Meaning is broadly one of the hardest things to express to other people. I can tell you about how I give my daughter ten cents for every new thing she tries and for every difficult task she attempts. I can tell you about how happy this makes her, and about how she subsequently seeks out opportunities to try new things or difficult things in order to earn her dimes. And, I can tell you about the other day, when my wife decided to try something new for dinner, and in response, my daughter said, "Mom, you can have one of my dimes because you tried something new." You'll kind of get it. But the total meaning of all this will forever escape you. On an intellectual level, you'll understand why I'm so proud of my daughter for internalizing the value of trying new things and reaching out to the rest of us to award us for our own mini-accomplishments. On an emotional level, though, it won't hit you.

I guess you had to be there.

Someone I know was talking to a friend about how accomplished she felt when she finally reached the point in her career when she was earning a six-figure salary. Her friend dismissed the idea, saying essentially that "everybody" earns six figures these days. That plainly isn't true, but even if it were, it represents a failure to understand another person's accomplishments. Or perhaps her friend did understand the accomplishment, but failed to understand the meaning of the accomplishment. She wasn't bragging about her salary, she was expressing gratitude for her good fortune in life. Reaching a six-figure salary, for her, meant achieving a certain station; it's a mark of internal validation, not a mark of external validation. It has little to do with who else has achieved the same thing.

I have most often encountered this disconnect in the reverse. I'll run a road race or something, maybe snag a top age-group finish, and my friends will do their best to congratulate me on an amazing accomplishment. How can I express to them that, when it comes to running, I already achieved much more than that two decades ago and that "second place in my age group at the Podunk Days 5K Fun Run/Walk" is not something I'll remember next week, much less twenty years from now? How do I explain that what would be highly significant if my friends did it is not particularly significant when I do it?

Moreover, how do I explain to people that their making a big deal about what to me is not a significant accomplishment detracts from my real purpose at the fun run? I wasn't there to earn a place or an award, I was there to join the rest of the community in a fun run. I may have been there to see what kind of time I could get at the race, to check my overall level of fitness or the state of my training. The age group awards are for people who care about that sort of thing, and I'd much rather forego an age group medal so that someone who is really trying can get the recognition they deserve. I'm not ungrateful, but I also don't want accolades for something carries no meaning for me.

In the end, it's a meaning-gap. What means a great deal to one person might not mean very much to the next person. It might be a loving exchange between a father and a daughter, a personal accomplishment that you're trying to share with a friend, or an accidental accomplishment you never wanted or sought out. Humans thrive on meaning, we each seek it out in our own way. The act of recognizing someone else's meaning is an act of empathy, a bridge to human emotional connection. Whether we're on the giving end or the receiving end, we long for that meaning to be reflected back at us by the other people with whom we interact. In many ways, meaning is love, and its absence is a type of rejection.

There will often be meaning-gaps between us. This is unavoidable. We can keep our relationships healthy, however, by trying to recognize the meaning that other people see in the world, trying to experience it from their perspectives, and expressing that recognition back to them, to the best of our abilities. 

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