Reality: Experience and Ignorance

Today, readers, I hesitate.  I’m hesitant to write of something that someone else has written about better.  I hate to discuss very broad concepts, and I hate to admit that I have no clue what I’m doing.

And yet…I’m fighting that hesitation.  Writing is better than worry; the reader may not have encountered the proverbial Someone Else who is better than me at everything (Khan?  Is that you?); and if it was worth my cogitation, it might well be worth someone else’s.  An Experiment in Criticism taught me not to fear reading a book more than once, even many times over; it follows I ought not fear thinking a thought more than once – or, in fact, many times over.

So here’s what I’ve been wondering:  what is the world really like?

We all observe the world from our particular vantage points.  We experience our own lives, hear about the lives of our families, our friends, our colleagues, our churches, our whoevers, whatevers, wherevers.  Our social media feeds us a constant stream of information about Life as Someone Else, whether that person is really quite similar to us, or completely different: the other side of the world, the other side in beliefs, otherwhere in health, otherwise in wealth.  There are the books, the articles (in magazines, in print, on the web), the television shows, the cinema.

We do our best to cut a swath through the unknown, and the stories we feed ourselves, in whatever medium, give us some sense of what is out in the white of the chart: whether dragons lurk there, or poverty, or beauty, or war.  This is fortunate, for me if for no one else; anyone who knows me very well at all knows that I dwell in detail, being a very poor hand at sweeping generalizations.

But no matter how much we learn, there is still so much to know: 7 billion lives out there, right now, not to mention the billions of lives from centuries past.  So many streets in towns in counties in countries where we’ve never walked.  There are so many biases we have ourselves, or problems in perception and recall and understanding, and so many agendas, conflicts, and obstacles in receiving information from other people.

So here I am, left wondering: what is, in fact, true about the world today?  Not to get all Cartesian about it, but which authorities, if any, can I actually trust?  Which do I trust without realizing it?

Here’s a minor example of the last:  I have in my mind the image of a high school party: parents gone, two hundred people showing up, booze and drugs going around, pounding music, and plenty of interpersonal drama like only high schoolers could foment.  I have never witnessed anything like this outside a movie.  Do such parties actually happen?  Is this a true image (στερεός τύπος) sifted from reality, or a mere cliché wrought by the media?  Did such parties eventually start because people saw them in movies first?

Another example: some famous ladies protest use of the word “bossy.”  Some other folks argue that this protest is arbitrary bullying of other people’s use of language; others note that there are more injurious words to worry about, and much more insidious problems.  I’m still sitting here wondering “Is that a real thing?  Do people actually call other people that, and does it actually hurt?  Like, more than other words?  The last time I saw or heard that word, it referred to an 11-year-old Hermione Granger, and it really was accurate enough.”  Who actually ought to win my sympathy in this fight?  No one, perhaps – I probably ought to walk right on.

So here’s something else, from an article somewhat-provocatively titled “In Defense of Book Banning”: authors of books, comics, etc. write all manner of narratives, including the agenda-driven, the needlessly salacious, the confrontational, etc.  Are they writing about the way the world is, or how they’ve heard it is, or how they want it to be?  Mark Hemingway notes (emphasis mine),

It was probably inevitable that Archie would change with the times, but I don’t think anyone thought the comic needed to become a statement about The Way We Live Now, where “we” is defined as some narrow subset of the urban creative class. …Of course, the gay marriage issue of Archie flew off the shelves, so it’s hard to tell whether the publisher is just capitalizing on the novelty to make a quick buck or actively trying to redefine cultural norms. But looked at over a long enough time horizon, the former will accomplish the latter.

That article also uses the phrase “With the way that public schools are slaloming toward Gomorrah…” as though that were most certainly the case.  I figured it was – I went to private school and keep hearing the most dreadful things about public schools – but one of my housemates went through public school and reported her experience as distinctly not-Gomorrah-like.  Admittedly, her high school experience was some 12 years ago, to say nothing of her grade school experience, so who knows how much things have changed since?

This is, I think, the aspect of reality with which I grapple most wearily: culture and society, they are organisms.  Whether we wrestle with them or try to unite ourselves with them, they are growing and shrinking and transforming all the time.  Perhaps you thought you had a fine snapshot of the way things are; blink and you find that it is how things were or, just as likely (it seems), how things were not.

At present, all I can do is thank God that my life doesn’t actually depend on my having expert knowledge.  Experts!  As any of us would trust an expert in child development to know an individual child better than his parents, or as if a landscape expert can know a man’s farm better than the man whose livelihood depends on it.  No, we don’t entrust the living of our lives to the experts; we carry on in our narrow swath, we use what tools we can and gain what knowledge we might.

And so I look for Someone Else, whose perspective on the world can shed light on it.  Wendell Berry, perhaps:

One of our problems is that we humans cannot live without acting; we have to act. Moreover, we have to act on the basis of what we know, and what we know is incomplete. What we have come to know so far is demonstrably incomplete, since we keep on learning more, and there seems little reason to think that our knowledge will become significantly more complete. The mystery surrounding our life probably is not significantly reducible. And so the question of how to act in ignorance is paramount.