Making Meaning in Our Journeys

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We Must Make Experience Conscious

by Reg Harris

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Human life needs knowledge, reflection, and thought to make itself knowable to itself, including its complex and ultimately mysterious nature. ~Max van Manen~

In Awakening the Heroes Within, Jungian psychologist Carol Pearson discusses Parsifal and the Grail Quest, writing that “…it is not enough to have the experience of the Quest—of initiation, Death, Eros, and Birth. We must make the experience conscious. Only in that way do we make meaning known to ourselves and others” (1991, p. 53).

Pearson reminds us of one of the most important—but often neglected—parts of the hero’s journey: the building of meaning. For a journey to be fully realized, it must have two stages: the engaged stage and the reflective stage. The engaged stage, when we are swept up by the experience itself, is what most of us think of as the journey: the call to adventure, the challenges, the transformation and return. But to truly process the adventure so that it will change our lives, we must decide what that adventure will mean, and that requires reflection.

Reflection: “Storying” Experience to Build Meaning

Reflection begins the process of situating the adventure in the larger, on-going context of our lives. We do this, of course, by thinking about what has happened. Reflection can take several forms, including quiet contemplation to digest events, drawing mandalas to organize and relate experiences symbolically, writing in a journal to sort and stabilize understandings, or writing the adventure as a personal myth. Reflecting can also be interpersonal when we tell the story of our journey to others.

“Storying” experience establishes the psychological and social relationships that give meaning, direction and significance to our lives. As psychologist Dan McAdams wrote (1993),

To make meaning in life is to create dynamic narratives that render sensible and coherent the seeming chaos of human existence. To fail in this effort of mythmaking is to experience the malaise and stagnation that come with an insufficient narration of human life (p. 166).

When we reflect on our journeys, we distance ourselves from them, disengage ourselves from the flow of events so that we can look at what has happened objectively. In the reflection and retelling, the journey becomes a story that takes on meaning in the context of our current lives. In The Things They Carried (1990), Vietnam War writer Tim O’Brien reflects on this process:

By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened…and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain. (pp. 179-180).

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Every form is really a pattern of movement, and every living thing is like the river, which, if it did not flow out, would never have been able to flow in…. for the movement of change is as much the builder as the destroyer. ~ Alan Watts~

Stories, according to O’Brien, are how we join the past with the future. Meaning is the thread that connects all of the parts, and we create that meaning by reflecting on our journeys and telling our stories. But telling is not a one-time event. Our worlds are always changing, so we must be ready to reflect and reinterpret our stories because their meanings will change as our lives change. For example, McAdams (2001) tells us that we can see our experiences as changes for better or worse, depending on how we interpret and story them. “Sometimes what is experienced initially as tragedy or loss,” he writes, “is later emplotted as an epiphany or insight leading to growth” (p. xvii). The romantic break-up that meant heartbreak and devastation to us in junior high school will have a different meaning to us in high school and an even different meaning in our old age.

So our stories are constantly evolving. The event that filled the whole of our lives in one moment becomes a memory and simply a part of our lives in another. As we grow and our life stories unfold, we will feel the need to reframe experiences with reflection and retelling. Jean Houston explored this evolving nature of story in her book The Search for the Beloved (1987):

Story is living and dynamic. Stories exist to be exchanged. They are the currency of human growth. Stories conjugate. Alone you are stuck. In the exchange, both you and the story change. Stories need to be told and retold, heard and reheard to reveal their meaning (p. 96).

The On-going Quest for Coherence and Continuity

To give meaning to our journeys we must reflect on them, and we must tell them and retell them, both to ourselves and to others. Stories build a bridge from where we were to where we are. They create meaning, which is a blend of logic and flow, direction and purpose, coherence and continuity.

In the end, our story is really all we have because the present is only the interface between past and future, an infinitesimally thin edge that exists only while we are lost in the experience and that is already gone by the time we perceive it. Afterward, all that is left is the story we tell about that moment, the traces of the experience that we capture in our personal narrative and that give our lives purpose and meaning


Houston, J. (1987). The search for the beloved: Journeys in mythology and sacred psychology. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

McAdams, D. P. (1993). The stories we live by: Personal myths and the making of the self. New York: Guilford.

McAdams, D., R. Josselson and A. Lieblich. (2001). Turns in the road: Narrative studies of lives in transition. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

O’Brien, T. (1990). The things they carried. New York: Penguin.

Pearson, C. (1991). Awakening the heroes within: Twelve archetypes to help us find ourselves and transform our world. New York: HarperCollins.

Copyright © 2010 by Reg Harris. All rights reserved. Apart from properly cited quotes and short excerpts, no part of this article can be copied or used in any form without written permission from the author. For permission, contact Reg Harris.