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Dave Brisbin

Sharing Meaning

Communication is such a fragile thing. Often an exhausting thing.

How close do we ever get to saying what we really mean? Or hearing what was really meant? Conversations, like wrestlers circling each other on the mat, moving in closer with each circuit…but traveling half the distance from A to B and then half again and again…do we ever really get there? Arrive at shared meaning?

To paraphrase Churchill, language is the worst form of communication ever devised by man. Except for all the other kinds. He actually said that about democracy, but it works here too. Seems as soon as we begin speaking or writing, misunderstandings and misinterpretations begin as well.

But maybe that’s part of the charm of it all. Maybe arriving at shared meaning isn’t the only purpose of communication. Maybe there’s only so much we can transmit and receive, and the hide and seeking, the dance around an enduring mystery-campfire is how we really connect and learn about each other.

When we forget the limits of language, especially written language where we don’t have face and body expression and feedback, when we as transmitters believe we can absolutely describe a thing, and we as receivers react to literally interpreted meaning instead of exploring original intent—whether in an email or a bible—we’re in communications purgatory.


Having now delivered some six hundred or so Sunday sermons, thousands of emails (that I always read twice before sending for all the reasons above), phone calls, counseling sessions, weddings, and funerals, while being married for twenty-five years, I realize that what I transmit verbally is often only a small part of what is received. And more importantly, that this is alright—the way it’s supposed to be.

Joseph Campbell said that life has no meaning of its own, that we ourselves bring meaning to life, that to be alive is meaning. I think he’s overstating a bit and still believe there is intrinsic meaning in life, but I agree that it’s up to us to extract meaning from each moment we live. If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? Air pressure waves were created from the impact of course, but with no eardrums to vibrate, sound as we understand it didn’t happen. Life is fully present in every moment, but like falling trees, if we’re not there to vibrate along with that presence, there is no meaning.

Meaning doesn’t exist fully formed outside ourselves waiting to drop like over-ripe fruit. It grows from the inside out through the interaction of presence with presence, and is experienced not as one absolute, “right” meaning, but in layers of meaning. Depends on how present we are to all the layers and facets as to what we’ll glean from a moment. Or a message.

This has everything to do with our communication.

People take out of what I say much more or less than I put in. As a pastor, I’m reminded of this every Sunday as people tell me what they heard in my message. One woman told me she went to the pastor at a different church to thank him for his sermon and tell him what she got out of his message. His stern answer was no, that was not what he said…this was what he meant. She was crushed—everything she heard invalidated.

I remembered watching a famous author in a television interview as the highbrow interviewer was giving his deep analysis of a passage of the author’s work, and the author’s response was: oh, yes, I guess you could say that…I never thought of it that way… He was not so in love with his own words to admit that when we say or write something that is true for us, it can be true for others in many different ways. And when those different ways are transmitted back to us, we can see more of our own meaning as well.

We as receivers are as responsible for meaning as we are as transmitters. And things we say and write are really only conversation starters, catalysts for the engagement of readers and listeners to begin their own exploration into meaning—not to simply take our intended meaning off the rack to wear like an untailored suit.

How different would the world be if we all approached communication this way? Not as an absolute to be judged right or wrong, reacting to an interpretation of one layer of meaning, usually the most superficial, without questioning or exploring, engaging in a process of meaning—the dance around the campfire? How would our politics change, our religion, our marriages? To approach communication more like poetry or music, allowing, even demanding a fluid interpretation and reception?

Obviously, there are limits: I don’t want the engineers designing and building the plane I’m riding at thirty thousand feet to be stating stress tolerances in poetry, and communication in practical fields has to be precisely sent and received. But in daily life, how would relationships change if we viewed communication as the approximation of meaning that it really is?

And in spiritual matters, can we fall out of love with our own interpretations long enough to admit that as convinced as we may be of meaning, as soon as we reduce it to language, it becomes metaphor—the only possible spiritual language—the first step in a dance toward shared meaning, but never the meaning itself.


  • Mike Wood

    (Loyd) “so what are the odds of a girl like you getting together with a guy like me?” (Mary) “like a million- bazillion to one…” (Loyd) “so you’re saying there’s a chance?” – Dumb and Dumber 1994

    July 11, 2019

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