Separation Doesn’t Have To Be A Terrible Sign That We’re Hopelessly Compromised

Separation doesn’t have to be a terrible sign that we’re hopelessly compromised. It doesn’t mean we cannot know or believe anything.

Quite the contrary. Learning to accept and work with separation is actually one of the secrets of our success. After all, at the smallest, most intimate levels of our being, we “know” what to do with distance. Our amazingly intricate network of 86 billion disconnected neurons is precisely what makes connecting possible. 150 trillion possible connections exist within nanometers of each other, yet they never touch. And because of that distance, they not only kick off continuous electro-chemical processes that not only bridge each of those myriad divides, but also transform our experience of the information as it passes across them. The slightest variations in the amount of neurotransmitter released… subtle differences in how chemical receptors behave… or whether leftover biochemicals are reabsorbed or left in the synaptic cleft… it all matters. And those intricately shifting combinations can mean the difference between a steady hand and a Parkinsonian shake. Likewise, we can experience (and react to) a simple statement in completely different ways, depending whether we’re in a relaxed state of rest-and-digest receptivity or on edge from a rush of fight-flight stress hormones. Even a minor change in our internal chemistry can mean the difference between joy and pain, tragedy or survival.

Our internal separations aren’t just limitations – they form the foundation of our very human lives. Without the gaps that require a wide variety of connections, the electrical signals passing from foot to spine to brain and back again would have no opportunity change into chemical messages. A signal would be a signal, and we wouldn’t have the need (or the chance) to feel any certain way about that signal. A sunset would just be a collection of colors and contrasts, not a sight that takes your breath away. A stab of pain from stepping on a sharp-edged toy wouldn’t infuse you with the complex mix of physical distress, frustration that the kids didn’t put away their blocks, a sense of pride at what they built earlier that day, and the wave of love you feel for your children. For that matter, with faster electrical signaling, you wouldn’t even have the time to register anything other than the pain itself.

We may not like the idea that we can’t direct contact with anything or anyone, and that we can’t trust our perceptions 100%, but that within that uncomfortable fact we can find opportunities to connect in millions upon billions of different ways, with a seemingly infinite number of possible outcomes. Our minds and bodies take advantage of those opportunities millions upon trillions upon quadrillions of times every day of our lives, bridging gaps and filling in blanks in ways that are uniquely meaningful to us, enrich our experience, and make life more interesting. In a very real sense, negotiating those distances makes life truly worth living.

Does some info get lost? Of course. Not all the data points get through, and even the ones that do, don’t always get picked up or interpreted properly. We don’t realize the skies have clouded over. We don’t feel the soggy ground under our feet, until our shoes are wet. But our systems make up for it with sheer volume of activity, as well as host of varied interactions that keep updating our comprehension with continuous back-and-forth iterating, till our systems get the info they need to respond. Every living moment of our lives, our bodies are in constant communication with conditions within and without, figuring out how to breathe (fast or slow? deep or shallow?) under the circumstances, deciding whether or not to sweat, modulating our heart rate, our digestion, and managing countless other biological processes that keep our internal organs functioning properly. Even when we’re resting, our brains are in constant motion, processing the endless flow of sensory data they need to decode, in order to figure out how to respond. And our conscious minds are so accustomed to persistent frenetic activity, that it takes a concerted effort (and sometimes years of dedicated practice) to figure out how to calm them down. Our entire system is in constant interplay with the sensed world around us – and we aren’t even aware of the vast majority of what’s going on.

Every Separation Is A Link


Welcoming Other-ness As An Opportunity

Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us . . . Every separation is a link.

— Simone Weil

SO, THERE we have it. Our sensory systems, our brains, our physiology – even our very everyday reality – it’s all pieced together out of an eclectic mix of what we sense, what we perceive, and deduce. Our senses send signals to our brains, which register some of them, and our minds tell us what is going on. Based on what we’ve observed ourselves or been told by others, we make a whole lot of assumptions about what’s happening – past, present, future – what we can expect to happen, and why it should matter to us. And we act on that information, for better or for worse. On a good day, we may save someone’s life. If we get it wrong, we can do the opposite.

Our whole sensation-perception process is inherently vulnerable. It’s riddled with physical, temporal, and conceptual gaps – a veritable block of existential Swiss-cheese. We may think we’re paying attention. We may think we’re picking up on all the clues. We may believe we’re basing our beliefs and actions on all the available evidence. But no matter how convinced we may be of our rightness, there’s literally no way to tell if we’re actually 100% correct, because it’s impossible for us to have all the information we need for that level of confidence. And asking others us to confirm or debunk our ideas and values – especially others who share our viewpoints – is no guarantee of anything, because they’re just as limited as we are.

From Pretense to Potential

Now, what can we possibly do with this information?

As it turns out, a lot.

At An Even Deeper Level, The Way We Fill In Conceptual Blanks Plays A Huge Role In How And What We Physically Perceive

At an even deeper level, the way we fill in conceptual blanks plays a huge role in how and what we physically perceive. Our varied meanings can literally change the nature of the information coming across our neuronal “wires”, so two completely different people can experience very different realities. Sights, sounds, tastes, touch, can all take on different qualities, based on the meanings we give them. That works for us and against us. If we think the injured man lying on the sidewalk is a threat to us, our brains won’t process detailed information as well – higher reasoning is suppressed by the autonomic fight-flight response, as we seek to escape imminent danger. But if we believe he just needs our help and poses no threat, we can respond thoughtfully – and actually be of assistance.

Our finely tuned systems are continuously responding to incoming data in ways that both protect us and make it harder for us to stay safe. Our immune systems are suppressed by chronic stress, which makes us more susceptible to infection, so being in a perpetual state of high alert alters how our bodies handle even routine exposures to everyday pathogens. The teenager who grew up in a war zone may respond to a sudden loud BANG by ducking for cover, and that might just save her life in a real battle condition. However, if she’s in a classroom surrounded by peers, completely safe from any danger, that response can shake her up so badly that she can’t concentrate, and she may end up missing the rest of the lesson – and possibly do poorly on a test, as a result. On the other hand, her peers who aren’t trained to dive for cover at the sound of a loud BANG might not last a day during a firefight. But they also don’t run the risk of failing a future test because of war-conditioned hyper-vigilance. Changes in attention and mood can significantly alter our perceptions. Depressed individuals can be less observant, while euphoric people may be keenly aware of every little sensations they have. And through it all, we rely on the patterns we construct out of a veritable perceptual melee to point us in the right direction.

There are plenty of other ways our reliance on pattern and meaning can short-change our quality of life. Despair is similar to prejudice, in that it decides for you up front, what’s to come – and it’s not good. As far as you can tell, you’re doomed. There’s no point in going on. There’s no hope. There’s no point in looking for hope, because despair has convinced you there’s none to be found. Maybe you have enough information to give up completely – more likely, you don’t. But in any case, the practice of considering all the variables and finding different ways to think and act has already been short-circuited by a pattern that paints the bleakest of pictures. In some ways, you could say suicide is the most extreme outcome of individuals identifying patterns and using those patterns to predict a future – or lack thereof. Ending your life can be the ultimate expression of despair – as well as separation from the rest of the world.

Ultimately, much of what we do and think is about coming to terms with the gaps in our lives. We bridge countless physical, temporal, and conceptual distances on a daily basis, moving, thinking, imagining, reacting, and playing our parts in familiar and novel ways, enriching our lives with imagined meanings, so we can “make sense” of the world around us. We want to be involved in our lives, we want to know we matter, and we want to fully experience the things we encounter. We don’t just want to be hapless victims getting swept downstream in the currents of life. We want to have a sense of being part of what’s going on around us. And when the objective facts don’t make meaning immediately apparent, and we take up the slack by finding significance in everything from random chance events to stuff we do on purpose, even as our senses and systems fail us.

As much as we want to believe ourselves and trust our own senses, what we think is true and what we do about it largely results from our limited systems taking in just a portion of the information in the world around us, then applying an “overlay” of our own interpretation to it, filling in the blanks. We draw on data we believe we can trust – whether from past patterns we’ve observed, hearsay, or meanings we’ve teased out of seeming chaos – and we construct a version of the world we can live with. For all its unreliability, bridging conceptual gaps and shortening temporal distance with unverified information adds profound meaning to our lives, helping us move forward into the future we imagine for ourselves. And as vital as it is to us, it’s the cause of untold suffering in the world, both inside our heads and hearts, and in the world around us. It’s all is based on an imperfect system that’s literally riddled with holes. But perhaps that’s for the best. Read on, and we’ll talk about why.

The Peril Of Our Patterns

The Peril of Our Patterns

Of course, our patterns also come at a cost. We get plenty of metaphorical exercise jumping to the wrong conclusions about everything from the weather, to people, to situations. We misjudge constantly. It’s often benign, but sometimes it’s not. Like when we walk around an injured person lying in the street in desperate need of help. Or we stroll past a neighbor who could be in danger for her life. We may be missing important clues, but we stick with our own interpretations, anyway. As useful as it is, as secure as it may make us feel, speeding up our thinking (i.e., reducing temporal space) by packing our conceptual distance full of our invented meanings without a reality check can be catastrophic.

Prejudice epitomizes this. Defined as “an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.”, prejudice gets us in trouble constantly – especially in our increasingly inter-connected world. We base our interactions with strangers on things we’ve seen, read, or been told, making snap assumptions about other people and situations for the sake of expediency. If those strangers (or even acquaintances, and possibly even friends) happen to belong to a different ethnic or religious group, have divergent political opinions, or belong to another economic class than us, it’s all too easy to fall back on assumptions and beliefs about them which may or may not apply. Our prejudices can be favorable or unfavorable. But at the very root, they’re conceptual short-cuts that save us from having to work to figure out our confusing world. That convenience comes at a price.

We pay that price regularly, in terms of racially motivated conflicts, violence, and discrimination. The Othering discussed earlier is a prime example of how our need for convenient explanations crowds out the chance to learn more. We come across someone who’s unfamiliar to us, and because they fit some of our preconceived notions of what such-and-such a type of person is like, we fill in the gaps of our understanding about them with what we’ve read or heard. It’s especially easy to fall back on prejudices supplied by members of our community, church or close friends and family. They let us make up our minds more quickly about what to think of that person, how to interact with them, or now not to interact with them. But it comes at the cost. We may shut that person out. Or we may attack them. People are beaten and killed out of hatred based on little more than hearsay. We love our conceptual short-cuts, for sure. But they may be based on plenty of ideas other than the truth.

We tend to not realize what’s happening, of course, as we speed up our thought processes. We may prefer our own biases to the facts. We may not think we need facts. Or we may not want the facts, as they’d just interfere with the meanings we’ve assembled to give us a sense of belonging in an often hostile world. We’ve got a lot invested in our own versions of what’s going on, and you can hardly expect people to just ditch their most comforting prejudices, when they make them feel so safe and secure in an overwhelmingly complex world. Sometimes, our meanings, our patterns, are all we have. As much harm as our prejudices may do, the fact that they’re so widespread is a testament to their importance for “normal” everyday functioning.

What You Feel Is Based On What Isn’t Objectively True – Or Even Present In The Moment

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.

Our Own Interpretations Of The Data Our Neurons Pass Along, And Filling In Blanks Isn’t Just Something We Have To Do To Get Along

Coming up with our own interpretations of the data our neurons pass along, and filling in blanks isn’t just something we have to do to get along. It actually enriches our lives. It fills our experience with significance and imbues everything with a deeper quality, a fullness that makes up for the insecurity that comes from simply being alive. We not only gloss over missing details and flesh out what we’re perceiving – from what we’ve sensed for ourselves or heard from others – but we also give it meaning to find our place in the context of a larger plan. Making stuff up does more than fill objective gaps. It suffuses our lives with a sense of being part of something that’s close – and comforting in the storm.

Our pieced-together, invented versions of reality actually give us the chance to get more out of the experience, than we’d get from highly accurate observation alone. You don’t just see a red wagon sitting in front of a neighbor’s house; you remember what it was like to wheel your own red wagon around your old neighborhood, flying down hills and filling it with sticks and rocks from the woods nearby. You don’t just see your neighbor sitting quietly in the corner of their yard, you’re alarmed by the sight of an unresponsive individual who’s clearly struggling. Meanwhile, other passers-by (with a different set of past experiences) smile at the familiar sight of their neighbor resting quietly after a long morning of gardening.

Whether from the past, from something we’ve read, or from something we think, we’re literally more a part of things when we fill in the blanks. Our feelings heighten the experience, all of our senses are engaged, and that gives it a quality that’s ours alone. Our past plays a part in shaping our sense of things, as does our present. And the spirit of an imagined future imbues the present with even more salience, when we think of our present activities as leading to something important, on down the line.

You hear an old song, and you feel years younger than you’ve felt in a long time. You think ahead to the coming work week, imagining your desired outcomes with a client, and it motivates you to prepare even more. You look around the growing garden in your new back yard, and you think about how long you’ve looked forward to this day… all those years spent in the asphalt jungle without a plot of green of your own… and your little vegetable patch becomes the most precious corner on the planet.

Making the Most of Our Limits

Making the Most of Our Limits

Meaning is the pole around which our lives and identities revolve, and we’ll go to great lengths to defend it and define it in ways that work for us. And what would we do without it? Thanks to our trillions of synaptic clefts, the distance all that sensory data needs to travel, the complicated processes which alter the precise details of sensory data we receive, as well as the time it takes to process and perceive it, and finally our patchy understandings of what’s really going on, our grasp of the world around us will forever be partial. But if it all means something to us, we’re cool. Just as we shorten objective conceptual/temporal distance with hearsay or guesstimates based on past experience, meaning fills in subjective gaps, so we can get on with living our lives. We don’t have to have all the details to make sense of stuff and act on it. Good enough is… good enough.

You don’t have to see every detail of a brigantine bearing down on you in the 17th century Mediterranean to know you’d better prepare for battle.

In fact, it’s more than good enough. That process of plugging the gaps of what we cannot possibly know is perhaps the main thing that makes life worth living. Think about it… Our world is much richer when we fabricate and embellish, making the experiences our own. It’s all very well and good to have all the facts straight about what makes the weather clear one minute, then stormy the next. And it’s fine, knowing how much you have to do to put your house in order after the birthday party the night before. But that objective knowledge doesn’t motivate you to make the most of a bright, sunny day. That comes from the meaning you find by putting all that together and envisioning a potential future that isn’t yet reality.

Each Piece Of Sensory Information We Parse Needs To Fit Into A Pattern, For It To Make Sense To Us

Each piece of sensory information we parse needs to fit into a pattern, for it to make sense to us. It needs to guide us to different states of knowing, of understanding the world around us. If something we see or hear doesn’t fit into our view of how things work, it’s meaningless to us. A child dies before reaching adolescence, and all the hopes for their future are snuffed out. War flares up, claiming tens of thousands of lives, but there’s no hoped-for resolution to the conflict. Civil rights laws are passed, but they’re never enforced. What’s the point of it all? Where’s the meaning? To our minds, there may be none. But once we define another trajectory and understand the purpose of those events in light of this path, formerly pointless experiences suddenly take on new value, and we can move forward.

This doesn’t just happen on a grand scale, however. We are constantly seeking – and finding – meaning in our mundane day-to-day lives. Take, for example, the reality shows your co-workers discuss with gusto. When you were new on the job, none of it made any sense to you and it struck you as a huge waste of time. But over the ensuing months of watching your teammates bond over seemingly pointless exercises in human folly, you can (almost) see the point. The shared experience brings everyone closer, and the opportunity to discuss and argue over harmless details gives everyone a chance to simultaneously be an individual with dissenting opinions and be part of a larger group with shared interests. Rather than being a total waste of time, you now see that there’s some value to it all… however trivial it may actually be.

Meaning not only explains our environment, it also motivates us by assuring us that our lives are part of a larger unfolding pattern, that there will be some payoff i the future. Yes, it’s challenging to relocate from the city you’ve called home for many years. But moving to the ‘burbs will improve your life in ways you’ve wanted for a long time. In that quiet cul-de-sac you have your own little corner of the world to settle into, while you still have plenty of strength and energy to make your house a home. That’s going to come in handy, years on down the line, when you need an established (and paid-for) residence to enjoy your golden years. The patio, the back yard, the vegetable garden… they all figure prominently in your future plans, and everything you do to improve them now is deeply meaningful because of that connection with your imagined future. When you take action consistent with the unfolding meaning(s) of your life, you’re confirming them and advancing them farther down that path.

Conversely, when your experiences run afoul of the expected pattern – like when you’re laid off from a job you’ve done extremely well for over 20 years – life can suddenly become meaningless. You may have expected your loyal service to count for something. You imagined your career trajectory taking you ever higher, as your employer realized the value of your extensive experience and rewarded you accordingly. But for whatever reason, they not only denied you a raise and promotion, but kicked you to the curb. The severance package softened the landing, but your expected pattern of this-leads-to-that has been shattered.

When life loses its meaning, it can feel like little more than base existence. Meaning is as much the currency of life, as electricity is the pulse in our cells. It’s the stuff that flows through us to keep us moving. It aligns us with a master pattern that’s so important to us and makes us feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. A meaningful life is one that’s in sync with the ever-changing world around us in the most productive, satisfying ways. When we have it, we understand what’s next… what’s happening to us… what we’re supposed to do… how we’re supposed to feel about things… and what we can ultimately expect to happen. And when our lives lack meaning, we search for it – high and low – so we can once again align ourselves with the patterns we believe are (or should be) true.

Meaning can be found just about anywhere, and we are constantly on the look-out for chances to use it to bridge our conceptual distance – to figure out where things fit in the larger patterns of our lives, and what we should do with / about them. It compels us to engage with the world, to progress down a path of increasingly knowledge, expanding and deepening our expertise as we go along. It’s what gets us from a state of seeing something just as it is – your neighbor hunched over on her garden bench – to a state of doing something with that information… either walking away or coming closer to find out what’s really going on.

But meaning is a tricky thing. And it’s different for everyone. Where physical distance and temporal distance can be quantified, measured, understood in terms of numbers and comparisons, meaning is qualitative. It’s a feeling we have… An ineffable tone… a sensed quality we measure in terms of strength. Salience. Impact. Not everyone cares about the same things, to the same degree. When our most prized, strongly held meanings are shared, it connects us firmly to community, providing a sense of belonging and safety.

I Think Of “Meaning” As A Sort Of Master Pattern That We Piece Together From The Past To Help Guide Us Into The Future

I think of “meaning” as a sort of master pattern that we piece together from the past to help guide us into the future. It’s a conceptual road map of our world view that puts the full range of our experiences and observations in the context of a larger pattern, explaining the past, putting our current situation in context, and pointing us in directions that are consistent with the ways we think the world works. Meaning helps us make sense out of our world, both literally and figuratively. It orients us in life. It shows us the way. It adds logical predictability to our thinking and creates palpable sensations when we engage with our world. In order to have means, we need an end, and meaning shows us the ends toward which we are (or should be) moving.

We expect our lives to unfold in a certain way, with an expected series of events that lead to the next “logical” step in our meaningful lives.

When everything is going “according to plan” the way you’ve been assured it would, life is full of shared meaning with the larger community. It gives us a way to connect with others, to orient ourselves, and figure out what we can expect on down the line.

Sometimes life takes some unexpected turns, and parts of the pattern change.

And when tragedy strikes, the imagined future is canceled out, turning life into little more than existence for those who relied on an expected unfolding pattern for a sense of meaning and purpose.

We navigate the world constantly with our expected patterns in mind. Most of the time, we’re not even aware of it. They’re “loaded” behind the scenes, like images and scripts downloading in your web browser which just seem to belong there. We don’t give a lot of thought to those patterns, for the most part, when they work for us. But they tell us exactly where we need to go – and why.

A man lies in a pool of blood babbling incoherently on a sidewalk not far from an “iffy” part of town, and people think that means he got drunk and fell, or that his blood is poisoned with a deadly virus and they need to stay away. Or someone realizes that he might have extremely low blood sugar, and on top of that, his head injury has made it impossible for him to speak clearly, so that means he needs medical help right away. You go for a walk and see your neighbor sitting quietly in her garden. Others figure that means she’s just stopping to rest – the way she often does. But when you pass by, you notice she’s acting an awful lot like the guy who needed your help just a few days before, and that means you need to help her. Each interpretation draws on past experiences or related knowledge and tells us what to do about new details we’ve just perceived. Meaning turns the details of our lives into a series of signposts, so we can understand the use them to progress further along a path that makes sense to us in the context of our own trajectory.

The Interpretations that Make Us


The Interpretations that Make Us

Reason is the natural order of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning.

  • C.S. Lewis

DEEP DOWN inside, most of us are aware at least on some level that we’re missing big chunks of information about what’s going on in the world around us. Indeed, it’s hard to get through a day in this modern, info-glutted world, without being reminded of how much we can’t possibly know. We slip up. We overlook things. We miss clear signals. It’s literally impossible to know everything we need to know, on every level we need to know it. We may think we’re secure in our jobs. Or that we’re paying attention as we drive. But no matter how hard we try to stay in touch with what’s happening around us, there’s always a chance we’re missing something else. And we know it. That’s threatening. It’s intimidating. And it can be humbling. Nobody likes being “caught out” by their own ignorance, yet it happens all the time.

So, what do we do? What possible defense (or inoculation) can we have against the existential threat of perpetually never knowing enough?

We do the most human thing in the world. We turn to meaning – the significance we give to the ebb and flow of our lives in this confusing, overwhelming world. Meaning is hugely important to us, and according to Merriam-Webster, “mean” is one of the top 1% of words looked up at their website. We usually think of it in terms of significance or importance, direction or purpose. What something means is central is all about our. It leads our understanding down a certain path and lets us “design for . . . a specified purpose or future”.