I thought I must have heard wrong, so I asked again, “point to Indiana on the map”. The student looked up at me and shrugged his shoulders. I pointed to the second handout, an unlabeled world map and asked, “show me the United States”. After considering for a moment, he pointed tentatively to someplace in Africa. I am NOT making this up. I was dumbfounded. This was a freshman social studies class in a public high school. The assignment was to label the fifty states on a map of the U.S. and to label the continents and oceans on the world map, both of which consisted of outlines but no labels.
I feel certain every student in the room could have told me we were in Indiana. But the fact that they couldn’t identify at least this one state, their home state, on the map was disturbing to me on so many levels. They had no sense of where we fit in geographically with the rest of our country nor where we as a country fit into the larger environment of our world.
From early on in school students are taught to use “context clues” to help them to figure out the meanings of words they don’t know or are unsure of. This is a sound learning strategy because context determines meaning for our words. Context is absolutely necessary to determine the meaning of words that have multiple meanings, which seems to be the case for so many of our English words. So context becomes essential in order for a student to identify the correct meaning of any given word in any given sentence.
Actually, it’s not just students; we all need context to determine meaning and not just the meaning of our words. Our lives need, our lives require context in order to have meaning. We all crave meaning, we want our lives to count for something. Context determines meaning in our lives just as context determines the meaning of a word in a sentence. The larger the context, the greater our understanding and the less the chance for a misunderstanding. This is why the accusation that something someone wrote or said or did, was “taken out of context” is always a serious one and should be a cause for concern. Misunderstandings are likely to be the result of taking something out of context because it is the context that provides and clarifies the true meaning of whatever was said or done.
I love the dictionary definition of “context” for this reason. It highlights the importance of context simply by the process of defining the word. Context is defined as “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.” It is only within some type of context that our lives can be fully understood and assessed. We crave meaning and our context provides us that meaning. Our context determines our meaning.
It was that day in the classroom that I realized something, these students lack context in every sense of the word. No wonder they struggle to find meaning in their lives. They have no geographical/physical context in which to place themselves and so to know how they fit in to their immediate community, their country or the global world in which we live. They simply have no awareness of nor concern for anything or anyone outside of their immediate sphere of influence. And it is a very small sphere.
They have no historical context for their lives as well. Without knowing history, those events that have come before, shaping the rise and fall of nations, determining destinies and bringing us to where we are today; without a knowledge and understanding of these things, students have no sense of how they fit now into this time period of mankind’s existence on earth. They don’t see the big picture, don’t see the continuity from generation to generation, don’t see that they too have a part to play in history’s unfolding. They lack purpose because they lack historical context.
The students also lack personal context. With broken families commonplace for so many of us, and no permanent place to call home, they may not know where they fit in as a family member. And where we fit in our families is the most crucial context of all for each of us. This context determines our identity, this context IS our identity. I’m thinking back to the definition of context, “that which allows something (or someone) to be fully understood.” Our personal context is what allows us to fully understand ourselves and others if we know their personal contexts. Context is the key that unlocks understanding.
We all need to know where we fit in the grand scheme of things. We all need context. Paul says in Acts 17:28 that “in Him (God) we live and move and have our being.” Now that’s total context! It’s this context that allows me to live the life God has given me with meaning and purpose. God is the context of my life.
“You hem me in — behind and before; You have laid Your hand upon me.” (Psalm 139:5)
“The Lord is my Sheperd, I shall not be in want. . . . Surely, goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psalm 23:1,6)
That’s all the context I’ll ever need. Who I belong to IS my context. My Heavenly Father has paid for my past, provides for my present and is preparing my place with Him for an eternal future. In Him, I am fully understood.
sincerely, Grace Day