Yesterday, I held Abby for the first time, just 38 hours old. I thought about how babies make clear the difference between what we mean to other people and what we mean in and of ourselves.
We don't know much about how babies make meaning; we make good guesses. For a long time, we assumed they were born without meaning, blank slates. Then we engaged in the nature versus nurture debate; it was a different way of looking at the blank slate. Maybe the slate only seemed blank; maybe a better metaphor would be the rock that hides a particular meaning to be uncovered by the sculptor's chisel. Later, we started to consider that learning was a process that began in the womb. Maybe the baby's own story began before she was born.
Each of us that holds a newborn holds the same baby and a different meaning. We each have different stories into which the baby comes and in which she holds different meanings. The baby is a meaning before she has a meaning: she means before she intends in any way that we understand.
When I say, "what I mean is. . . " usually I am saying "this was the intention I was articulating through those words." Or, "this is the story I am inviting you to share." Yet I am also saying that meaning is somehow inherent in me. And in you. That meaning is something we do and something we are. Sometimes those meanings line up in ways we can articulate. And sometimes they do not.
What changes when we look at someone the way we look at a newborn and try to comprehend not what they intent, but what they mean?