Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
November 2021 - Volume 21, No. 11
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Word Play - “Mean”

The beginning of this has been a long fascination with the various and totally diverse meanings of the word Mean.

1) It can be a descriptive adjective:

‘That dog looks really ‘mean’, denoting a characteristic of cruelty, or cruel behavior. A deeper meaning could be that one should keep a distance from that dog, for example, to avoid getting hurt.

A woman, who walks alone may have a ‘mean’ dog with her by which she can feel protected from anyone who might consider doing her some harm, or just ‘bothering’ her. Or, it could be a death-wish on my part to flirt with a woman, no matter how attractive, who happens to live or be going with, an unemployed ex Marine. (Yes to a questionable package of sexist assumptions on my part.)

The word can also have a positive, complimentary meaning as an adjective, such as a jazz musician who “plays a really ‘mean’ alto sax.”

2) The ‘mean’time

There’s the ‘mean’ we usually find in the sense of “in the meantime.” Here mean gives us the sense of “the middle” - the time in the middle, or in between.

It’s not a common usage, but for some the Fall season is a “meantime” - between Summer and Winter. Summer and Winter can full of themselves, but Fall can be more of just a connector, a meantime. Spring can be the same, an “en route” time. In my part of the world, they so easily slip past us, in spite of our desire to hold onto them.

Sometimes the meantime it may be a “stuck in the airport” kind of time - a nuisance having very little intrinsic value of its own.

I have friends who like to avoid Interstate highways - mostly because you have no real sense of being where you are - just blithely in-between where you were and where you’re trying to get to. Maybe those who have a fear of flying know something the rest of us ignore - they sense of ‘meanness’ of the ‘mean’time being encased in an airborne fancy piece of silver drainpipe.

That time in the ending of a relationship - between the decision and the finish, can be a ‘meantime’ - mean in the sense of empty-cruel, or mean (middle) in the sense of the time to work out numerous necessary transition arrangements. Often when meantime is considered useless time, many important matters, psychological, financial, social, larger relationship issues, go unresolved - only to put me in mind of the Whack-A-Mole game in the lobby of my local Chuck E. Cheese restaurant.

3) The search for “mean”ing of things - the larger picture.

Here we get more to the heart and power of therapy or counseling.

Here the meaning is more ‘that which is desired or intended.’ Its ‘meaning’ as a verb - doing something, doing something forward. This is therapy as healing, as bringing about change, toward a greater fullness of life.

4) Therapist inquiry - meaning-seeking questions.

Sometimes (maybe often) I’ll ask questions like these:

What do you want the meaning of what you just said or done to be? - for yourself, - for him/her/ for me?
And then a meta question: And what do you want that to mean (often repeated again and again as I can go deeper and deeper). This can become very frustrating or frightening to my client - but I’ll try to soften it, “I know this can be frustrating, and you can even hate me for doing it, but it helps me know what’s going on deeper, for your own sake as well as mine - so stay with me just a bit longer if you will.”

Much of therapy involves exploring what goes on at a deeper, often unconscious, level - which is where meaningful change may more easily take place - “and it’s my job to help you (or you both) get there in a way that works best for you.”

And when the client is ready (willing?) it is often by the use of “meaning” questions that I can get us there.

My office and relationship with my client hopefully is the safest place and way to accomplish that. That’s part of the secret of what I do.

Does it always work? No. Does it very often work? Yes. And, of course, I have other ways to help.

And it doesn’t mean you have to need me to make this work.

But, as always, continue to

    Pay Attention.


I already had in mind much what I wanted to write, but in preparation, I dusted (truly) off my old weighty hardback copy of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition (1992). There I discovered the word “mean” occupied 10 column inches of material! - putting to shame any semblance of intelligent discourse on my own part.

1) Further inquiry revealed that the current edition is the Fifth Edition (2011). I realized that my ‘digital pride’ had long since led me elsewhere

2) I had forgotten how much fun it was to peruse printed dictionary pages - I just wanted to keep turning pages. I then decided not to consult any digital references.

3) In an Amazon ad for the current AHD, I read “You are your words. Make the most of them.” So I decided to trust my own words, and write here without needing the authority or rectitude of other sources. And so I have done.     WKM

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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