I may have diminished my standing at work or I may have made it impossible to do all the work I should be doing. Sometimes living our ideals means we give up something that is important to us.
Each choice gives us an inner reflection: “I am this sort of person.” So if I choose to spend time with my family rather than working, I have made, with my action, a statement: “I am the sort of person for whom family is more important than work.” Little by little these choices create our identity both internally and to the people who know us. And as we endorse the ideals that are important to us, we experience our lives as purposeful: we make them meaningful.
The daily details of our lives are important, and sometimes they take up a good portion of our conscious awareness. But behind the scenes, there is always a backdrop of our own relationships with ourselves. Meaning making is a human motivation, and living our lives with an awareness of the meanings we are making offers a depth of experience that leads to a deep intimacy with ourselves and a profound connection with the world around us.