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Interpretation and the Meaning of Life.

Note: Will LaPage passed away in March 2017. This is the final installment of his "Deep Interpretation" series, the final six installments of which have been published posthumously.

"To become what we are capable of becoming is the meaning of life."

--Robert Louis Stevenson

We engage in interpretation because we believe that our heritage is important to our identity. We even think of interpretation as giving voice to the past because we believe that knowing who we are, and where we came from, contributes to a full and happy life. In doing so, we are tinkering with the very meaning of life--a subject that has absorbed philosophers for centuries. What is the meaning, the purpose, of life? Is it happiness, usefulness, success, fulfilling a destiny?

If we are making a judgment about the necessity of preserving the past, shouldn't we be required to defend our position? Or, do we simply say it's "self-evident?" Is having an identity that is tied to the past of importance to the man on the street? Is the past really prologue? Is the plight of "a man without a country" an unbearable notion to all those for whom heritage is irrelevant? Is it remotely possible that many of our contemporaries not only disagree with our assumptions about the importance of heritage, but believe that focusing on the past gets in the way of their focus on the now?

I believe that the philosophy of interpretation goes well beyond the idea of preserving the past and contributing to happiness. And, if it does, shouldn't that philosophy truly be "self-evident?" At the risk of oversimplifying the enormously complex meaning of life, I suggest that we can sum up that philosophy in one word: respect.

Without respect everything falls apart. Without self-respect we have little chance of achieving success or happiness. Without respect for the opposition, sports teams falter, governments fail, and societies crumble. Without respect for truth there can be no trust. Lacking basic respect for their environments, past cultures have destroyed themselves. Without respect for life, we apparently have to remind ourselves that all lives matter. Without respect for our forbears, we display our ignorance of their hardships. Without respect for diversity, we put ourselves on the road to despotism. And, without respect for science, we would not have the lives we enjoy today.

What is the magical quality of respect that makes it such a powerful force for decency, and how is that force vital to interpretation? Respect is the hallmark of an open mind. It's also the result of the humility that makes such a mind possible--a humility that says: "the more we know, the more we realize how much we don't know."

Observers of our declining social mores bemoan the fact that we have to be told to turn off our cell phones when attending a performance, a lecture, even a church service. Regrettably, the evidence suggests that disrespect is far more rampant, even verging on the epidemic if we consider the rising incidence of road rage, of hate crimes, of the deterioration of political discourse, of dissenters occupying public offices, and the disintegration of neighborhoods and whole communities. Whatever your personal view of the meaning of life might be, it can not flower in the presence of these alarming trends of wide-spread distrust and disrespect.

Every form of life, from the simplest to the most complex, shares a common purpose: to achieve its potential. For some, that potential is realized simply by contributing to the continuance of the species through sheer numbers. For others, necessity has expanded their genetic potential to include a competitive ability, and for still others, it includes the power to imagine, to create, to build a better tool and, maybe, a better world. As far as we know, among the myriad life forms and species populating our world, this creative potential peaks among us humans. Fortunately, nature has also endowed humans with another gift, the gift of empathy--an inescapable responsibility toward all forms of life. The very first step in accepting that responsibility is respect.

For the professional interpreter (at some point in life we are all interpreters, but not necessarily professional), respect is the ground floor we build on. The process begins with a respect for the truth. We have dozens of other building blocks at our disposal: principles, research findings, organizational policies, communication options, guidelines, beliefs, and technologies. But, let's just focus on the foundation: Truths--what my friend Cem Basman refers to as the seventh principle of interpretation. What are the universal assumptions (truths) that allow us to build a solid structure of heritage interpretation?

The truth is:

Respect begins at home. And, if it doesn't, disrespect spreads into the community, the parks, the streets, the schools, and the highways and byways of our land.

The truth is:

Interpretation is an essential and underutilized tool for building respect.

The truth is:

To build respect for our heritage, we must go beyond the current model of interpreting to only those who seek it.

The truth is:

Interpretation, to achieve its potential, must become proactive and supportive of the actions of others in combating heritage disrespect wherever it sprouts up.

The truth is:

Without interpretation, our parks, public lands, historic sites, and museums would not be the attractive, complete, and respected places they are today.

And, the truth is:

Respect for the past and for the environment created every one of those cultural assets.

It seems reasonable to suggest that interpretation plays a vital role in achieving a quality of life that is requisite to achieving our potential as individuals and as a society. In short, interpretation has the power to create meaning in our lives.

The power of interpretation is much more than the power of persuasion. It's the power to stimulate thinking, and the power to guide change. It's the power to awaken pride, and the power to build understanding. It's the power to see ourselves through the eyes of others, and the power to look at others through a wider lens. It's the power to provoke change and the power to promote appreciation. And, it's a way to give real meaning to that tired old phrase: improve the quality of life. And, that's pretty scary because the quality of our lives is essential to the very meaning of life: achieving our potential.

The meaning of life has been the obsession of countless pub philosophers (the best kind!) and the butt of many jokes. However, two of the world's pre-eminent physicists, Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, have told us that nothing in nature is random, including the universe. The more we study the more we realize there is order in the smallest part of nature. Order implies purpose. So, there is a purpose to life, to our lives, and to the tiniest part of our lives. If achieving our biological potential is not the meaning of biological life, then it has no meaning. Similarly, if achieving our genetic potential is meaningless, why do we have it? And, if our forbears' lives were devoid of meaning there would be no reason to interpret them. Clearly, interpretation is a key player in finding meaning in life. But, it does more--interpretation adds immeasurably to the living along the way to finding that meaning.

Whether we choose to embrace that heady mission is irrelevant--because the truth is: Our interpretation of interpretation is constantly evolving. Evolution is not a choice, it's part of the natural order of things. Look at it this way: What is the meaning of your life as an interpreter? Is it simply to dispense information? Is it to provoke others to rethink their beliefs about their heritage and their environment? Or, might it also include sharing the meaning you've found through interpretation? You are probably much more iconic in their view than you realize. You're not just an "interpreter" or even a "ranger." You are one of the lucky ones who have found meaning in life. And, it shows!

"Meaning is found when you think beyond meaning."

--Anthony de Mello

Will LaPage, an educator, author, mentor, and an NAI Fellow and founder, passed away March 31, 2017. He was an advocate for the profession and for our treasured places.
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Author:Lapage, Will
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2018
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