The art of reframing.

Ah, context is everything. This hits home to me every time I hear the Celine Dion 1996 blockbuster "Because You Loved Me."

My initial reaction to the tune, when I first heard it a dozen years ago, went something like:

Ok, another strong vocal from Dion, interesting chord changes, impressive arrangement. But enough of these slavishly dependent love lyrics where someone's very existence is contingent on a lover's attention…

'I'm everything I am because you loved me.' Really! Is that a message you want to be sending out to a hundred million listeners, especially other women? How about believing in yourself no matter what he thinks?

But a few years later I came across an interview with the writer of the song, Diane Warren, where she explained that she wrote "Because You Loved Me" to thank her father for his unshakable belief in her—and especially his relentless support of her artistic aspirations.

Boom! The song was instantly transformed before my very ears! A mawkish ballad became a paean to a father's love. Instead of being annoyed, I was immediately inspired and even choked-up by it. (After all, what parent would not die to hear that sentiment from a daughter?) The song itself didn't change, but in a new light the song could have a dramatically different effect.

This, of course, has applications to work-life where we can feel slapped around by events daily that have unpleasant meanings for us.

But an event itself doesn't determine its meaning. We do. What matters is our interpretation of an event. And with a little thought and creativity we can find different interpretations to most things that happen to us. Such is the art of "reframing"—viewing an event through a new and deliberately chosen frame.

We probably all do it at times—for instance, when we decide to view a misfortune (perhaps a career setback or a job loss) as a constructive opportunity (perhaps an occasion to take a new direction in our work or learn a new set of skills). The choice is up to us in how to interpret these events. And from our interpretation comes our response.

As the Greek stoic Epictetus said nineteen hundred years ago: "What disturbs men's mind is not events, but their interpretation of events." And as psychiatrist, neurologist, and holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl observed: "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness."

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  1. But Epictetus couldn't carry a tune in a wheelbarrow (or whatever the hell they used in Nicopolis, Greece). And given his philosophical roots his performances were a little too controlled and dispassionate.

  2. I'm a little bit bemused at the idea the song was mawkish when you thought it was about a lover's attention but it's a work of art when you think it's about a father's love for a daughter.

    "After all, what parent would not die to hear that sentiment from a daughter?" True, but what lover wouldn't die to hear that sentiment from a lover? Especially if it was sung by a 60 year old?

    Couldn't the song be about both forms of love or neither or - say - about a brother / sister who raised you after you were both orphaned? Does it have to have a specific meaning and can't it have a universal meaning?

    "How about believing in yourself no matter what he thinks?" Why does the 'he' in that sentence have to refer to a lover? There are plenty of circumstances where it could refer to an uncaring or absent father. How about believing in yourself no matter what ANYONE thinks?

    PS I heard that Epictetus was awesome on karaoke nights; he used to do The Eagles' "The Greeks Don't Want no Freaks" in a post-modern ironic sort of way...

  3. Good points, Mark. It's the slavish, dependent, "attached" quality of the love ("I'm everything I am because you loved me") — not that it might be romantic love — that offended me. And in the context of the steady drone of songs where the singer (usually a female) speaks worshipfully about her lover (though that's becoming less true today) I considered it an unhealthy statement. Too much projection for my taste. But everything changed when I heard the song in the context of (1) father-daughter and (2) gratitude for something earned. (I admit that I do think of infatuation — perhaps because I made a career of it in my early life — as often destructive when taken to extremes.) But your point of inventing an entirely different frame is certainly valid. A song can have ANY meaning you wish to create for it. In my case I adopted the frame of the writer of the song — which suddenly fit the lyrics better. Also, truth be told, I met my 35-year-old daughter for the first time last summer, so fatherhood has been on my mind of late — a subject for another post.

    Apparently one group that recorded the song — the African Children's Choir — interpreted the "you" to mean "God" which is certainly valid.

  4. Frankl's story of surviving the holocaust is amazing. It made me appreciate that constructing a new "frame" is more than putting on a happy face.

  5. Great, John! All the best with your daughter. I, for one, think she's got a pretty terrific dad!

    Lyrics, as poems, are reflective in the mind of the reader and are changed accordingly. It's "one thing to one, same thing something else to another."

    With these lyrics, it's all good!

  6. Anonymous: as I wrote in the thread to this post on, reframing is not wishful thinking - or slapping on a happy face. As Frankl described in "Man's Search for Meaning," he could not have survived his experience in the death camps unless he was able to authentically create his own meaning from it. "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

  7. Here's heres my favorite Viktor Frankl quotation - "Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!"

  8. Good one. Here are the rest of the VF quotes I've saved:
    "Life can be pulled by goals just as surely as it can be pushed by drives."
    “A human being is a deciding being.”
    "When we are no longer able to change a situation - we are challenged to change ourselves."

  9. Diane Warren is one of the most successful and prolific writers in the business. She wrote a couple of dozen songs for our own (Connecticut's) Michael Bolton, including Time, Love, and Tenderness. I've followed Michael since he was playing local bars in the seventies.

  10. Diane wrote a bunch of songs WITH Michael as well. I almost joined a band with him when he was 14 and I was in college. He was a precocious singer even then - doing harder edge R&B (in the mid to late 60s). We all knew him as Michael Bolotin, but in the 80s he dropped the second "o" in his name.

  11. One more thing... Michael was one of the first people to introduce me to vegetarianism, for which I'm eternally grateful. He and his friends were onto that when few people in those days had a clue about it.

  12. I don't know much of Michael Bolton's early stuff, but I have always really liked his edge, songs, interpretation, and singing. I think he's really good at reframing, even the Isley hit that cost him millions in copyright infringement. Perhaps it's the earlier stuff that comes through that takes his music beyond what some friends may call sappy or non-original. I like the guy, myself. His melodies are easy hummable tunes, rendering many unforgettable.

  13. Michael gets a bad rap for a lot of things but the dude is truly a gifted singer — which was apparent even when he was a skinny kid with the longest hair I'd ever seen in 1967. Pretty complicated guy too — and spiritually precocious. He was on a Eastern path before it was fashionable.

  14. Coincidentally I just heard Gregory Berns on National Public Radio tonight - the author of "Iconoclasts:A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently." He spoke of "cognitive reappraisal" which sounds like what you mean by framing or reframing.

  15. Patricia, sorry I missed your comment until now. These two phenomena are certainly related. The term cognitive reappraisal usually refers to a reinterpreting of an experience from negative to positive. That is ONE way to reframe. But I didn't mention that you can also choose to reinterpret an experience — and express it publically — in a more negative light. Why? To incite your audience (your employees, your electorate) to take certain actions. Happens all the time in business and public affairs. Might be happening at this moment in Washington, DC.

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