The Focus On Our Dynamic Connecting Process (Rather Than Our Static Disconnected State) Can Also Completely Alter How We Interact With And Relate To Others

Putting the focus on our dynamic connecting process (rather than our static disconnected state) can also completely alter how we interact with and relate to others. Recognizing the importance of separation, and seeing the opportunity of our gaps, makes it easier to respect the differences that invariably exist between us. We can allow strangers to be “strange” – and not freak out over it. We can appreciate the things that set us apart – not as divisive, corrosive influences that threaten the fabric of society, but as valuable aspects of the wide variety of human manifestations. Our distinctly separate identities become crucially important, and just as we claim our right to be different, to stand apart, to be Other, we can see that everybody else has just as much right as we, to be who and what they are. And in the process of interacting in a way that respects and allows (even welcomes) inevitable distance, both sides can come away with a greater appreciation of who they are, compared to the Other.

A great example of this is a conversation I had with a former Hell’s Angel in September, 2016, while we were both waiting for our cars to be fixed at the dealership. We were hanging out in the waiting room, checking our smartphones and occasionally glancing at the flat-screen television on the far wall. I wasn’t in the mood to talk, that day, but the biker was. He had plenty to say about the upcoming election and the candidates, and it was quickly obvious that we each favored the candidate the other one distrusted (and wished would just go away). He seemed to assume I was squarely on the opposite side from him, although that wasn’t entirely true.

He also had plenty to say about his life and his experience, which was nothing like mine. He’d been a member of an internationally known biker gang. He’d gone to prison for killing a man in a bar fight. He had several children by a number of women, some of whom had been his wives. He was deeply religious in certain ways, but when I started talking about other sections of the Bible that strictly prohibited things he did (like cutting his hair and getting tattoos), he wasn’t familiar with those passages. He was dismissive and disrespectful of just about everything that mattered to me, and he longed for a return to the “good old days” of “family values”, which sounded great for him, but not so great for me.

We were clearly situated in completely different “quadrants” of life, with our values in sharp contrast to each other. And we actually ended up having a spirited, invigorating discussion. I didn’t fault him for what he was saying. Nor did I criticize him for what he believed. I just listened – and objectively countered some of his most vehement arguments with scriptural references that supported the opposite view. Eventually he backed off on his aggressive criticism and our initially heated conversation gradually got to the point where we’d both stated our cases, we’d both made it clear what we thought about the election, society, where we were going in the world, and what we believed the Bible had to say about it. We each agreed to disagree with 97.95% of what the other one thought – without calling each other names. Frankly, trying to win our little skirmish in the larger culture war would have been a total waste of time. Our life experiences had shaped us too differently, for that to ever happen.

But by the end of our hour-long stay in that waiting room, we were sharing pictures on our smartphones and comparing notes on the weather. Here was a burly, tat-covered former Hell’s Angel, clad in leather and denim with a chain connecting his wallet to a belt loop, showing me – a lesbian high-tech program manager in business casual attire – pictures of cumulonimbus and marveling at how they looked like horses galloping across the sky. He showed me pictures of his bike, his son’s bike, and his grandkids. I showed him pictures of the deer in my back yard. And when the mechanic called me to get my car, there was a connection there. It wasn’t the deepest, most profound connection, but it was definitely enough to bridge the gap that existed between us at the start.

Others are different from us. They should be different. Just as we should be different from them. It’s neither healthy nor realistic to expect everyone to share everyone else’s outlooks, opinions, and values. Life takes too many different turns for so many of us, and the minute you expect people to fall in line with a standard position, regardless of their own life experience and perspectives, you ask them to sacrifice a part of themselves. We’re asked to erase our differences and blend in with the group lots of times, of course, especially in situations where conformity is valued and divergence is feared. But it’s unrealistic, and ultimately it’s unsustainable. Because frankly, we’re just not built to adhere 100% to The Right Way Of Doing/Thinking Things. Plus, more diverse communities are livelier communities, giving us the chance to both reinforce our own identities and find new and different ways to constructively connect with others.

Distance Is An Inevitable Part Of Life

Even so, I don’t think we should ever get too comfortable with separation. Distance is an inevitable part of life, yes, but it’s really most beneficial to us when it drives us to transcend it. Unwelcome awkwardness, even pain, gives us impetus to get outside of ourselves and make the effort to extend our understanding, actions, and capacity. A little anguish can be a lot motivating. It can also be humbling in some pretty useful ways. Think back to the story about you getting caught in the rain on a supposedly sunny day. Or how you lost your job when you thought you were secure for the long-term. The times we come up short push us to do better, the next time around… to pay closer attention… to take more precautions. Rather than denying the importance of distance or resigning ourselves to its inevitable discomfort, we should use it to create something better.

Because it can help us do just that – create something better where we used to think what we had was good enough. It can drive us to rise above an isolated, alienated state with our inherently connecting process. Check the weather more frequently. Keep current with the latest professional trends. Even move from familiar surroundings to a different area with new opportunities and a completely different circle of friends and neighbors. As long as we’re alive, our bodies are involved in an ongoing back-and-forth that’s constantly finding new information and adding it to our understanding, improving our system’s ability to interact with our world. There’s not a single second that goes by, that our systems aren’t in dynamic interaction with our environment. It’s how we’re built. It’s what we do. And once we realize just how innate, instinctive, and normal our inclination to connect truly is, we can extend that to our larger scale world. We don’t have to figure out how to launch that exploring and integrating process. We already know how do it naturally. If you’re reading this (even if you’re not), you’re doing it right now.

Focusing on the connecting process as a natural extension our separate state can transform our relationship with everything – and everyone. It can change how we perceive success and failure, shifting it from a series of binary good/bad outcomes to an ongoing quest for what’s next. It can change a life-changing crisis from an intimidating threat to an opportunity to find out how things turn out. Indeed, it can transform the whole way we live our lives – from fear of what is, to an ongoing flow of growth and movement towards what will be. And we may just find ourselves looking for additional gaps to cross and separations to bridge. Thinking you’re stuck with what just is, is like trying to scale a rock wall without any practice, for the first time ever in your life. But when you see it as a series of chances to find out what’s next, life turns from a daunting sheet of glass with no outcroppings to help you scale it, to a climbing wall dotted with plenty of handholds and footholds to move us along.

In Our Ongoing Dance Of Far-Close–Closer-Farther, We Rely On Some Types Of Distances To Overcome Others

In our ongoing dance of far-close–closer-farther, we rely on some types of distances to overcome others. As discussed before, physical distance can give you the time (temporal distance) you need to close a conceptual gap. You see a stranger approaching, and you step back to widen the physical distance and figure out who they are and how you should interact with them. You pause before responding to their greeting, so you can connect the dots of what they just said to you… and come up with a measured response. That time-extended response will probably be “closer” to what you mean, than a blurted reaction, and if you use your physical and temporal distance wisely, it can actually help close the conceptual space and create a positive social connection.

Even with established social connections, separation can help us. Think back to the scene of the Saturday morning emergency. The one person who was best able to make sense of that situation was a newcomer who didn’t make assumptions about what they were seeing. You might think the neighbors who knew that elderly woman best would be better at helping her. An outsider was able to respond more effectively than longtime acquaintances who jumped to conclusions based on their conditioned perceptions. It wasn’t separation that fed the confusion – it was the mistaken perception of connection. Likewise, when the neighbors realized that there was a serious gap between reality and what they thought was happening, they jumped into action and helped. The dynamic interplay of separate state and connecting process moves us forward, just as two neighbors reached out to connect with the elderly woman in crisis and others went to intercept the emergency vehicles

Venturing into the void of the social unknown can be scary stuff, and every new encounter with a stranger, every start to an unfamiliar process, is a step into that void. To do that comfortably, we need to have a solid sense of our own identity, a clear sense of where we fit. Our separateness from others, our autonomy, our individuality, offers us a firm foundation, like a stable boardwalk winding through a swampy bog. We rely on the firmness of our own identity, our own self-awareness, our own individuality within a larger but distinct community which makes us us, in the midst of an often mucky, treacherous world. That sense of individual autonomy and communal belonging is only possible if we separate ourselves from others (and the world around us). As many a teenager can attest, we need to feel separate, we need to be other, in order to comfortably connect with the rest of the world. Our cultural exchanges mean nothing, if we don’t have distinct customs to compare and contrast.

And yet, distance still bothers us. It’s an irritant. It’s intimidating. No matter how convinced we are that our systems are naturally riddled with gaps, no matter how well we understand the limitations of our perceptions, no matter how aware we are of our prejudices and biases, the idea of disunity still makes us nervous. And so it should. We’ve seen the harm it does to marginalized populations with its “-isms”. We’ve seen the toll taken by cutting some in on the bounty, while pushing others away. We all know the pain of separation from loved ones, the safety of friends and family, or the larger purpose of the community. Why would we ever want to get used to that?

Because it compels us to connect. Just as light is both a particle and a wave, so is our system comprised of both a state of separation and a process of connection. And if we get too comfortable with one at the expense of the other, failing to appreciate the advantages of the other, we lose out on the incredible potential of that dynamic interplay.

Loving The Distance

Loving the Distance

But separation isn’t just useful as something to overcome. It’s also valuable in and of itself. As discussed before, we need our distance in its various forms, for it creates the individual and communal identities which let us feel safe when we engage across the gaps.

At the most basic level, we are literally separate physiological beings from other people. And in this sense, separateness is not our enemy at all, but our ally. We don’t share the same bodies, we don’t share the exact same space. We may be in close proximity, and we may even be in intimate physical contact, but as we discussed earlier, that “direct” connection is a comforting illusion. We’re separated by trillions of gaps within, including the gap(s) without. But in order to have that experience of connection with another – even an illusory one – we need to be separate autonomous individuals. You can’t be physically intimate with another person, if you don’t have a body of your own. And you can’t participate fully in the world, unless you have a distinct and separate body and mind, with which you connect to others.

Separation isn’t just a precursor to connection. It’s often a prerequisite.

The Privacy Of Our Own Neurology

But we don’t just go through this process in the privacy of our own neurology. Our personal lives are extended exercises in bridging gaps between ourselves and others. You move into a new neighborhood or start a new job, and the first thing you do is to get your bearings. You figure out who’s who, what’s what, and how to make the most of it. An electrical charge that’s reached a presynaptic terminal, doesn’t stall and say, “Oh, too bad – there’s no immediate way across.” And neither do you. Rather, you engage with the impromptu visits from new neighbors, the questions of new co-workers as a normal (and welcome) sending and receiving of interpersonal signals that connects you with others in a network that’s every bit as dynamic as the signaling in your nerve cells.

And so we enrich our lives. It may feel scary and intimidating to confront the unknown, but there’s also an air of excitement… the invigoration of discovery. Crossing the gaps of time and space and meaning changes us. Just as our experience can be altered by whether our neurotransmitters are received, rejected, and/or recycled, our lives are changed by the journey from not-knowing to knowing, from here to there, from one sort of being or doing to another.

Leaping into a gap to find our place is something we do regularly by design. Career paths, education, getting to know other people, working towards a desired outcome, are all examples of closing gaps, which we do on a regular basis. You know you need a new job, but you’re not sure where to find it. So, you dive into the gap left by the job you left, like a neurotransmitter diffusing across the synaptic cleft. You actively go looking, surveying classifieds and online job boards, talking to recruiters and hiring managers, as your perspective changes and your direction course-corrects. Eventually you settle on the path you’ll follow, and like a tiny molecule docking on a post-synaptic receptor, a way opens, and you continue your career trajectory.

Formal education (learning anything, really) is another common exercise in closing the conceptual gaps between not-knowing something and knowing it well (or well enough). Informally gathering information of any kind is another aspect. We gossip, read the news, follow social media feeds. You could even say the whole social media phenomenon is only possible because of our insatiable need to close the conceptual gap between not-knowing and knowing. Would we even need Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, if we didn’t feel like we were separated from each other? Would our eyes be glued to our phone screens as we check our timelines and news feeds, if we didn’t feel like we might miss out on what’s happening in the world at large? We get tremendous satisfaction from being in-the-know and finding out stuff we never saw or heard or knew before – or never realized we needed to know.

From schooling to following a career path to wasting time on Facebook, our entire lifespan is comprised of a long series of connections. Friends, family, foes… Job offers, raises, lateral moves, promotions… News, informational tidbits, skills… They all draw us along, irresistibly pulling us towards some distant state of being / doing / knowing. Just as our neurotransmitters are continuously leaping into the void to connect with a relatively distant destination, we venture again and again into the unknown to learn something new, to connect with a new person or experience, to get us from where we are, to where we want to go. We don’t think anything of it. It’s just what we do. It’s who we are. And it comes so naturally to us, that people who do not do it are viewed askance, as though something is wrong with them. Indeed, the DSM has made plenty of space for them in its successive tomes.

What makes our connecting activity so tantalizing is the gap – the space we need to cross. That gap is useful… invigorating. It can be scary. It doesn’t feel safe. We don’t like feeling disconnected or alone. So, we reach out. We extend. We push to make contact – even if the pushing is uncomfortable, and the outcome is unsure. Our dread of separation piques our urge to transcend it, and invites us to draw closer to what is distant. If that gap weren’t there… if we immediately connected the dots in every single aspect of our lives… if we instantly recognized every single person we encountered or understood exactly what was required of us in every single situation… we’d have that much less impetus to venture into the unknown, beyond our comfort zone, and extend ourselves in ways that force us to grow… To change… To become something other (and perhaps better) than before.

Not all the changes are easy, of course, and the end results often leave a lot to be desired. Sensing, perceiving, and figuring out what it all means is an imperfect process at every level of our human lives. We disagree. Sometimes violently. Our understanding of others comes up short, and we act on flawed assumptions, producing pain all around. But if we were all “wired” directly in ways that produced exactly the same experiences and exactly the same interpretations of perceptions, our world would be a drab series of redundancies, none of which would stand out as particularly interesting or inviting. None of us would stand out as particularly interesting, even to ourselves. Everyone would be the same. Everything would be uniform.

How boring. How life-suckingly boring.

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.