I keep working over and over again on the one great essay which can make everything important clear at last. Of course, with every pass the goal recedes for a very obvious reason – as simple as my desire to be helpful might feel to me – the insights I’d like to convey, and the compassionate understandings also, are very complex – because people, culture and the whole wide world aren’t simple things at all. Even one single person is a bundle of contradictions – add millions and millions of them together – it gets chaotic.
Sunday, Catherine ordered me to take a break from working on my big projects, so instead I sat down to relax awhile, and ended up doing nine hours of writing and extended research on a political essay – sheesh!
Then again, they do say – to be happy – you should do the thing you’d do anyhow, even with no external incentive whatsoever. It is a wishfulism, rather than a concrete plan – but I’m strongly biased in favour of this idea, because I’ve always pursued new knowledge and technique, even when I was just a crazy bookish kid. Never even occurred to me that ‘stop’ was an option – certainly not one in which I could find any happiness. ;o)
I remember feeling huge excitement when I began to see how mathematics, music, scientific and philosophical understandings related in so many ways – and also my great shock in first discovering how very good we humans are at ignoring the obvious and practical, in favour of our treasured imaginings.
I read a ton of great science and philosophy as a youngster – but it was discovering inductive proofs in geometry which really made me feel the link between these huge ways of understanding wasn’t wobbly free-associative and imaginative at all, but far more direct and exact, following principles a lot like thermodynamics.
The idea in mathematical induction is that we prove our theory true when n equals the real whole number one.
Then we prove the theory is also true if n equals undefined number k, and finally we prove the idea true when n equals k+1, and since we can keep adding or subtracting whole number ones, as far as we want, this gives us the theoretical as modified by all practical measurable increments across the range. Theory proven.
Right away my brain lit-up – this is a lot like the way everyone thinks about everyone else, isn’t it? We have particular people we know – whole real numbers, we have huge vague categories of people that we don’t know – mystery k people – but we always have to start our calculations from basic number one – our understanding of our own darned self. And we use this same understanding of what a person ‘really’ is, both good and bad, to step up and down our whole range of understandings – people who are better than us, at what we prize most by a little or a lot, all the way down to people who are far worse than us, in every understanding and behaviour.
But what if we’re wrong about who we see in the mirror? What if our understanding of the number one, is so filled with fantasy and self-deception that our reference one is completely off? Then every single extrapolation we try to make from this, in order to comprehend humanity, is going to be not just slightly, but vastly wrong – because we’re multiplying our errors across a range that encompasses many billions of individuals.
One of the biggest errors all of my idealistic political friends (and I) made back in the eighties, was to believe that all we needed to do was “Get the word out” spread the truth about the corrupt and unjust state of the world, and then everyone would share our outrage, and substantive political change would soon follow. (I typed FOOLow, the first time, and probably should have just left it).
The arrogance in this idea was impossible for us to spot at the time, because we were completely obsessed with the demonstrable validity of our position. This wasn’t arbitrary, either – we weren’t just angry idealists, we studied hard, read a lot of difficult history and economics, to go along with our regular diet of poetry and philosophy, and then after we argued our way toward clarity about a lot of murky subjects.
But we were still starting from the most common stupid assumption – that there is such a thing as one correct way of looking at the world. This is right up there with the also stupendously dumb idea that there is only one right kind of human being in the world, or only one right way to live a human life.
Even if that were true – and is absolutely isn’t – but even if – the fight that would be required to establish the complete dominance of that superior mode would destroy everything worthwhile on the planet. Every one of us knows this on some level – there is no possible victory which means converting everyone to think exactly the same way as some standard well or loosely defined ‘correct’ person. Humans don’t do that.
Different people have different experience, and come to different conclusions about the meanings of the world. Which means the only way people seeking change can convince them is to first listen to and understand them.
I had a very weird upbringing, and I used to think it was a drag being a weirdo, but over time I’ve come to prize my universal outsider status. I hear so many stories and explanations which are left out of ‘the official story’ of both the right and the left. REAL HUMANITY – and let me be clear for my younger friends, whenever anyone offers you a political theory which says you don’t have to care about the feelings and experience of any group of people because they are simply “the bad ones” they are either ignorant or outright evil – without exception.
Creating helpful change in culture, politics, understanding between races and genders, definition of citizenship, even the most basic ideas about the individual and their rights and duties within society as a whole – all of these things depend on having the biggest broadest understanding, and knowing the most and kindest truth about the way the whole range of humans are experiencing life.
Information is not enough. (I feel like I should repeat that several times in bold caps).
Patient empathy wins people – not harsh views, or righteous simplifications. Being correct is irrelevant.
I even had a very pithy and (to me, with my heightened sense of, and thus duty to, synchronicity) quite direct reminder of this principle, just last week.
I was feeling a bit hungry, and saw that there were some old fortune cookies in a dish by the window. I opened one and saw the fortune with which I opened this piece. I laughed and thought – how meta clever, making a joke about not eating the paper the warning itself was printed on! Almost vaudeville zen.
Then, even though the cookie smelled a bit funny, I ate it – and wouldn’t you know, about three hours later – the sweats, a brutal neck-twisting headache right at the top of my spine and very soon after – head in the toilet.
Even the most specific exact timely and helpful information is simply not enough.
Humans are just a bit too humane to act like math. (And we aren’t that good at math anyway)
The message can do whatever it wants. Only the listener can complete the circuit.