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

BUT WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

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”.

Our Everyday Lives, We’re Constantly Taking In Information, Missing Salient Points, And Coming Up With Our Own Interpretations Of What’s Going On

In the course of our everyday lives, we’re constantly taking in information, missing salient points, and coming up with our own interpretations of what’s going on. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong, or we’re somewhere in between. And the interplay between right and wrong – and making wrong into right – is part and parcel of our human experience. We look at something, we think we know what’s going on, and we keep moving because our interpretation fits our expectations – and vice-versa. When it turns out we’re wrong, we may jump into action to make it right, stepping in to help with a situation that we misjudged at the start. Or we may go to great lengths to justify our actions – to make things “right” in our own minds, even though we instinctively know we’re wrong. It’s all part of plugging the “holes” in the flow of our lives, and we do it without even thinking about it.

And so, what we do augments how we are, to offset the built-in limitations that come standard-issue with our human nature. What exactly we do with it, makes things even more interesting.

Let’s Go Back To Your Home In That Quiet Neighborhood

Let’s go back to your home in that quiet neighborhood…

The business trip in the city went well, and your company got the account. The next weekend, as you’re taking your Saturday morning walk around the neighborhood, all the world looks brighter and more friendly. You wave “hello” to others you see – your next-door neighbors passing on their way back to the house after their usual morning stroll, others trimming their lawns, and especially the older lady down the street who can be found in her garden for the first several hours of daylight every morning, from spring till fall. Her roses are lasting longer than you’ve ever seen roses last, and you’d love to find out how she does it.

There she is, sitting quietly on her customary bench beneath an arbor draped in morning glories. You call out to her and wave. Her eyes are closed, and she looks like she’s stopping to catch her breath. You’re not surprised, as she works so hard. But when she doesn’t respond to your second greeting, you wonder if something might be wrong. As you look closer, you notice that her head is shaking a little, and her fingers are moving back and forth in a jerky motion.

Calling out to her again, you get no response, so you open her garden gate and walk carefully to her side. You kneel down beside her and ask if she’s alright. She says nothing, but shakes her head in a clear “No”. She reaches out to you to take your hand in hers, and a small, frightened sigh slips through her lips.

Holding her hand, you reach into your back pocket and pull out your mobile phone. Off in the distance, you can see the folks you just passed stopping to talk to your other neighbors. You call out to them, as you dial 9-1-1, waving them to come and help. They look over at you curiously for a moment, then they realize something serious is happening, and without another word, they come to your aid. Two women stay close by the elder, as you talk to the 9-1-1 dispatcher, and the two men split up, one going down the street to flag down the first responders, the other waiting by the gate to guide the EMTs.

An ambulance arrives in a matter of minutes, and as your neighbor is helped onto a gurney and lifted into the back of the vehicle, the rest of you talk about how lucky it was that you noticed she was having trouble. To the rest of the neighbors, she looked as though she was going about her early morning gardening, and nothing stood out as unusual to them. But after your recent experience in the city, you’re more attuned to signals that call for help. You tell your neighbors about that brief encounter with the wounded man, and they remark at how “these sorts of things seem to happen in sequences”. The excitement slowly passes. The rest of the day is calling. With a few more words about how important it is to stay healthy and safe, you part ways to get on with your days.

Finding Someone Injured And Lying In A Pool Of Their Own Blood Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Most Of Us Everyday

Finding someone injured and lying in a pool of their own blood isn’t the sort of thing that happens to most of us everyday. But it happens. And plenty of other things take place, too, that surprise and dismay us, or call for uncommon responses. What we do in response to those situations is based on a complex combination of our understandings of our past, present, and future. Some people walk around an injured stranger. Others we stop to help. Our reasons are as mysterious to us as they are to everyone around us, but of course we can always come up with a “logical” explanation for our actions. We’re late for work and might get fired if we’re late again. Or we can’t spare the time and energy to get involved. We can’t stand the sight of blood. Or we just don’t notice anything other than what’s on our phone screen.

If we do notice what’s going on, but we don’t react in a way we feel good about, we have even more mechanisms to keep ourselves moving in what we think is the right direction in life. We can flatly deny that we did anything wrong. Or, if we do think we fell short, we can rationalize just about anything and convince ourselves we had good reason to do what we did. But as conscious as we think our rationale was, our reasons are often based on automatic, knee-jerk reactions to incomplete / wrong information. No, that man had not been drinking early in the day. He was in hypoglycemic crisis. No, his blood was not tainted by a dread virus. It was just all over the ground around him. No, he wasn’t a drug-addicted bum, but a well-known ultra-marathon racer whose body was just beginning to recover from a recent race. But we make all sorts of assumptions and deductions about things we do not – and cannot – know, for more reasons than we can ever know.

And our knee-jerk deductions aren’t always benign. Identifying patterns and deciding that things mean something that they may not, leads to things like prejudice, bias, and mistaken impressions which cause us to mistake behaviors. We feel confident and safe when we feel like we recognize what is happening. It makes sense to us, and that feels good. But a shorthand approach doesn’t always work in our best interests – or in the best interests of the people and situations we’re figuring out. On top of it, our assumptions are rarely set right in the course of a few minutes… or even hours, days, months… sometimes years. We figure stuff out well enough to get some level of comfort, then we move on without giving it much more thought. Our impulse to fill in the blanks with what makes sense to us, and to confirm our own beliefs through selective attention, to find relief in what matters to us (to the exclusion of all else), is deep-seated and instinctive. And it’s extremely hard to override.

The net result, is that we compile a version of the world that suits us and our needs, often at the expense of others. Reality, as we understand it, is much more a question of what we want it to be, than what it actually is.

And in the end, what is may not be what we think it is at all.

Acting On Evidence

Acting on Evidence

Let’s step back, and see how this plays out in everyday modern life.

It’s a hot summer weekday, as you trudge to the subway stop, your laptop bag slung over your shoulder. Even at 8:45, it’s already blistering, and you keep your gaze on the sidewalk in front of you, shading your eyes from the glare of the morning sun, jostling against other commuters who are in more of a hurry than you. You’ve got time. You made sure to leave a good 45 minutes ahead of schedule, so you can arrive cool, calm, and confident, even on a hot day like today.

You’re back in the city again, headed to an early client interview. Your new employer is expanding their client base into the city, and your old connections and familiar with the market make you the perfect candidate to present. You stayed the night with some old friends you haven’t seen since you moved to the “country”, and it feels great to be back in the urban flow, even if it does feel like an oven. Only two more blocks, then you’ll descend the steps to the cool underground subway platform, where you can catch your breath and catch a break from the heat.

Someone passes you on the left, then cuts across your path. You stutter-step and nearly stumble, then look down at the sidewalk to see what tripped you. It’s then that you see the feet. Two big feet. In brown shoes. Not in your path, but off to the side – where the other passer-by crossed from. Your eye follows the feet – they’re twitching and tap-dancing in space – and you see socks, then pants… then the supine body of a tall man, lying on the sidewalk, his head haloed in a pool of blood.

You pull up, startled. Around you, commuters are pushing past you, and you stumble out of their way, beside where the man is lying. You put down your bag and look at him. He’s tall, thin, almost frail, and his pale blue eyes gaze up at you in confusion and hurt. His arms and legs move jerkily, as though he were a crustacean tipped over on his back… trying to get righted again. Nearby, you see the raised cement garden border where he struck his head. There’s blood on it. There’s blood on him. He tries to rise, his arms reaching toward you. He tries to speak, but the words are a murmured babble.

You draw closer – but not too close. This part of town is known for its homeless, its drug addicts, its gay population that cruises the nearby park each weekend. Blood in this part of town can mean Hepatitis C. It can mean AIDS. It doesn’t mean anything good. For a split second, you consider turning and continuing to work. But that thought vanishes as quickly as it came up. You can’t. You can’t leave him. You’re afraid to help him directly to staunch the bleeding, but you can do something.

He’s trying to get up, mumbling as though intoxicated. He could be drunk, for all anyone knows. He could be one of those bums who lives under the nearby bridge. Or he could be a drug-addicted homo who’s finally gotten his come-uppance. No one else stops. They keep moving. Here and there, you could swear you see disapproving looks on passing people’s faces. But mostly, you notice nothing other than the man lying in front of you in a pool of his bright red blood.

“Stay,” you say, taking a step closer, but keeping out of arm’s reach. “Just stay still. I’ll get help.”

The man looks up, confused, agitated. “Don’t move,” you say, raising your hands and patting the air in front of you, as though it were a thick, downy pillow. “You have to stay still. I’ll get help.”

He seems to understand, and he relaxes back, his head leaning against the sticky cement berm. Grabbing your backpack, you look both ways up and down the busy street, then dash across to a building just across the way. Bounding up the steps, you push through the front door, calling “Help! Help! Someone needs help!”

It’s the lobby of a local college building, and a young woman appears at the reception desk, asking how she can help. She looks too young, too inexperienced. Who else can help? Sure enough, there’s a security guard in the lobby as well, standing at the other end of the room, and call run to him, saying, “Help! A man fell across the street, and we need an ambulance!”

The security guard runs over, loosening the holder of his walkie-talkie. When he reaches you, you point to the man lying on the sidewalk across the street, and tell him what you found. He nods in understanding and steps behind the reception desk to call 9-1-1. You see the man across the street starting to struggle again, his legs kicking the air, and you say you’ll be across the street with the man. The guard waves his assent, and you bound to the sidewalk, look both ways, and dash to the other side.

“Stay still,” you say gently to the man covered in blood. “Just stay still. Help is coming. Just stay still.”

He kicks a few times more and tries to lift himself up, but he can’t support his own weight. You step closer and crouch down just beyond arm’s reach. Drugs. Blood. AIDS. Hep C. And who knows what else? You don’t feel comfortable getting too close. But you can keep a safe distance, and still do some good.

The man quiets down, as you stay nearby. After what seems like an eternity, you hear the shrill siren of an approaching ambulance. The vehicle pulls up to the curb, parks, and an EMT jumps out, carrying a large case. The security guard from across the street joins you, and you explain what happened – what you saw, how the man seems – as the EMT pulls on gloves and opens his case. He waves you off, says “You can go now,” and turns his full attention to the man.

As you step back, you look up to see the security guard watching from his station back on his building’s steps. You wave and nod to each other, then you turn and head back in the direction of your own destiny.