An Answer May Not Be The Greatest Gift
Buckinghamshire New University, Queen Alexandra Rd, High Wycombe, UK, HP11 2JZ.
“Life is an expression of consciousness”
(Campbell, 1972, p.120)
Life is a mystery unfolding through time. It is a journey of
growth and the story of this journey is who we are. A person’s
life story is their identity. ‘Life stories’ (McAdams, 1993), ‘Self-
narratives’ (Polkinghorne, 1988) or ‘Personal myths’ (May,
1991; Hollis, 2004) are dynamic, evolving maps of reality that
create a sense of self, how the world works and how a
person fits into their world.
For Bruner (1990, p.46) a “metaphor of reality” and for May
(1991, p.20) “self-interpretations of our inner life in relation to
the outside world”. These life stories evolve from the
structuring, interpretation and integration of our experiences
into a unifying and coherent whole across a lifetime
When questions are asked to gain insight from the gifts
offered by every experience or we retrospectively connect
life’s parts, we critically shape our story (Hollis, 2001; Botella
et al, 2004). When we live our choices in each moment, we
intuitively unfold our story (Angus et al, 2004; Greenberg &
A person’s map of reality is
their internal representation of
the external world from which
meaning is extracted and
expressed, figure 1
(Polkinghorne, 1988; Hollis,
Literature suggests that meaning making is a narrative
process with life stories acting as ‘meaning bridges’ across
the divides in a person’s internal and external landscapes,
figure 2 (Anderson, 2004; Booker, 2004; Stiles et al, 2004).
A person populates these landscapes with their parts of
experience such as goals, actions, drives, emotions, and
ideas (Reker & Wong, 2013). In doing so they create a
complex map of connections with patterns and themes,
‘multiple voices’ either harmonizing or conflicting.
Living is experiencing polarity that creates paradox, tension
or conflict. Being open to the experience of life is as Hollis
(2004, p.88) implies “full of paradox that cracks the brain and
divides the heart”. A life story may embrace polarity by
creating meaning that bridges and integrates paradox.
“The invisible world exists and is embodied in the visible
world” (Hollis, 2004, p.12)
Through reasoning a person conceptualises and assesses
the coherence, reliability, novelty and believability of beliefs,
(Mercier & Sperber, 2011). All of which are key characteristics
of life stories (McAdams, 1993). Reasoning is synonymous
with choice that is driven by questions and concluded with
answers. As Elder and Paul (1998, p.297) suggest, answers
“often signal a full stop in thought”.
In contrast life’s questions may unfold stories making new
connections and evolving thinking. Socratic questioning
stimulates curiosity, reveals hidden depths and the qualities
of action or character (Walker, 2003). Bloom’s taxonomy
uses different verbs in questions to signpost a person to
higher orders of thinking (Bloom et al, 1956).
In illuminating the invisible and unfolding stories, questions
may guide and shape our lives. Questions which encompass
life’s polarities may help a person to grow or become, to live
beyond polarity (Neumann, 1954). Similarly Hollis (2004, p.
114) writes, “If we do not ask large questions our lives will be
small”. Anderson, T. (2004). To tell my story’: Configuring interpersonal relations within narrative process. In:
Angus, L. E., & McLeod, J. (Eds.). Handbook of narrative and psychotherapy: Practice, theory, and
research, (pp.315-329). Sage.
Angus, L. E., Lewin, J., Bouffard, B., & Rotondi-Trevisan, D. (2004). " What's the Story?" Working With
Narrative in Experiential Psychotherapy. In: Angus, L. E., & McLeod, J. (Eds.). The handbook of
narrative and psychotherapy: Practice, theory and research. (pp.87-101). Sage.
Bloom, B. S., Engelhart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. H., & Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of
educational objectives. New York: Longmans.
Booker, C. (2004). The seven basic plots: Why we tell stories. A&C Black.
Botella, L., Herrero, O., Pacheco, M., & Corbella, S. (2004). Working With Narrative in Psychotherapy:
A Relational Constructivist Approach. In: Angus, L. E., & McLeod, J. (Eds.). The handbook of narrative
and psychotherapy: Practice, theory and research. (pp.119-136). Sage.
Bruner, J. S. (1990). Acts of meaning (Vol. 3). Harvard University Press.
Campbell, J. (1972). Myths to live by. The Viking Press.
Capra, F., & Luisi, P. L. (2014). The systems view of life: A unifying vision. Cambridge University Press.
Cousineau, P. (2001). Once and future myths: The power of ancient stories in modern times. Conari
Elder, L., & Paul, R. (1998). The role of Socratic questioning in thinking, teaching, and learning. The
Clearing House, 71(5), 297-301.
Facione, P. A., Sanchez, C. A., Facione, N. C., & Gainen, J. (1995). The disposition toward critical
thinking. The Journal of General Education, 1-25.
Gonçalves, Ó. F., Henriques, M. R., & Machado, P. P. (2004). Nurturing nature: Cognitive narrative
strategies. In: Angus, L. E., & McLeod, J. (Eds.). The handbook of narrative and psychotherapy:
Practice, theory and research. (pp.103-117). Sage.
Greenberg, L. S., & Angus, L. (2004). The contributions of emotion processes to narrative change in
psychotherapy. In: Angus, L. E., & McLeod, J. (Eds.). The handbook of narrative and psychotherapy:
Practice, theory and research. (pp.331-349). Sage.
Hollis, J. (2001) Creating a life: Finding your individual path. Inner City Book.
Hollis, J. (2004) Mythologems: Incarnations of the invisible world. Inner City Books.
Johnson, M. (2013). The body in the mind: The bodily basis of meaning, imagination, and reason.
University of Chicago Press.
May, R. (1991). The cry for myth. WW Norton & Company.
McAdams, D. P. (1993). The stories we live by: Personal myths and the making of the self. Guilford
Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2011). Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative
theory. Behavioral and brain sciences, 34(2), 57-74.
Neumann, E. (1954). The Origins and History of Consciousness. Princeton
Osatuke, K., Glick, M. J., Gray, M. A., Reynolds Jr, D. J., Humphreys, C. L., Salvi, L. M., & Stiles, W. B.
(2004). Assimilation and narrative: Stories as meaning bridges. In; Angus, L. E., & McLeod, J. (Eds.).
Handbook of narrative and psychotherapy: Practice, theory, and research, (pp.193-210). Sage.
Polkinghorne, D. E. (1988). Narrative knowing and the human sciences. Suny Press.
Reker, G. T., & Wong, P. T. (2013). Personal meaning in life and psychosocial adaptation in the later
years. In: Wong, P. T. (Ed.). The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications. (pp.
Schneider, P. (2013). How the light gets in. Oxford University Press.
Walker, S. E. (2003). Active learning strategies to promote critical thinking. Journal of athletic training,
“Consciousness – the necessary precursor to
meaning” (Hollis, 2004, p.30)
If our life stories house our experiences creating form for
content, so they are meaningful (May, 1991). It then follows
that the authoring of these stories is the ongoing process of
meaning making; creating a person’s map of reality
(Gonçalves, Henriques & Machado, 2004).
The external ‘world’ is whole in that it is the complete content
of experience. It may be deconstructed into its constituent
parts through a person’s consciousness, their awareness of
perceptual, emotional and cognitive experience (Capra &
Luisi, 2014). In contrast, a map of reality is the internal
construction of the context, connections, relationships and
patterns in experience (Capra & Luisi, 2014).
Openness To Life’s Experiences
Bridges Of Meaning
Embracing Life’s Questions
“Life consists of living contradictions, living contradiction
takes courage” (May, 1991, p.73)
Absorbing Life’s Learning
“Meaning is not something found or sought, it is something
experienced” (Hollis, 2001, p.90)
If polarities are bridged by our
life stories then it is the
questions life asks of a person
that invites the authoring of
Life may be experienced as a
‘surface-story’, a visible story
created through choices,
actions and expressions and a
‘depth-story’, an invisible story
that is intuitively lived, figure 3.
A person may connect these stories through reflection and
reasoning, because of this reasoning may be considered as
a conscious process of authoring meaning.
Illuminating The Invisible
If life’s questions shape our stories then how a person ‘holds’
or lives these questions may shape who they are. ‘Holding’
life’s questions with an ease or gentleness and patience may
allow learning to unfold, to be fully experienced and
absorbed. In this way a person may venture beneath their
surface-story to experience the complexity and mysteries of
their depths (Elder & Paul, 1998; Cousineau, 2001).
Facione et al (1995) identified seven dispositions of critical
thinking synonymous with reasoning and questioning which
may yield clues to the nature of ‘holding’ a question. These
are truth-seeking (Honesty), open-mindedness (Perspective),
self-confidence (Courage), inquisitiveness (Curiosity), and
maturity, analyticity, systematicity (Judgment).
Hollis (2004, p.114) states, the “meaning of our life is really
wrapped around specific questions”. If we are able to hold
these questions in this manner might meaning then become
something experienced, something lived and continued to be
lived rather than found like an answer? A lived wisdom? A
process of becoming?
If as human’s our greatest need is for meaning then it is not
“answers we are seeking, it is understanding” (Cousineau,
2001, p.24). Put another way, is it a meaningful connection to
our existence and a depth of relationship with life that we
From the authoring and living of our stories that questions
afford meaning may be experienced and embodied (Johnson,
2013). As we then express this meaning it is re-received,
evolving and deepening the meaning (Polkinghorne, 1988).
In this way we might realise more fully our depths, our
mystery, our unique potential. Life’s questions invite our
stories to unfold and to be fully lived.
“An answer is not always the greatest gift, rather coming
to a deeper and deeper understanding of the question
itself can give us a place to stand in the presence of
mystery” (Schneider, 2013, p.64)
Depth Of Meaning
“Myth unites the antinomies of life, conscious-unconscious,
history-present, individual-social” (May, 1991, p.20)
Figure 2 Meaning Bridge
Figure 3 Life Story
Figure 1 Creating Meaning
“Before one can deepen as a person, one must visit the
depths within” (Hollis, 2004, p.74)