In a neat twist, the first step to becoming a sematurgist (which does not preclude being anything else) is to ponder the word “semanturgy.”

To consciously wonder at the significance of something, to be aware of meaning, its use, purpose, flow, malleability, value, this is the spot where we begin: to step off the path of unconscious assumption, to open one’s eyes, one’s ears, one’s heart.

The second step is to realize that someone is attempting to construct a message, to include that person’s awareness, as best one can, in the interpretation, to realize that the message is never set in stone, even if it’s carved in granite, because with each passing moment and mind the meaning will shift slightly in its focus and intent.

The third step is to keep in mind that the act of manipulating meaning, whether from the giving or the receiving end, requires the acceptance of responsibility for the consequences generated by the communication.  As we exchange meaning we share a deep level of commitment to each other as social creatures.

The fourth step is up to you.  

Semanturgy is not a dogma, not a doctrine, not a prescription.  It is a way of thinking, a reminder to be aware, a validation of an individual’s right to communication.  It is simply a place to put your foot to take that first step to real connection through truth.  It is an encouraging word urging you to participate, to work your own meaning into the great conversation that is human life.

In essence, all words are code words.  We have designated every sound/letter combination to indicate some meaning or other… the question is, do we always agree on precisely what that meaning is?

Every once in a while I run across the perfect illustration of this dilemma.  The one I found last night happened to be in The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh” by A. A. Milne:

“The best way,” said Rabbit, “would be this.  The best way would be to steal Baby Roo and hide him, and then when Kanga says, ‘Where’s Baby Roo?’ we say, ‘Aha!‘ “

Aha!” said Pooh, practising.  “Aha!  Aha! … Of course,” he went on, “we could say ‘Aha!’ even if we hadn’t stolen Baby Roo.”

“Pooh,” said Rabbit kindly, “you haven’t any brain.”

“I know,” said Pooh humbly.

“We say ‘Aha!’ so that Kanga knows that we know where Baby Roo is.  ‘Aha!‘ means ‘We’ll tell you where Baby Roo is, if you promise to go away from the Forest and never come back.’  Now don’t talk while I think.”

Pooh went into a corner and tried saying “Aha!” in that sort of voice.  Sometimes it seemed to him that it did mean what Rabbit said, and sometimes it seemed to him that it didn’t.  “I suppose it’s just practice,” he thought.  “I wonder if Kanga will have to practice too so as to understand it.”

Indeed.

“Through his eyes she no longer saw humans as scurrying ants.  She took part in his effort to find order and meaning in their lives.  She suspected that in fact there was no meaning, that by telling his stories when he spoke people’s lives, he was actually creating order where there had been none before.  But it didn’t matter if it was fabrication; it became true when he spoke it, and in the process he ordered the universe for her as well.  He taught her what it meant to be alive.”
Speaker for the Dead   Orson Scott Card

This is a really fun book that, as one of its many interesting subplots, investigates what it means to uncover and speak the truth about a deceased person’s life.

The characters in this quote are Ender, the man who creates the meaning of life as he tells the official story of the lives of those who have passed on, and Jane, a “person” born of a computer network, a sentient being who lives solely in the connections and machinery of a web of technology.  From her perspective within the system, she must rely on humans for their information, and she has developed a special intimacy with Ender because she trusts and values his experience in the world.

The novel gives the reader an important viewpoint from which to consider the function of meaning.  How are we like Jane: isolated, in the role of spectator, dependant on others to experience the world for us?  How are we like Ender: exercising agency in the world, gathering raw data (“truth”) which we speak to the world, supplying others with our perspective?

I am suggesting a dichotomy where I really don’t believe there is one, as the reader can pick up from obvious clues in the language of the text (e.g. “She took part in his effort…” implies an agency.)  But even so, I think that by forcing a duality we can observe from this fiction ideas that might be useful to Semanturgy.

According to Jane, there is no meaning until humans create it.  Indeed, it appears that there is no truth until humans create it.  Whether this is true or not, the idea speaks to the enormous power of our words and of our ability to influence the world as we influence other humans.  I think sometimes we forget this as we watch the evening news, listen to gossip, or ingest many of the other forms of meaning that are thrown at us all day every day.  We forget that someone has created this information based solely on human sensory experience, that they have chosen to interpret it and relay it in a certain way, and that it is our responsibility to then re-interpret for ourselves.  And that our personal interpretation is also powerful to those around us who, whether consciously or not, depend on us to supply them with information.  Our kids, for example, our employees, our congregation, or even a partner or close friend with whom we share a mutual dependence.  We must take responsibility for our perspective and the way in which we express it.

Even if a person believes that God or some other supreme being orders the universe for us, gives it meaning and supplies Truth, we must still take responsibility for how we interpret the divine words we receive, for how we use them and live them.  This active participation is where the great power of meaning lives, and how we live the great power of meaning.

 

Do you like your name?  What does it mean to you?  Is it merely a method of identification, of no more import than if you had a number?

I was named after my father’s sister who had passed away when she was 5, so it was quite significant, I believe, that his family got to use the name again after so many difficult years had gone by.  

But I never liked the name.  “Diane.”  I take that back; I think it is a fine name, but it never felt right for me.  I always balked at being called that name.  It felt wrong, somehow.  My middle name was “Elena,” after the song “Maria Elena,” and I always loved it.  I would sign my name “Diane E. Horton” and hope that someone would ask me what the “E” stood for.  I remember telling my mother many times that I wanted to change my name to my middle name, but it never happened.  Until I was 21, and I decided that, even though I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, I really could not stand going through my entire life with a name I didn’t feel suited for.  When I went to the DMV and changed my name, after having gone through the entire legal process, they tried to put me down as “AKA “Diane…” and I said, No!  I’m done with that name, I paid my money and I filled out my paperwork, I don’t want to have to deal with it anymore.

When we name our children, most of us think long and hard and finally decide on something that we hope will be a positive designation of their individuality and personhood.

But of course, it’s not a guarantee that it will fit.  My daughter didn’t like “Willow” and decided to change her name to “Rose” when she was 4.  Considering my own experience, I had to go along with her decision.  So far, the other three are content with the names they got, so I’m batting .750.

One of my last names, “Margo,” I took when I was 25.  I was in the middle of an unconventional, difficult marriage, and I was quite done defining myself through men.  My mother’s name is “Marguerite,” as is her mother’s, and my other grandmother’s name is “Marian,” so I took the first letters of the first names of the women of my family (because if I’d taken one of their maiden names, it would have been another man’s name, wouldn’t it have?) and I took on “Margo.”  For several years my name felt, finally, as though it fit who I really was.

I added “Gould” when I got married to a man of the same name because it meant a lot to him, and because it meant a lot to me to be identified as a part of his life.  At first I thought it would be awkward, and indeed, there is no government office or any other type of bureaucratic institution that can fit their head around someone having two last names, but in spite of that, legally I have no middle name but two last names.  And now it feels as though my name not only fits my person, but that it accurately reflects who I am and what is meaningful to me in this world.

How many people can say that?  How many people go through life with a name they can’t stand, for whatever reason, but suffer through because it is just goofy to be so self-indulgent as to change your name and make people call you something different?

I must say, to anyone considering such a move, it is well worth the trouble.

I often wonder about the “meaning of life,” and what it means that I even wonder.

Does the meaning of life really matter as much as the purpose we each assign to that life?  I guess the meaning of life is to be alive, and nothing more.  The purpose of life (in my view) is more complex: to love and connect with others (in a family, partnership or friendship), to learn and use life’s lessons to better oneself, to be a steward to the Earth and enjoy Her bounty.  If everybody sought these purposes in their lives and stopped pursuing money and “success” as the ultimate measures of life’s worth, I believe a lot of this world’s problems would cease to exist.

As a result of our technological advancements in recent decades, we are connected with more people around the globe.  I don’t think this is an evolution of our consciousness, but rather a coincidental symptom of the disease that is sweeping the world. I think that people around the world had a more parallel mindset back in the times before global connection, when the focus of our lives was the home, family and homeland.

But what’s done is done, and now we do have the opportunity to share information with people we, the general public, would not have been able to contact just 100 years ago.  So we should use this opportunity to do good, to help clean up the mess we’ve made of the planet.

Our everyday tasks do have meaning.  Everyday tasks might include labor to earn money to support family, child-raising, cleaning or maintaining a household, tending crops, preparing meals, etc.

Just because these tasks must be done every day, over and over, does not make them meaningless.  Our children are precious to us, therefore we do the things that must be done to keep them healthy and happy: clean them, feed them, teach them, play with them.  Our home is precious to us, so we spend our energy taking care of it and doing the things that must be done to make life in it enjoyable.

I believe that the intentions behind our actions are also important.  I do not believe that doing the “right” thing for the wrong reasons makes one’s actions right.  A woman or man who tends his/her children only because he/she is obligated to do so and does not want to be punished for abuse/neglect is not necessarily a “good” mother or father.  

However, the exhausted/stressed mother who doesn’t exactly whistle while she works and doesn’t love to cook or clean but does so anyway because she loves her family is a good mother.  A frozen dinner prepared with love and laughter will nourish a family’s heart more than a homemade meal prepared with anger and resentment.  However, given the chemical and nutritional content of today’s conventional diets, I think that any food that is as organic, non-modified and unprocessed as possible is best (after all, the point of eating is to strengthen our bodies, is it not?)

I also feel that how we spend our free time is very important.  In fact, I place great significance on the recreational items I find in people’s homes.  For example, most people I know are very wrapped up in technology.  One would find shelves of movies, video games, computer games and other electronic entrapments in their rooms.  

And I am not just referring to my less-educated acquaintances; some of the smartest people I know have electronic umbilical cords.  It really makes me sad to see this, because I feel that sitting in front of some buzzing contraption that feeds our brains artificial stimulation is not enriching, productive or beneficial in any other terms I can think of.  

And yet, television is one of the focal points of our culture.  I myself have been guilty of arranging my living room furniture to make the TV the centerpiece (a common practice in our society.)  I feel that any other pastime is better than being captivated by an electronic gadget.

The latest word is that we’re doomed.  

We can put aside the details, such as how we got this way, how long it will take for us to be wiped off the face of the earth, that sort of thing is all beside my current objective, which is to imagine what comes next.

One of the most profound moments of a human being’s life is when they reach complete consciousness of their own mortality.  Our lives take on new meaning as we view our existence from an imaginary point in death: how we will be remembered, how will the sum of our actions and words appear,  what impact will we have had.  

Such a perspective helps us to crystallize our purpose.  We can realize which path we have been following, and decide to continue or veer in another direction.  This epiphany is an important moment, ideally an important series of moments over a lifetime, from the viewpoint of semanturgy, which is a conscious working with meaning.  To apply principles and purposes directly to a life consciously lived is semanturgy in it’s essential form.

We must imagine beyond our individual deaths when considering global warming, nuclear war, or any other event or process leading to the potential end of humanity.  It is not enough to wonder, what impact will I have? or how will I be remembered? if it is the apocalypse.  Who will be around to give a damn?  Now the questions become impossibly bigger.  What did it mean that ANY of us were around?  What impact did ANY of us have?  

If we accept some measure of responsibility in the cause of the end, then I suppose we have to say that the meaning we constructed in our world reflects a larger value being placed on things such as profit and power rather than on the life of any of earth’s creatures, including ourselves.

And assuming we dutifully play our part in the solution, voting, writing letters, buying locally, cycling, however we choose to participate, and assuming that the end comes anyway, then what does it all mean?  

If you are a member of a certain religion that explains all this, then you have it all sorted out, so read no further.  

For the rest of us, we come to an extremely existential moment in which all word, deed and relic of humanity falls uselessly into oblivion.  Yet after this experience, we still have to figure out what is for dinner, complete another task on our to-do list, conduct smalltalk with the cashier at the grocery store.  What is the overarching goal of our day to day survival, if we will never be the next Elvis or Mother Theresa, never be remembered or revered, if even the fostering of our bloodline, the fundamental biological goal of existence, will be for naught?  

Does it make our actions even more profoundly amazing, a generous gesture to a stranger, an encouraging word to a passerby, when we know it will come to nothing more than the fleeting presence of love, living only in the immediate moment and then lost forever?

I believe our personal possessions have meaning.  In fact, I believe that the things people value lend great insight into their owners’ private feelings and the way they view life.  For instance, a person who places great importance on money and whose dearest possession is their bank account views/lives life very differently than a person who has just enough money to survive and cherishes things that have some non-monetary significance.

The added significance of a homemade quilt or other special object enhances the quality of life and can serve to remind us of happy times and people we love.  When I tuck the kids under the blankets their Auntie made for them, bedtime has been improved; the necessary animal function of sleeping has been transformed into a ritual of relaxation and affirmation.  

I feel that all sentimental objects add a dimension to life that nourishes our souls while our bodies go through the motions of living.

Since age 13, I have searched for meaning in many religions. Raised Catholic, I have explored New Age ideas, a couple of Native American spiritual paths, I have experienced a couple of other kinds of Christianity, I’ve read Taoist and Buddhist texts, even attended a couple of Unitarian Universalist services. I’ve read many Wiccan texts and participated in several rituals.

In short, it has been a long and widely wandering journey so far, with no destination in sight. Though every system has bits of wisdom that shine for me, no one structure rings true enough for me to feel right about adopting it as my own personal religion. Sometimes this lack of structure feels freeing, but at other times I wish I had a label to insert into the blanks on forms, I wish I had a name to provide to those who want to know, in a word, what I believe.

Cruising news sites yesterday, I came across a link to Tom Cruise’s latest discussion of Scientology, which led me to their official website to investigate. It made me feel sick to think of how someone can take an idea or system of ideas, as one might do with Semanturgy, and make a dogma out of it. I do not believe that Semanturgy can be a dogma, because the root “-urgy” or “work” indicates that the meanings being dealt with are not stagnant, not immobile, not at a distance being admired or worshipped. The meanings are being worked, whether created, debated, interpreted, or rearranged, it is not about standing passively and being dictated to. It is not about consuming thoughtlessly like a drone in a cult.

If a semanturgist found themselves doing something ritualistic, like say, trimming a Christmas tree, it would be an individual experience full of personal significance. It might be rooted in memories of previous Christmases, it might signify a personal goal of finding and cutting down a wild tree, it might show the consideration the person has for their children who will learn a new tradition or enjoy the sight of the lights, it might be the same plastic tree one’s grandfather had in his house and so be infused with Grandpa’s history. The act of trimming and the presence of the tree would show an active, thoughtful participation and an assumption of responsibility that would feed the rest of the person’s life, and possibly the lives of those around them.

I guess this demonstrates my problem with organized religion, and why I find it so difficult to “pick” one. There is a point where I am not allowed to decide for myself, but must just accept certain tenets as given. This was my original path away from Catholicism, when I was informed that, however logical or reasonable the possibility of reincarnation is, “We don’t believe in it.”

One thing I do firmly believe, I am now and will in the future be held responsible for the things I say, do and believe. For this reason, I cannot blindly follow what someone else decides is true or right, but I must think it through for myself. I must decide what the world means to me and then make sure that my words and actions reflect my personal truths.

Let’s face it, there are two kinds of people studying foreign languages today in our elementary and secondary educational institutions as well as in our colleges and universities: people who want to and people who are required to. 

The people who want to learn another language, who drool at the sight of a new vocabulary list and spend hours cross-referencing words in various dictionaries, these wonderful souls do not need much in the way of curriculum.  You could use the oldest, lamest textbook in the world and they would eat it up.  Being one of these languages nerds myself, I know that when I am gathering resources for a class and I want to serve this population, I am looking for any and all types of fun stuff.  The materials do not have to be perfectly organized or tantalizingly arranged, because we are going to joyfully dive into it no matter what.

The other group of language students is another story when it comes to curriculum development. An instructor must always have an eye towards inspiring the reluctant student to realize, if not the joy, at least the utility of the language being acquired.

To this end, I propose that an approach based in sematurgy would be beneficial, both more engaging for students as well as resulting in a greater long term retention of the material.

A language education based on working with meaning would mean that everything would be relevant to actual usage. Students would work with dialogues, music and film for oral production and comprehension, and for reading and writing there would be texts and assignments that related to the students’ personal lives and connect them to the lives of their counterparts speaking the acquired language.

Many of the latest textbooks I have seen do include this type of material, but there is still a large focus on grammar, conjugation and similar types of technical aspects of language. While I would never suggest that these are not vital to a complete understanding of a language, I would state that I do not believe they are necessary for the kinds of introductory language studies we find required for high school diplomas and Bachelor of Arts degrees. I believe they can be left out of these basic language courses and addressed in the intermediate and advanced language studies for those who actually want to pursue a deeper mastery of the language.

Let me briefly present my reasoning behind this: I believe that time spent concentrating on memorizing nitpicky grammar like verb conjugations, for these folks who don’t really want to be studying language, is completely wasted. Even if they manage to memorize it for an exam, they will immediately put it out of their brain and it will never be recalled again. Better for them to spend that time working with meaningful dialogues, lyrics, or texts in which popular verbs will be repeated enough times that they will become stuck in their minds and they will be able to be remembered and used at a future time. Better that the student can walk away with the ability to have basic conversations with people who may one day be encountered than to be able to recite verbs in the subjunctive.

Better still that they spend this time learning about the culture and history of the people who speak the particular language being studied, because isn’t that the major reason given for requiring foreign language study? To be exposed to another way of life?.

Of course, there will certainly be occasions when a discussion of verbs or grammar will become relevant, but it will be brief and presented merely as a tool to accomplish the task at hand. The grammar in a sematurgy-based introductory language education will be acquired mostly unconsciously, similar to the way we acquire the rules of our native language in the natural way before we study them formally later on. We will follow the same non-method as little children learning their first words; a toddler learns the significance of “cookie” and “park” and “no” because they are intensely meaningful.

If we work with what is meaningful to the students and present the acquired language in these terms, whether it is music, society, current events, relationships or any other subject, they will learn important things about the other language-speakers that will deepen their world perspective and they will also retain relevant parts of the language, like basic conversational skills, that will actually be useful in their future lives.

These reluctant students may still never experience the joy of becoming fluent in another language, but they will at least integrate basic, useful parts of that language into the knowledge base they develop by interacting with the world in a personal, meaningful way, and so the language will be for them what language should be: a vital tool of authentic communication.