Boundaries

We had some guests over on the weekend for dinner.  My wife likes a few decorous things when setting the table for guests, especially when it’s someone we are just meeting or don’t have often. Nothing overly elaborate, but my wife has certain tastes and a style I like.  One of these things are napkin holders that are also in the shape of a bull’s head.  They are dark and wooden.  My son, who likes anything animal picks this up and is confused to its purpose.  My wife tries to explain that it’s for decoration and for holding napkins, but doesn’t really understand why napkins need to be held.  His only response was “Well where is its legs?  If you are going to have something that looks like a bull’s head, it should have the rest of the bull.

As I watched the puzzlement I began to think about how simply children see the world and just sort of see beyond the messy social fabric that binds us all together.  A mass of rituals and customs and rules that we share with others that keep life from seemingly falling apart at the seams.  A construct so you know who is like you and who isn’t like you.  It helps you sort and categorize.  And then as if you hadn’t spent enough time breaking up the fluidity of nature, you actually been to rank all that sorted information.  Things that are good, things that are bad, things that are tolerable, surprising, beautiful, sexy, evil, disgusting, creepy, not trustworthy, frightening.  Ideally having as few categories as possible, and trying to fit as much into a category as we can.  And the diabolical thing about all these rituals, customs, and rules is we both need them to make sense out of an ever changing and persistently uncertain world, and…well…we just made it all up.

And in some sense we all know that much of this social construct is to give us a post to lean against, a chair to sit down in, or a good night’s rest when we need it, but there is so much absurdity that even we don’t really want to follow the rules, perform the rituals, do what is customary.  And sometimes we can even laugh about it.  Many a standup comedian has made a living from such observations about society.  And as we explain to my child what this napkin holder is for, we normalize it and it becomes not a strange thing; something to accept and move on to the more pressing issues in our lives.  Of course the use of napkin holders is not the worst of things to normalize.  Rather small really.  You hope to simply teach the lesson that we all have such decorous things in our lives to add some color, some aesthetic pleasure to the world.  But what about those bigger prescribed rules and customs?  Like, what is masculine and feminine, a woman’s place is in the home, atheists have no morals, black people are not to be trusted, or a definition of what it means to be patriotic.  Past and present is full these human social constructs, meant to make things fit.  Like a shirt we’ve outgrown it doesn’t fit well, and even if we do squeeze into it, it feels uncomfortable and the aesthetics are lost even if it was ever actually there.

All of us in our lives have taken a stand against something.  We said, I am not going to play by that particular set of rules.  It doesn’t make sense.  As I age, I feel that part of me slipping away.  Is it that I have truly observed carefully enough to know what all the harmful rules are, and thus which ones not to follow? I suspect I’ve missed a few. Or does the fight simply start to leave us when we feel like we’ve come and fought far enough?  The same wisdom that protects me from being tossed and blown around, also seems to prevent from wanting to toss and blow others?  I feel like I question less, even if I ask better questions.  Perhaps there is value to both parts, but as I watched my son, I couldn’t help but feeling that life is for the young to lead the way at making things better.  I hate when older people get down on younger people.  As a society the young are our children and grandchildren, we need to encourage, because they certainly don’t have it easy.  Is it easier than we had it?  Perhaps. But these things tend to be subjective.  The key is, I don’t think we should be having children if our hope was to keep the world just as hard and as uncertain as we had it.  And as I watched my 3-year-old look at something in the world and basically say, “This makes no sense. Why do we do it?”, it made me happy.  It is a simple question we seem to ask less as we grow older and that needs to always be asked.  This is how we move across this category-laden world we’ve created.  The social constructs that our evolved minds create are both essential, and perilous if we adhere to it too strongly.   Our species spans across numerous ages, and that is one of our evolutionary advantages.  Each age group providing something unique, another way in which we cooperate.  Maybe in the end it’s just the young breaking barriers as fast as they can, while the old are just there to wag their finger and say “not too fast, you don’t want to fall and hurt yourself. “

“I understand now that boundaries between noise and sound are conventions. All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so. Moments like this, I can feel your heart beating as clearly as I feel my own, and I know that separation is an illusion. My life extends far beyond the limitations of me. ” – Spoken by Robert Frobisher in the movie Cloud Atlas

 

You Know It Just Ain’t Easy

There are a lot of things in this world…perhaps brought about by humans, but nevertheless exist at least as part of our lives.  They are important things, things we fight for, things we live for.  I’m speaking of things like freedom, justice, love, spirituality, loyalty, equality, truth, and there are probably others that I’m not thinking of right now.  These things often give rise to a lot of disagreements in terms of what they mean, they often lack a specific definition, and very much depends on one’s perspective based on the family, culture, society in which we were raised.

But they do. And maybe sometimes they should.

All of these things are core to who we are as a species and have the ability to impact our own personal happiness and sense of well-being, as well as how we treat each other and all life in general.  All of these things can also be extremely frustrating because of how different we view them.  Ever tried to love someone who wasn’t all that impressed with the way you did it? Ever had someone question your loyalty even when you thought your behavior expressed loyalty?  Ever fought for some group’s freedom, but have the very same group question the way in which you fight for that freedom or even claim that you weren’t helping but making things worse?  Ever believe something was very important to spiritual health only to be told by someone else that it was irrelevant?  The truth is that that all of these things are really really complex, regardless of how simple and natural it might feel to you.  These things are often very dynamic, leaving us with moral and ethical conflicts over time, sometimes changing our views slowly or rapidly as we experience new things.  They are often tied strongly to our emotions and sometimes seem beyond reason, they are just how we feel.  It also tends to be not very satisfying to be alone with our perspectives.  We seek connection to those who share similar perspectives and points of view.  I would say all this is good, and that our perspective should change over time.  We should be seriously considering other points of view and striving towards some sort of universal truth about these things even if we never actually reach it in our lifetime.  Because if we can nail down these things it is the benefit of all.

However there is another core part of who we are as a species.  We don’t like things that are hard to define.  We like to organize, we would prefer things to be simple.  Simple is less costly, it gives us more time for other things.  We spend less time sitting their thinking when we need to make sure we’re safe, getting resources to survive.  It’s very evolutionary. When things are actually hard, when they are not quite within our grasp, that’s when the real trap springs.  Our need for organization, categorization, and simplicity begins to create rules.  It begins to create rituals.  Rules and rituals are easy.  I’m not saying that we haven’t created some convoluted rules and rituals, but they are easy because we know that when we follow them the conclusion is guaranteed.  At least that’s the way we tend to think.  They give us the intangible in tangible form.  They turn things that are dynamic into the static.  It takes things that might take a lifetime to learn into an instant discovery.  For those with a penchant for defaulting to authority, it is a Godsend. Literally.  And while it might be natural for us to do these things, it is a complete disservice to these lofty ideals and values we live and die for.  And maybe it’s not even a bad thing that we try to create a system that fits these things, but when we reduce it to the system alone things usually turn out badly.  Love has to be more than just placing a ring on someone’s finger.  Justice has to be more than just an immutable punishment for an immutable law.  Whenever we think we’ve reached a state of equality or discovered a truth, we must still question and test instead of resting on our laurels.

The Geocentric Theory. One of the best examples of human fallibility and seeing connections in nature.
The Geocentric Theory. One of the best examples of human fallibility and seeing connections in nature.

I think that we have developed a very good “way of knowing” with the scientific method. It is demonstrably the best way of knowing we have so far.  It takes very little effort to look around the world and see that the best way is not only not the only way in which people come to know things, and it is often by no means obvious.  I mean it’s not to say we don’t start off life as little infants constantly testing and trying to understand our world through observations, but we do often make mistakes in trying to understand the world around us.  Mostly related to our tendency to find patterns that done’t exist.  Our senses often deceive us because we evolved for life in a small geographic environment, with a small group of people, and that is often what matters the most.  As “ways of knowing” get better and more effective, it reveals our fallibility.  It tells us we aren’t as smart as we think we are, and that we might not be doing things as well as we could.  Even as a scientist, who feels like I know my way of thinking is a more reliable one, it can often not feel like enough in a world with so much suffering and when so many need help quickly.  It is not realistic to simply wait for people to come around to a better way of looking at things.  As much as I like to philosophize “ways of knowing” we must also remember that such things are not so easily divorced from “ways of feeling”.

Collapse after angle of repose is exceeded

History tells us that change comes through slow increments like weathering and erosion and also through suddenness of revolution, yet in both cases forcing it doesn’t necessarily help matters.  It’s like life is like a slope of sand which slowly over time, grain by grain is deposited on a slope until we reach some critical mass beyond the angle of repose and the weight of the sand causes a sudden change in the landscape.  With no real way to predict which grain of sand will cause it all to shift and give way.  It’s like we all have to really try to do better, while at the same time just watch it all happen as if we aren’t even a part of the story.

So what is the answer to seeing eye to eye on these very important values?  I don’t know.  I think the best we can do is accept that things change, and that nothing is settled.  We can still try to create rules, as long as we are not a slave to them.  We can try to make things tangible, as long we accept that those rituals are empty without a lifetime of effort.  One thing we can say for certain is that life would lose far too much flavor if it all could be settled so easily.  We must accept that life is hard in large part because it simply can’t be done alone. And while I might be an idealist thinking that we might someday reach at least some level of harmony among all humanity, I see no harm in striving towards that.  What we have to gain, I think, is too great to just give up and say “It can never happen”.  As I always say, there is much more in this world that we all have in common than what drives us apart.