Much of what you feel is based on what isn’t objectively true – or even present in the moment. As you look out the window, see the beautiful day, and feel a wash of delight, your sense of childlike glee comes from somewhere other than the present moment. Your nerves may be sending signals from your eyes and nose and skin to your brain, and they may be registering how tired you are from the excitement just a few hours ago. But they’re not communicating anything about your past or your future from the surface of your skin to the depths of your brain. And since you’ve never been to the park you’re looking forward to visiting, your neural network has no such data to transfer, anyway. But something within you is suffusing the moment with a wealth of “home-made” information that connects you in a deeply valuable way with the moment, and consequently, with your life.
Filling the holes of our sensed experience with memories of the past and the imagined future is not factual. It’s fiction. But it’s a useful fiction which makes everything that much more important, that much more impactful. Our imagined meanings are from us. They’re a part of us. Even if our understanding of the overarching patterns of life is dim (and it is), if we’re invested in that understanding, it makes it possible for us to continue down the path of life with the confidence that we know where we’re going. It’s like placing stepping stones at regular intervals across a rushing stream, allowing us to get to the other side without being swept away. It can be incredibly difficult to move forward, when there’s no clear path ahead. But if we at least think we know where we’re going, we can step deliberately and confidently into the gap and expect to reach the other side (a decision, a realization, an end result), without being crippled by the unknown. The end result is that meaning gives us a much richer life experience than we’d have, if we were going solely on the objective data before us. And that’s all because we have to fill in the missing details in our gap-riddled lives. If we weren’t lacking them, we’d have no need or reason to create them.
But the meanings we invent do more than involve us in our own lives. They also connect us to others who share our beliefs and values, who believe in the same cause-and-effect dynamics in the world. Knowing what things mean to us – whether it’s a scripture passage, or a coming-of-age rite of passage – helps us find other members of our tribe who share our point of view and are on the same path, aligned with the same master pattern that guides us. Just as neurotransmitters need to find the appropriate receptors on the other side of the synaptic cleft, we need to connect with others who are receptive to our signals and mirror our own meanings. It’s not always easy to find a good fit, of course. Everybody’s life experiences shape them differently, along with the meanings they’ve picked up along the way. Just think of the variety of Christian denominations – Protestants alone – who enthusiastically come together once a week, sometimes in massive “super churches”, to worship the same type of God in the same type of way. Think of the innumerable variations on the interpretations of scriptures honored by different faiths. Religious differences, political differences, virtually every type of identity centered on shared meanings can become like superglue between groups. And the more rare a shared meaning is, the more valuable the connection is to others who share that. True community can be hard to come by, especially when it comes to the bonds of our core beliefs. When we finally find it, we’ll fiercely defend our group, our tribe – sometimes with our very lives.