As I read your comments to last week’s post—in which I contended that forgiveness is never necessary because people’s behavior has no meaning—I could hear many of you thinking, “If events have no meaning, what’s the point of life?  Why do anything?  Why care about anything?  In fact, how can you possibly care about anything if nothing has meaning?”

These are thoughtful questions that I will answer in today’s post.  (Please also take a look at my responses to last week’s comments at

The difference between consequences and meaning

Events, including people’s behavior, usually have consequences.  In my case, for example, my mom had to work two jobs when I was young and I had to work full time while going to graduate business school as a result of my dad not providing financial support.  But his not giving us financial support had no meaning, by which I mean, I can’t draw any conclusion for sure from his behavior.  I don’t know anything I didn’t know before, from his behavior.

We have had clients who had been sexually abused earlier in life.  The meaning they gave the abuse (the beliefs they formed) was that they were damaged goods, that men couldn’t be trusted, that life was dangerous, etc.  When they realized the event had horrific consequences but it had no inherent meaning, and when the beliefs had all disappeared, they experienced a freedom they couldn’t have imagined possible.  The event hadn’t been running their life; the meanings they had given the event had been.

The role of values

A belief is a statement about reality that feels true, but exists only in our mind.  It is the meaning we gave to a series of meaningless events.  We have beliefs about ourselves (e.g., I’m not good enough), people (e.g., people can’t be trusted), and life (e.g., life is difficult).  These are meanings we gave to events in our lives.

A value is a belief about what we think is right and wrong, good and bad.  Examples include parents should (or shouldn’t) …, the function of government should be …, people should …, it is wrong to ….

These and any other value statements are beliefs.  You can’t “see” in the world that they are true.  Many people would disagree with any value statement you make.  They exist only in your mind.

If value statements are always a type of belief and beliefs are always meaning we make up to explain meaningless events, then value statements are arbitrary and cannot be absolute truth.  I’m not saying this is easy to accept, or that it doesn’t feel “wrong,” or that it seems to create many insolvable problems.  Maybe it does.  Wanting values to be objective and wanting your values to be the “right” values don’t make them so.

Ken Wilber has summarized the conclusions of many people who study the development of consciousness.  They have demonstrated that society and individuals go through stages of consciousness, with each stage having its own unique worldview.  The three stages that exist in most Western counties today are Traditional (ethnocentric, family values, accepting religious dogma as absolute truth), Modern (world-centric, the Industrial Revolution, science, rationality) and Post Modern (pluralistic, civil rights for all, a concern for the well-being of all people and for the environment).  People in each stage of development think that their worldview is correct and the others are wrong. If you have any question about this, look at how conservatives (largely at the Traditional stage) and liberals (largely at the Post Modern stage) view each other.  (See almost any of Wilber’s many books for more information on stages of development.)

You forgot your life is a game

When you play a game, be it a sport like golf or tennis, or a card game like poker, or a board game like Clue or Monopoly, you feel good when you win and bad when you lose.  Why?  Because you have arbitrarily accepted that something is better than something else.  You try to get the little white ball in a hole hundreds of yards away in less tries than someone else. Is it really “better” to do that?  No, there is nothing about the nature of reality that makes it better.  It’s better because we say so, and only because we say so.  The same is true for any sport or any game.

Yet despite the fact that we arbitrary made up rules that said something is better than something else, we get excited when we “win” (in other words, do what the rules require better than others) and sad or even upset when we “lose.”  What does it really mean if we win or lose?  Take a moment and think about it. … Can you get that it really means nothing.  But because we “pretend” that it matters, we give all we can give, mentally and physically, to winning and not losing, and we have positive emotions when we win and negative emotions when we lose.

And yet, despite those reactions, some part of us knows that we are playing a game.  We know that at some point we will put the game away and go back to “real life,” to our family and career.  So although we have emotional reactions to how well we play the game, the feelings only go down so far and not farther, because we know it is a game.  The emotions engendered by a game are rarely as intense as those in “real life.”

Life is a game just like all the other games.  The only difference is that life is the only game that we don’t realize is a game.  Each of us has made up, largely unconsciously, a set of rules (our values)—based on our worldview and our beliefs—and we think our rules are right and inherently true.  And everyone else’s are wrong.  Sorry to break the bad news: Ours aren’t right and theirs aren’t wrong.

I’m not suggesting that we do anything different than what we are already doing. All I’m suggesting is that we acknowledge that what we think is real is actually a game.  We made up the rules and now we can play the “life game” full out; we can be happy when we “win” and dissatisfied when we “lose.”  But realize it is only because we said so.

And here’s the bottom line: It is always possible to remember that we made up the rules, even if they were made up unconsciously and adopted largely by osmosis from our culture and our parents.  And when we do that, we also can remember that events have no inherent meaning, at which point the pain and suffering resulting from “losing at the game of life” can be dissolved on the spot.

Please let me and my readers know what you think.  Your comments increase the value we all receive.  I read all comments and respond to as many as I can.

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