Thursday, October 10, 2013

Reflections on language, ambiguity, uncertainty and human growth

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas. (George Bernard Shaw)
While Shaw's observation has some truth in it, there is also a significant danger than neither you nor I will completely comprehend each other's ideas, leaving a high risk of both uncertainty and confusion about both ideas in our heads. Language, after all, is so often imprecise and blunt, because we are either too busy to grasp the nuances of both its denotations and its connotations that we miss the resonance or because the full import of its freight is unreachable for some reason.
Even decades of practice cannot remove that possibility.
And our words have meanings that sometimes seem to defy their intent.
Take for example, "debt ceiling"....and the gridlock over raising it.
It does not mean that the government would increase the level of borrowing in order to spend more; it does mean that the government would simply have the capacity to pay for those bills it has already incurred. Nevertheless, those advocating for a smaller, less intrusive and thereby less costly government, on the premise that such conditions "would leave more money in the pockets of the individual tax payer" use the former argument to paint "big government advocates" with the brush of wanting to spend more than has already been spent.
Rhetoric, then becomes a dynamic in which words, phrases and even the subtleties of voice tone and timbre are used to argue for or against something, often using what is commonly referred to as "straw man" opponents to demonstrate the capacity of our argument to defeat our opponent. In the course of our discourse, we deploy, almost willy-nilly, stereotypes that inevitably exaggerate our opponents weaknesses, and exaggerate our own strengths, especially when we consider we are in a contest of some kind. We talk about our bosses in terms that frequently depict them as careless drivers whose only motivation is profit. We talk about God in terms that reflect our world view of power, supreme power, supreme knowledge and supreme love, perhaps, if we have graduated to a stage in which that has become a possibility. Often God is an "action figure" determined to convict us of our most minute sin, in our obsessive attempt to rid the world, and our lives, of misdemeanours of all kinds.
School is often stereotyped as that place where nothing really happens, except what happens in the exchanges between individual students, often of the highly charged hormonal kind, and occasionally what happens in a less than boring classroom. For decades I listened to adolescents paint the study of literature as nothing more than "BS" as they put it, given that there are many ways of seeing the words, actions and attitudes of characters in novels, plays, poems and those interpretations, if supported with references from the original writing, can and do qualify as reasonable essay responses to whatever questions one may encounter on tests and examinations. However, there is a much more subtle and intimate process going on, for which most adolescents are likely not ready, in the pursuit of the study of world class literature: and that is the development of a gestalt of both attitudes and perceptions within each student and also within each classroom, that is the accumulation of many perceptions of the lives of those characters to whom we are introduced in literature, whom we would never have the opportunity to get to know nearly as intimately as we do through those novels, plays and poems.
While even the words, phrases and intonations used by experienced writers have their shades of meaning, those writers are and likely have been engaged in the process of telling their truths, their perceptions and depictions of their world view in a manner fitting both the culture in which their characters dwell and the psyches that dwell within each character.
Let's look more closely at Shaw's quote above: If I tell you that there is no life after death, and you tell me that there is, we both have two different ideas, each of them the antithesis of the other. And yet, is it not possible that there are shades of nuanced possibilities to each position? Is it not possible that life as we know it may not exist after death, but that some different kinds of "life" are possible. For example, our relationship with those family members we have "lost" to death continues and even provides opportunity for change in our own lives, in the ways in which we perceive, understand and even empathize with those people. And it is not a stretch to portray those lives as continuing to impact our lives.
It is in the interaction between the two ideas that new possibilities lie and are ready to be found. And it is only through contemplation, reflection, "playing" with those possibilities that we find both our own new perceptions and realities and potentially those of others with whom we previously may have disagreed. We live in that "between".... life and death, past and future, hope and fear, a respect for science and a fear of its negative potential, and we are constantly attempting to nail down something fixed to both anchor our perceptions and our beliefs and to give us the illusion of stability, confidence and the concomitant reduction of our anxiety.
However, it is in the diving into the whirlpool of unknowing, of "in between" that we explore new insights, new ways of looking at everything and new attitudes...and that does require the willingness to embrace the other's idea, even if, at first, it sounds like heresy, apostasy and downright delusion.
It is in how we embrace a reality that willingly embraces ambiguity, uncertainty, openness to our own blind hubris and extending our truth to the other's grasp of things we do not know anything about
that we can come to embrace a far more flexible and far more tolerant and far more expansive world view...and the converse is also true, that when we refuse to embrace ambiguity, uncertainty, and to acknowledge our own blinding hubris, and when we refuse to accept another's perceptions of reality that we are in the greatest danger.
Back to literature, for a moment. Writers usually portray a series of scenes in which their characters "move" and open and change either for their own health and survival or in the opposite direction. It is in the drama of those movements that we witness their "development" and their maturing, or their devolution and decay. And we can and do point to those pivotal moments in which those characters experience an epiphany or a tragedy, or perhaps both that we are able to enter into their drama vicariously, without having to endure all of their pain, in the physical sense at least. It is no accident that Carol Pearson, in The Hero Within, in documenting the archetypes characters enter and shed in movies and novels, points to the Wanderer archetype as the transition stage between the other archetypes, innocent, orphan, victim, warrior and magician. It is naturally in the Wanderer stage that we are more open to ambiguity, to chaos, and to some kind of uncertainty, both in language and in our perceptions and attitudes as we move along our own pilgrimage.
We are all, it seems, individually and collectively, engaged in our own "development dramas" in which things we once perceived and believed are being met with perceptions and beliefs of others who deeply matter to us, and who love us deeply, that cause those original perceptions and beliefs and attitudes to shift, and to move into new configurations, almost as if they had become those 'atoms' in the kaleidoscope that shift each time we turn the instrument. And it is our hanging on to those fixed perceptions and beliefs that refuses to move, that digs in our heels, and confronts the "threats" never intended as "threats" to our world view that demonstrates our fear, and our resistance to the new.
However, as we open to our own "closedness", paradoxically, we also open to the other's reality, never quite making it our own, but at least permitting us a glimpse into their psyche that has the potential both to alienate us from each other, and to bring us much closer.
And that choice too rests on our courage to embrace both the new and the other simultaneously.
This may not be a new and different binomial theory, nor a new and different calculus from those deployed in all the most recent technology; it is, however, a pilgrim's path to new stars of insight, and new meteors of light, and new planets of culture to which s/he had never before flown. And, to think that those journeys come without the need to purchase a new space-ship, or space-suit, and are available each day in all of our significant encounters, if we are willing to dive into their black holes of uncertainty, confusion, ambiguity and perhaps even denial, without fear of losing anything of importance to our survival, yet perhaps even enhancing our potential for our own growth and development...that is the wondrous thing about our micro-macro bouncings off the ideas, perceptions, attitudes and beliefs of others who are prepared to share and who are courageous enough to enter into that "between" that always exists in our lives....where, as Buber reminds us, the Infinite dwells.
So while Shaw introduces us to our complexities, there are still universes waiting to be explored!
And aren't we all truly "wanderers" in the mystery that is our universe, when we peel away the mask of certitude?


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