قانون دهمکتاب: دوازده قانون زندگی / فصل 11
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BE PRECISE IN YOUR SPEECH
WHY IS MY LAPTOP OBSOLETE?
What do you see, when you look at a computer—at your own laptop, more precisely? You see a flat, thin, grey-and-black box. Less evidently, you see something to type on and look at. Nonetheless, even with the second perceptions included, what are you seeing is hardly the computer at all. That grey and black box happens to be a computer right now, right here and now, and maybe even an expensive computer. Nevertheless, it will soon be something so unlike a computer that it will be difficult even to give away.
We will all discard our laptops within the next five years, even though they may still work perfectly—even though the screens, keyboards, mice and internet connections may still flawlessly perform their tasks. Fifty years from now, early twenty-first-century laptops will be oddities like the brass scientific tools of the late nineteenth century. The latter now appear more like the arcane accoutrements of alchemy, designed to measure phenomena whose existence we no longer even recognize. How can high-tech machines, each possessing more computing power than the entire Apollo space program, lose their value in such a short period of time? How can they transform so quickly from exciting, useful and status-enhancing machines to complex pieces of junk? It’s because of the nature of our perceptions themselves, and the oft-invisible interaction between those perceptions and the underlying complexity of the world.
Your laptop is a note in a symphony currently being played by an orchestra of incalculable size. It’s a very small part of a much greater whole. Most of its capacity resides beyond its hard shell. It maintains its function only because a vast array of other technologies are currently and harmoniously at play. It is fed, for example, by a power grid whose function is invisibly dependent on the stability of a myriad of complex physical, biological, economic and interpersonal systems. The factories that make its parts are still in operation. The operating system that enables its function is based on those parts, and not on others yet to be created. Its video hardware runs the technology expected by the creative people who post their content on the web. Your laptop is in communication with a certain, specified ecosystem of other devices and web servers.
And, finally, all this is made possible by an even less visible element: the social contract of trust—the interconnected and fundamentally honest political and economic systems that make the reliable electrical grid a reality. This interdependency of part on whole, invisible in systems that work, becomes starkly evident in systems that don’t. The higher-order, surrounding systems that enable personal computing hardly exist at all in corrupt, third-world countries, so that the power lines, electrical switches, outlets, and all the other entities so hopefully and concretely indicative of such a grid are absent or compromised, and in fact make little contribution to the practical delivery of electricity to people’s homes and factories. This makes perceiving the electronic and other devices that electricity theoretically enables as separate, functional units frustrating, at minimum, and impossible, at worst. This is partly because of technical insufficiency: the systems simply don’t work. But it is also in no small part because of the lack of trust characteristic of systemically corrupt societies.
To put it another way: What you perceive as your computer is like a single leaf, on a tree, in a forest—or, even more accurately, like your fingers rubbing briefly across that leaf. A single leaf can be plucked from a branch. It can be perceived, briefly, as a single, self-contained entity—but that perception misleads more than clarifies. In a few weeks, the leaf will crumble and dissolve. It would not have been there at all, without the tree. It cannot continue to exist, in the absence of the tree. This is the position of our laptops in relation to the world. So much of what they are resides outside their boundaries that the screened devices we hold on our laps can only maintain their computer-like façade for a few short years.
Almost everything we see and hold is like that, although often not so evidently.
Tools, Obstacles and Extension into the World
We assume that we see objects or things when we look at the world, but that’s not really how it is. Our evolved perceptual systems transform the interconnected, complex multi-level world that we inhabit not so much into things per se as into useful things (or their nemeses, things that get in the way). This is the necessary, practical reduction of the world. This is the transformation of the near-infinite complexity of things through the narrow specification of our purpose. This is how precision makes the world sensibly manifest. That is not at all the same as perceiving objects.
We don’t see valueless entities and then attribute meaning to them. We perceive the meaning directly.160 We see floors, to walk on, and doors, to duck through, and chairs, to sit on. It’s for this reason that a beanbag and a stump both fall into the latter category, despite having little objectively in common. We see rocks, because we can throw them, and clouds, because they can rain on us, and apples, to eat, and the automobiles of other people, to get in our way and annoy us. We see tools and obstacles, not objects or things. Furthermore, we see tools and obstacles at the “handy” level of analysis that makes them most useful (or dangerous), given our needs, abilities and perceptual limitations. The world reveals itself to us as something to utilize and something to navigate through—not as something that merely is.
We see the faces of the people we are talking to, because we need to communicate with those people and cooperate with them. We don’t see their microcosmic substructures, their cells, or the subcellular organelles, molecules and atoms that make up those cells. We don’t see, as well, the macrocosm that surrounds them: the family members and friends that make up their immediate social circles, the economies they are embedded within, or the ecology that contains all of them. Finally, and equally importantly, we don’t see them across time. We see them in the narrow, immediate, overwhelming now, instead of surrounded by the yesterdays and tomorrows that may be a more important part of them than whatever is currently and obviously manifest. And we have to see in this way, or be overwhelmed.
When we look at the world, we perceive only what is enough for our plans and actions to work and for us to get by. What we inhabit, then, is this “enough.” That is a radical, functional, unconscious simplification of the world—and it’s almost impossible for us not to mistake it for the world itself. But the objects we see are not simply there, in the world, for our simple, direct perceiving.fn1 They exist in a complex, multi-dimensional relationship to one another, not as self-evidently separate, bounded, independent objects. We perceive not them, but their functional utility and, in doing so, we make them sufficiently simple for sufficient understanding. It is for this reason that we must be precise in our aim. Absent that, we drown in the complexity of the world.
This is true even for our perceptions of ourselves, of our individual persons. We assume that we end at the surface of our skin, because of the way that we perceive. But we can understand with a little thought the provisional nature of that boundary. We shift what is inside our skin, so to speak, as the context we inhabit changes. Even when we do something as apparently simple as picking up a screwdriver, our brain automatically adjusts what it considers body to include the tool.161 We can literally feel things with the end of the screwdriver. When we extend a hand, holding the screwdriver, we automatically take the length of the latter into account. We can probe nooks and crannies with its extended end, and comprehend what we are exploring. Furthermore, we instantly regard the screwdriver we are holding as “our” screwdriver, and get possessive about it. We do the same with the much more complex tools we use, in much more complex situations. The cars we pilot instantaneously and automatically become ourselves. Because of this, when someone bangs his fist on our car’s hood after we have irritated him at a crosswalk, we take it personally. This is not always reasonable. Nonetheless, without the extension of self into machine, it would be impossible to drive.
The extensible boundaries of our selves also expand to include other people—family members, lovers and friends. A mother will sacrifice herself for her children. Is our father or son or wife or husband more or less integral to us than an arm or a leg? We can answer, in part, by asking: Which we rather lose? Which loss would we sacrifice more to avoid? We practice for such permanent extension—such permanent commitment—by identifying with the fictional characters of books and movies. Their tragedies and triumphs rapidly and convincingly become ours. Sitting still in our seats, we nonetheless act out a multitude of alternate realities, extending ourselves experimentally, testing multiple potential paths, before specifying the one we will actually take. Engrossed in a fictional world, we can even become things that don’t “really” exist. In the blink of an eye, in the magic hall of a movie theatre, we can become fantastical creatures. We sit in the dark before rapidly flickering images and become witches, superheroes, aliens, vampires, lions, elves or wooden marionettes. We feel everything they feel, and are peculiarly happy to pay for the privilege, even when what we experience is sorrow, fear or horror.
Something similar, but more extreme, happens when we identify, not with a character in a fictional drama, but with a whole group, in a competition. Think of what happens when a favourite team wins or loses an important game against an arch-rival. The winning goal will bring the whole network of fans to their feet, before they think, in unscripted unison. It is as if their many nervous systems are directly wired to the game unfolding in front of them. Fans take the victories and defeats of their teams very personally, even wearing the jerseys of their heroes, often celebrating their wins and losses more than any such events that “actually” occur in their day-to-day lives. This identification manifests itself deeply—even biochemically and neurologically. Vicarious experiences of winning and losing, for example, raise and lower testosterone levels among fans “participating” in the contest.162 Our capacity for identification is something that manifests itself at every level of our Being.
To the degree that we are patriotic, similarly, our country is not just important to us. It is us. We might even sacrifice our entire smaller individual selves, in battle, to maintain the integrity of our country. For much of history, such willingness to die has been regarded as something admirable and courageous, as a part of human duty. Paradoxically, that is a direct consequence not of our aggression but of our extreme sociability and willingness to cooperate. If we can become not only ourselves, but our families, teams and countries, cooperation comes easily to us, relying on the same deeply innate mechanisms that drive us (and other creatures) to protect our very bodies.
The World Is Simple Only When It Behaves
It is very difficult to make sense of the interconnected chaos of reality, just by looking at it. It’s a very complicated act, requiring, perhaps, half our brains. Everything shifts and changes in the real world. Each hypothetically separate thing is made up of smaller hypothetically separate things, and is simultaneously part of larger hypothetically separate things. The boundaries between the levels—and between different things themselves at a given level—are neither clear nor self-evident, objectively. They must be established practically, pragmatically, and they retain their validity only under very narrow and specified conditions. The conscious illusion of complete and sufficient perception only sustains itself, for example—only remains sufficient for our purposes—when everything goes according to plan. Under such circumstances, what we see is accurate enough, so that there is no utility in looking farther. To drive successfully, we don’t have to understand, or even perceive, the complex machinery of our automobiles. The hidden complexities of our private cars only intrude on our consciousness when that machinery fails, or when we collide unexpectedly with something (or something with us). Even in the case of mere mechanical failure (to say nothing of a serious accident) such intrusion is always felt, at least initially, as anxiety-provoking. That’s a consequence of emergent uncertainty.
A car, as we perceive it, is not a thing, or an object. It is instead something that takes us somewhere we want to go. It is only when it stops taking us and going, in fact, that we perceive it much at all. It is only when a car quits, suddenly—or is involved in an accident and must be pulled over to the side of the road—that we are forced to apprehend and analyze the myriad of parts that “car as thing that goes” depends on. When our car fails, our incompetence with regards to its complexity is instantly revealed. That has practical consequences (we don’t get to go to where we were going), as well as psychological: our peace of mind disappears along with our functioning vehicle. We must generally turn to the experts who inhabit garages and workshops to restore both functionality to our vehicle and simplicity to our perceptions. That’s mechanic-as-psychologist.
It is precisely then that we can understand, although we seldom deeply consider, the staggeringly low-resolution quality of our vision and the inadequacy of our corresponding understanding. In a crisis, when our thing no longer goes, we turn to those whose expertise far transcends ours to restore the match between our expectant desire and what actually happens. This all means that the failure of our car can also force us to confront the uncertainty of the broader social context, which is usually invisible to us, in which the machine (and mechanic) are mere parts. Betrayed by our car, we come up against all the things we don’t know. Is it time for a new vehicle? Did I err in my original purchase? Is the mechanic competent, honest and reliable? Is the garage he works for trustworthy? Sometimes, too, we must contemplate something worse, something broader and deeper: Have the roads now become too dangerous? Have I become (or always been) too incompetent? Too scattered and inattentive? Too old? The limitations of all our perceptions of things and selves manifest themselves when something we can usually depend on in our simplified world breaks down. Then the more complex world that was always there, invisible and conveniently ignored, makes its presence known. It is then that the walled garden we archetypally inhabit reveals its hidden but ever-present snakes.
You and I Are Simple Only When the World Behaves
When things break down, what has been ignored rushes in. When things are no longer specified, with precision, the walls crumble, and chaos makes its presence known. When we’ve been careless, and let things slide, what we have refused to attend to gathers itself up, adopts a serpentine form, and strikes—often at the worst possible moment. It is then that we see what focused intent, precision of aim and careful attention protects us from.
Imagine a loyal and honest wife suddenly confronted by evidence of her husband’s infidelity. She has lived alongside him for years. She saw him as she assumes he is: reliable, hard-working, loving, dependable. In her marriage, she is standing on a rock, or so she believes. But he becomes less attentive and more distracted. He begins, in the clichéd manner, to work longer hours. Small things she says and does irritate him unjustifiably. One day she sees him in a downtown café with another woman, interacting with her in a manner difficult to rationalize and ignore. The limitations and inaccuracy of her former perceptions become immediately and painfully obvious.
Her theory of her husband collapses. What happens, in consequence? First, something—someone—emerges in his stead: a complex, frightening stranger. That’s bad enough. But it’s only half the problem. Her theory of herself collapses, too, in the aftermath of the betrayal, so that it’s not one stranger that’s the problem: it’s two. Her husband is not who she perceived him to be—but neither is she, the betrayed wife. She is no longer the “well-loved, secure wife, and valued partner.” Strangely enough, despite our belief in the permanent immutability of the past, she may never have been.
The past is not necessarily what it was, even though it has already been. The present is chaotic and indeterminate. The ground shifts continually around her feet, and ours. Equally, the future, not yet here, changes into something it was not supposed to be. Is the once reasonably content wife now a “deceived innocent”—or a “gullible fool”? Should she view herself as victim, or as co-conspirator in a shared delusion? Her husband is—what? An unsatisfied lover? A target of seduction? A psychopathic liar? The very Devil himself? How could he be so cruel? How could anyone? What is this home she has been living in? How could she be so naïve? How could anyone? She looks in the mirror. Who is she? What’s going on? Are any of her relationships real? Have any of them ever been? What has happened to the future? Everything is up for grabs, when the deeper realities of the world unexpectedly manifest themselves.
Everything is intricate beyond imagining. Everything is affected by everything else. We perceive a very narrow slice of a causally interconnected matrix, although we strive with all our might to avoid being confronted by knowledge of that narrowness. The thin veneer of perceptual sufficiency cracks, however, when something fundamental goes wrong. The dreadful inadequacy of our senses reveals itself. Everything we hold dear crumbles to dust. We freeze. We turn to stone. What then do we see? Where can we look, when it is precisely what we see that has been insufficient?
What Do We See When We Don’t Know What We’re Looking At?
What is it, that is the world, after the Twin Towers disintegrate? What, if anything, is left standing? What dread beast rises from the ruins when the invisible pillars supporting the world’s financial system tremble and fall? What do we see when we are swept up in the fire and drama of a National Socialist rally, or cower, paralyzed with fear, in the midst of a massacre in Rwanda? What is it that we see, when we cannot understand what is happening to us, cannot determine where we are, know no longer who we are, and no longer understand what surrounds us? What we don’t see is the well-known and comforting world of tools—of useful objects—of personalities. We don’t even see familiar obstacles—sufficiently troubling though they are in normal times, already mastered—that we can simply step around.
What we perceive, when things fall apart, is no longer the stage and settings of habitable order. It’s the eternal watery tohu va bohu, formless emptiness, and the tehom, the abyss, to speak biblically—the chaos forever lurking beneath our thin surfaces of security. It’s from that chaos that the Holy Word of God Himself extracted order at the beginning of time, according to the oldest opinions expressed by mankind (and it is in the image of that same Word that we were made, male and female, according to the same opinions). It’s from that chaos that whatever stability we had the good fortune to experience emerged, originally—for some limited time—when we first learned to perceive. It’s chaos that we see, when things fall apart (even though we cannot truly see it). What does all this mean?
Emergency—emergence(y). This is the sudden manifestation from somewhere unknown of some previously unknown phenomenon (from the Greek phainesthai, to “shine forth”). This is the reappearance of the eternal dragon, from its eternal cavern, from its now-disrupted slumber. This is the underworld, with its monsters rising from the depths. How do we prepare for an emergency, when we do not know what has emerged, or from where? How do we prepare for catastrophe, when we do not know what to expect, or how to act? We turn from our minds, so to speak—too slow, too ponderous—to our bodies. Our bodies react much faster than our minds.
When things collapse around us our perception disappears, and we act. Ancient reflexive responses, rendered automatic and efficient over hundreds of millions of years, protect us in those dire moments when not only thought but perception itself fails. Under such circumstances, our bodies ready themselves for all possible eventualities.163 First, we freeze. The reflexes of the body then shade into emotion, the next stage of perception. Is this something scary? Something useful? Something that must be fought? Something that can be ignored? How will we determine this—and when? We don’t know. Now we are in a costly and demanding state of readiness. Our bodies are flooded with cortisol and adrenaline. Our hearts beat faster. Our breath quickens. We realize, painfully, that our sense of competence and completeness is gone; it was just a dream. We draw on physical and psychological resources saved carefully for just this moment (if we are fortunate enough to have them). We prepare for the worst—or the best. We push the gas pedal furiously to the floor, and slam on the brakes at the same time. We scream, or laugh. We look disgusted, or terrified. We cry. And then we begin to parse apart the chaos.
And so, the deceived wife, increasingly unhinged, feels the motivation to reveal all—to herself, her sister, her best friend, to a stranger on a bus—or retreats into silence, and ruminates obsessively, to the same end. What went wrong? What did she do that was so unforgivable? Who is this person she has been living with? What kind of world is this, where such things can happen? What kind of God would make such a place? What conversation could she possibly initiate with this new, infuriating person, inhabiting the shell of her former husband? What forms of revenge might satisfy her anger? Who could she seduce, in return for this insult? She is by turns enraged, terrified, struck down by pain, and exhilarated by the possibilities of her new-found freedom.
Her last place of bedrock security was in fact not stable, not certain—not bedrock at all. Her house was built on a foundation of sand. The ice she was skating on was simply too thin. She fell through, into the water below, and is drowning. She has been hit so hard that her anger, terror and grief consume her. Her sense of betrayal widens, until the whole world caves in. Where is she? In the underworld, with all its terrors. How did she get there? This experience, this voyage into the substructure of things—this is all perception, too, in its nascent form; this preparation; this consideration of what-might-have-been and what-could-still-be; this emotion and fantasy. This is all the deep perception now necessary before the familiar objects that she once knew reappear, if they ever do, in their simplified and comfortable form. This is perception before the chaos of possibility is re-articulated into the functional realities of order.
“Was it really so unexpected?” she asks herself—she asks others—thinking back. Should she now feel guilty about ignoring the warning signs, subtle though they may have been, encouraged though she was to avoid them? She remembers when she first married, eagerly joining her husband, every single night, to make love. Perhaps that was too much to expect—or even too much to cope with—but once, in the last six months? Once every two or three months, for years, before that? Would anyone she could truly respect—including herself—put up with such a situation?
There is a story for children, There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon, by Jack Kent, that I really like. It’s a very simple tale, at least on the surface. I once read its few pages to a group of retired University of Toronto alumni, and explained its symbolic meaning.fn2 It’s about a small boy, Billy Bixbee, who spies a dragon sitting on his bed one morning. It’s about the size of a house cat, and friendly. He tells his mother about it, but she tells him that there’s no such thing as a dragon. So, it starts to grow. It eats all of Billy’s pancakes. Soon it fills the whole house. Mom tries to vacuum, but she has to go in and out of the house through the windows because of the dragon everywhere. It takes her forever. Then, the dragon runs off with the house. Billy’s dad comes home—and there’s just an empty space, where he used to live. The mailman tells him where the house went. He chases after it, climbs up the dragon’s head and neck (now sprawling out into the street) and rejoins his wife and son. Mom still insists that the dragon does not exist, but Billy, who’s pretty much had it by now, insists, “There is a dragon, Mom.” Instantly, it starts to shrink. Soon, it’s cat-sized again. Everyone agrees that dragons of that size (1) exist and (2) are much preferable to their gigantic counterparts. Mom, eyes reluctantly opened by this point, asks somewhat plaintively why it had to get so big. Billy quietly suggests: “maybe it wanted to be noticed.” Maybe! That’s the moral of many, many stories. Chaos emerges in a household, bit by bit. Mutual unhappiness and resentment pile up. Everything untidy is swept under the rug, where the dragon feasts on the crumbs. But no one says anything, as the shared society and negotiated order of the household reveals itself as inadequate, or disintegrates, in the face of the unexpected and threatening. Everybody whistles in the dark, instead. Communication would require admission of terrible emotions: resentment, terror, loneliness, despair, jealousy, frustration, hatred, boredom. Moment by moment, it’s easier to keep the peace. But in the background, in Billy Bixbee’s house, and in all that are like it, the dragon grows. One day it bursts forth, in a form that no one can ignore. It lifts the very household from its foundations. Then it’s an affair, or a decades-long custody dispute of ruinous economic and psychological proportions. Then it’s the concentrated version of the acrimony that could have been spread out, tolerably, issue by issue, over the years of the pseudo-paradise of the marriage. Every one of the three hundred thousand unrevealed issues, which have been lied about, avoided, rationalized away, hidden like an army of skeletons in some great horrific closet, bursts forth like Noah’s flood, drowning everything. There’s no ark, because no one built one, even though everyone felt the storm gathering.
Don’t ever underestimate the destructive power of sins of omission.
Maybe the demolished couple could have had a conversation, or two, or two hundred, about their sex lives. Maybe the physical intimacy they undoubtedly shared should have been matched, as it often is not, by a corresponding psychological intimacy. Maybe they could have fought through their roles. In many households, in recent decades, the traditional household division of labour has been demolished, not least in the name of liberation and freedom. That demolition, however, has not left so much glorious lack of restriction in its wake as chaos, conflict and indeterminacy. The escape from tyranny is often followed not by Paradise, but by a sojourn in the desert, aimless, confused and deprived. Furthermore, in the absence of agreed-upon tradition (and the constraints—often uncomfortable; often even unreasonable—that it imposes) there exist only three difficult options: slavery, tyranny or negotiation. The slave merely does what he or she is told—happy, perhaps, to shed the responsibility—and solves the problem of complexity in that manner. But it’s a temporary solution. The spirit of the slave rebels. The tyrant merely tells the slave what to do, and solves the problem of complexity in that manner. But it’s a temporary solution. The tyrant tires of the slave. There’s nothing and no one there, except for predictable and sullen obedience. Who can live forever with that? But negotiation—that requires forthright admission on the part of both players that the dragon exists. That’s a reality difficult to face, even when it’s still too small to simply devour the knight who dares confront it.
Maybe the demolished couple could have more precisely specified their desired manner of Being. Maybe in that manner they could have jointly prevented the waters of chaos from springing uncontrollably forth and drowning them. Maybe they could have done that instead of saying, in the agreeable, lazy and cowardly way: “It’s OK. It’s not worth fighting about.” There is little, in a marriage, that is so little that it is not worth fighting about. You’re stuck in a marriage like the two proverbial cats in a barrel, bound by the oath that lasts in theory until one or both of you die. That oath is there to make you take the damn situation seriously. Do you really want the same petty annoyance tormenting you every single day of your marriage, for the decades of its existence?
“Oh, I can put up with it,” you think. And maybe you should. You’re no paragon of genuine tolerance. And maybe if you brought up how your partner’s giddy laugh is beginning to sound like nails on a blackboard he (or she) would tell you, quite properly, to go to hell. And maybe the fault is with you, and you should grow up, get yourself together and keep quiet. But perhaps braying like a donkey in the midst of a social gathering is not reflecting well on your partner, and you should stick to your guns. Under such circumstances, there is nothing but a fight—a fight with peace as the goal—that will reveal the truth. But you remain silent, and you convince yourself it’s because you are a good, peace-loving, patient person (and nothing could be further from the truth). And the monster under the rug gains a few more pounds.
Maybe a forthright conversation about sexual dissatisfaction might have been the proverbial stitch in time—not that it would be easy. Perhaps madame desired the death of intimacy, clandestinely, because she was deeply and secretly ambivalent about sex. God knows there’s reason to be. Perhaps monsieur was a terrible, selfish lover. Maybe they both were. Sorting that out is worth a fight, isn’t it? That’s a big part of life, isn’t it? Perhaps addressing that and (you never know) solving the problem would be worth two months of pure misery just telling each other the truth (not with intent to destroy, or attain victory, because that’s not the truth: that’s just all-out war).
Maybe it wasn’t sex. Maybe every conversation between husband and wife had deteriorated into boring routine, as no shared adventure animated the couple. Maybe that deterioration was easier, moment by moment, day by day, than bearing the responsibility of keeping the relationship alive. Living things die, after all, without attention. Life is indistinguishable from effortful maintenance. No one finds a match so perfect that the need for continued attention and work vanishes (and, besides, if you found the perfect person, he or she would run away from ever-so-imperfect you in justifiable horror). In truth, what you need—what you deserve, after all—is someone exactly as imperfect as you.
Maybe the husband who betrayed his wife was appallingly immature and selfish. Maybe that selfishness got the upper hand. Maybe she did not oppose this tendency with enough force and vigour. Maybe she could not agree with him on the proper disciplinary approach to the children, and shut him out of their lives, in consequence. Maybe that allowed him to circumvent what he saw as an unpleasant responsibility. Maybe hatred brewed in the hearts of the children, watching this underground battle, punished by the resentment of their mother and alienated, bit by bit, from good old Dad. Maybe the dinners she prepared for him—or he for her—were cold and bitterly eaten. Maybe all that unaddressed conflict left both resentful, in a manner unspoken, but effectively enacted. Maybe all that unspoken trouble started to undermine the invisible networks that supported the marriage. Maybe respect slowly turned into contempt, and no one deigned to notice. Maybe love slowly turned into hate, without mention.
Everything clarified and articulated becomes visible; maybe neither wife nor husband wished to see or understand. Maybe they left things purposefully in the fog. Maybe they generated the fog, to hide what they did not want to see. What did missus gain, when she turned from mistress to maid or mother? Was it a relief when her sex life disappeared? Could she complain more profitably to the neighbours and her mother when her husband turned away? Maybe that was more gratifying, secretly, than anything good that could be derived from any marriage, no matter how perfect. What can possibly compare to the pleasures of sophisticated and well-practised martyrdom? “She’s such a saint, and married to such a terrible man. She deserved much better.” That’s a gratifying myth to live by, even if unconsciously chosen (the truth of the situation be damned). Maybe she never really liked her husband. Maybe she never really liked men, and still doesn’t. Maybe that was her mother’s fault—or her grandmother’s. Maybe she mimicked their behaviour, acting out their trouble, transmitted unconsciously, implicitly, down the generations. Maybe she was taking revenge on her father, or her brother, or society.
What did her husband gain, for his part, when his sex life at home died? Did he willingly play along, as martyr, and complain bitterly to his friends? Did he use it as the excuse he wanted anyway to search for a new lover? Did he use it to justify the resentment he still felt towards women, in general, for the rejections he had faced so continuously before falling into his marriage? Did he seize the opportunity to get effortlessly fat and lazy because he wasn’t desired, in any case?
Maybe both, wife and husband alike, used the opportunity to mess up their marriage to take revenge upon God (perhaps the one Being who could have sorted through the mess).
Here’s the terrible truth about such matters: every single voluntarily unprocessed and uncomprehended and ignored reason for marital failure will compound and conspire and will then plague that betrayed and self-betrayed woman for the rest of her life. The same goes for her husband. All she—he—they—or we—must do to ensure such an outcome is nothing: don’t notice, don’t react, don’t attend, don’t discuss, don’t consider, don’t work for peace, don’t take responsibility. Don’t confront the chaos and turn it into order—just wait, anything but naïve and innocent, for the chaos to rise up and engulf you instead.
Why avoid, when avoidance necessarily and inevitably poisons the future? Because the possibility of a monster lurks underneath all disagreements and errors. Maybe the fight you are having (or not having) with your wife or your husband signifies the beginning of the end of your relationship. Maybe your relationship is ending because you are a bad person. It’s likely, at least in part. Isn’t it? Having the argument necessary to solve a real problem therefore necessitates willingness to confront two forms of miserable and dangerous potential simultaneously: chaos (the potential fragility of the relationship—of all relationships—of life itself) and Hell (the fact that you—and your partner—could each be the person bad enough to ruin everything with your laziness and spite). There’s every motivation to avoid. But it doesn’t help.
Why remain vague, when it renders life stagnant and murky? Well, if you don’t know who you are, you can hide in doubt. Maybe you’re not a bad, careless, worthless person. Who knows? Not you. Particularly if you refuse to think about it—and you have every reason not to. But not thinking about something you don’t want to know about doesn’t make it go away. You are merely trading specific, particular, pointed knowledge of the likely finite list of your real faults and flaws for a much longer list of undefined potential inadequacies and insufficiencies.
Why refuse to investigate, when knowledge of reality enables mastery of reality (and if not mastery, at least the stature of an honest amateur)? Well, what if there truly is something rotten in the state of Denmark? Then what? Isn’t it better under such conditions to live in willful blindness and enjoy the bliss of ignorance? Well, not if the monster is real! Do you truly think it is a good idea to retreat, to abandon the possibility of arming yourself against the rising sea of troubles, and to thereby diminish yourself in your own eyes? Do you truly think it wise to let the catastrophe grow in the shadows, while you shrink and decrease and become ever more afraid? Isn’t it better to prepare, to sharpen your sword, to peer into the darkness, and then to beard the lion in its den? Maybe you’ll get hurt. Probably you’ll get hurt. Life, after all, is suffering. But maybe the wound won’t be fatal.
If you wait instead until what you are refusing to investigate comes a-knocking at your door, things will certainly not go so well for you. What you least want will inevitably happen—and when you are least prepared. What you least want to encounter will make itself manifest when you are weakest and it is strongest. And you will be defeated.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.164
(William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”)
Why refuse to specify, when specifying the problem would enable its solution? Because to specify the problem is to admit that it exists. Because to specify the problem is to allow yourself to know what you want, say, from friend or lover—and then you will know, precisely and cleanly, when you don’t get it, and that will hurt, sharply and specifically. But you will learn something from that, and use what you learn in the future—and the alternative to that single sharp pain is the dull ache of continued hopelessness and vague failure and the sense that time, precious time, is slipping by.
Why refuse to specify? Because while you are failing to define success (and thereby rendering it impossible) you are also refusing to define failure, to yourself, so that if and when you fail you won’t notice, and it won’t hurt. But that won’t work! You cannot be fooled so easily—unless you have gone very far down the road! You will instead carry with you a continual sense of disappointment in your own Being and the self-contempt that comes along with that and the increasing hatred for the world that all of that generates (or degenerates).
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
What if she who has been betrayed, now driven by desperation, is now determined to face all the incoherence of past, present and future? What if she decided to sort through the mess, even though she has avoided doing so until now, and is all the weaker and more confused for it? Perhaps the effort will nearly kill her (but she is now on a path worse than death in any case). To re-emerge, to escape, to be reborn, she must thoughtfully articulate the reality she comfortably but dangerously left hidden behind a veil of ignorance and the pretence of peace. She must separate the particular details of her specific catastrophe from the intolerable general condition of Being, in a world where everything has fallen apart. Everything—that’s far too much. It was specific things that fell apart, not everything; identifiable beliefs failed; particular actions were false and inauthentic. What were they? How can they be fixed, now? How can she be better, in the future? She will never return to dry land if she refuses or is unable to figure it all out. She can put the world back together by some precision of thought, some precision of speech, some reliance on her word, some reliance on the Word. But perhaps it’s better to leave things in the fog. Perhaps by now there just isn’t enough left of her—perhaps too much of her has been left unrevealed, undeveloped. Maybe she simply no longer has the energy.… Some earlier care and courage and honesty in expression might have saved her from all this trouble. What if she had communicated her unhappiness with the decline of her romantic life, right when it started to decline? Precisely, exactly, when that decline first bothered her? Or, if it didn’t bother her—what if she had instead communicated the fact it didn’t bother her as much as it perhaps should have? What if she had clearly and carefully confronted the fact of our husband’s contempt for her household efforts? Would she have discovered her resentment of her father and society itself (and the consequent contamination of her relationships)? What if she had fixed all that? How much stronger would she then have become? How much less likely to avoid facing up to difficulties, in consequence? How might she then have served herself, her family, and the world?
What if she had continually and honestly risked conflict in the present, in the service of longer-term truth and peace? What if she had treated the micro-collapses of her marriage as evidence of an underlying instability, eminently worthy of attention, instead of ignoring them, putting up with them, or smiling through them, in such a nice, agreeable manner? Maybe she would be different, and her husband, different too. Maybe they would still be married, formally and in spirit. Maybe they would both be much younger, physically and mentally, than they are now. Maybe her house would have been founded more on rock and less on sand.
When things fall apart, and chaos re-emerges, we can give structure to it, and re-establish order, through our speech. If we speak carefully and precisely, we can sort things out, and put them in their proper place, and set a new goal, and navigate to it—often communally, if we negotiate; if we reach consensus. If we speak carelessly and imprecisely, however, things remain vague. The destination remains unproclaimed. The fog of uncertainty does not lift, and there is no negotiating through the world.
The Construction of Soul and World
The psyche (the soul) and the world are both organized, at the highest levels of human existence, with language, through communication. Things are not as they appear when the outcome has been neither intended nor desired. Being has not been sorted into its proper categories, when it is not behaving. When something goes wrong, even perception itself must be questioned, along with evaluation, thought and action. When error announces itself, undifferentiated chaos is at hand. Its reptilian form paralyzes and confuses. But dragons, which do exist (perhaps more than anything else exists) also hoard gold. In that collapse into the terrible mess of uncomprehended Being lurks the possibility of new and benevolent order. Clarity of thought—courageous clarity of thought—is necessary to call it forth.
The problem itself must be admitted to, as close to the time of its emergence as possible. “I’m unhappy,” is a good start (not “I have a right to be unhappy,” because that is still questionable, at the beginning of the problem-solving process). Perhaps your unhappiness is justified, under the current circumstances. Perhaps any reasonable person would be displeased and miserable to be where you are. Alternatively, perhaps, you are just whiny and immature? Consider both at least equally probable, as terrible as such consideration might appear. Just exactly how immature might you be? There’s a potentially bottomless pit. But at least you might rectify it, if you can admit to it.
We parse the complex, tangled chaos, and specify the nature of things, including ourselves. It is in this way that our creative, communicative exploration continually generates and regenerates the world. We are shaped and informed by what we voluntarily encounter, and we shape what we inhabit, as well, in that encounter. This is difficult, but the difficulty is not relevant, because the alternative is worse.
Maybe our errant husband ignored the dinner conversation of his wife because he hated his job and was tired and resentful. Maybe he hated his job because his career was forced on him by his father and he was too weak or “loyal” to object. Maybe she put up with his lack of attention because she believed that forthright objection itself was rude and immoral. Maybe she hated her own father’s anger and decided, when very young, that all aggression and assertiveness were morally wrong. Maybe she thought her husband wouldn’t love her if she had any opinions of her own. It is very difficult to put such things in order—but damaged machinery will continue to malfunction if its problems are neither diagnosed nor fixed.
Wheat from Chaff
Precision specifies. When something terrible happens, it is precision that separates the unique terrible thing that has actually happened from all the other, equally terrible things that might have happened—but did not. If you wake up in pain, you might be dying. You might be dying slowly and terribly from one of a diverse number of painful, horrible diseases. If you refuse to tell your doctor about your pain, then what you have is unspecified: it could be any of those diseases—and it certainly (since you have avoided the diagnostic conversation—the act of articulation) is something unspeakable. But if you talk to your doctor, all those terrible possible diseases will collapse, with luck, into just one terrible (or not so terrible) disease, or even into nothing. Then you can laugh at your previous fears, and if something really is wrong, well, you’re prepared. Precision may leave the tragedy intact, but it chases away the ghouls and the demons.
What you hear in the forest but cannot see might be a tiger. It might even be a conspiracy of tigers, each hungrier and more vicious than the other, led by a crocodile. But it might not be, too. If you turn and look, perhaps you’ll see that it’s just a squirrel. (I know someone who was actually chased by a squirrel.) Something is out there in the woods. You know that with certainty. But often it’s only a squirrel. If you refuse to look, however, then it’s a dragon, and you’re no knight: you’re a mouse confronting a lion; a rabbit, paralyzed by the gaze of a wolf. And I am not saying that it’s always a squirrel. Often it’s something truly terrible. But even what is terrible in actuality often pales in significance compared to what is terrible in imagination. And often what cannot be confronted because of its horror in imagination can in fact be confronted when reduced to its-still-admittedly-terrible actuality.
If you shirk the responsibility of confronting the unexpected, even when it appears in manageable doses, reality itself will become unsustainably disorganized and chaotic. Then it will grow bigger and swallow all order, all sense, and all predictability. Ignored reality transforms itself (reverts back) into the great Goddess of Chaos, the great reptilian Monster of the Unknown—the great predatory beast against which mankind has struggled since the dawn of time. If the gap between pretence and reality goes unmentioned, it will widen, you will fall into it, and the consequences will not be good. Ignored reality manifests itself in an abyss of confusion and suffering.
Be careful with what you tell yourself and others about what you have done, what you are doing, and where you are going. Search for the correct words. Organize those words into the correct sentences, and those sentences into the correct paragraphs. The past can be redeemed, when reduced by precise language to its essence. The present can flow by without robbing the future if its realities are spoken out clearly. With careful thought and language, the singular, stellar destiny that justifies existence can be extracted from the multitude of murky and unpleasant futures that are far more likely to manifest themselves of their own accord. This is how the Eye and the Word make habitable order.
Don’t hide baby monsters under the carpet. They will flourish. They will grow large in the dark. Then, when you least expect it, they will jump out and devour you. You will descend into an indeterminate, confusing hell, instead of ascending into the heaven of virtue and clarity. Courageous and truthful words will render your reality simple, pristine, well-defined and habitable.
If you identify things, with careful attention and language, you bring them forward as viable, obedient objects, detaching them from their underlying near-universal interconnectedness. You simplify them. You make them specific and useful, and reduce their complexity. You make it possible to live with them and use them without dying from that complexity, with its attendant uncertainty and anxiety. If you leave things vague, then you’ll never know what is one thing and what is another. Everything will bleed into everything else. This makes the world too complex to be managed.
You have to consciously define the topic of a conversation, particularly when it is difficult—or it becomes about everything, and everything is too much. This is so frequently why couples cease communicating. Every argument degenerates into every problem that ever emerged in the past, every problem that exists now, and every terrible thing that is likely to happen in the future. No one can have a discussion about “everything.” Instead, you can say, “This exact, precise thing—that is what is making me unhappy. This exact, precise thing—that is what I want, as an alternative (although I am open to suggestions, if they are specific). This exact, precise thing—that is what you could deliver, so that I will stop making your life and mine miserable.” But to do that, you have to think: What is wrong, exactly? What do I want, exactly? You must speak forthrightly and call forth the habitable world from chaos. You must use honest precise speech to do that. If instead you shrink away and hide, what you are hiding from will transform itself into the giant dragon that lurks under your bed and in your forest and in the dark recesses of your mind—and it will devour you.
You must determine where you have been in your life, so that you can know where you are now. If you don’t know where you are, precisely, then you could be anywhere. Anywhere is too many places to be, and some of those places are very bad. You must determine where you have been in your life, because otherwise you can’t get to where you’re going. You can’t get from point A to point B unless you are already at point A, and if you’re just “anywhere” the chances you are at point A are very small indeed.
You must determine where you are going in your life, because you cannot get there unless you move in that direction. Random wandering will not move you forward. It will instead disappoint and frustrate you and make you anxious and unhappy and hard to get along with (and then resentful, and then vengeful, and then worse).
Say what you mean, so that you can find out what you mean. Act out what you say, so you can find out what happens. Then pay attention. Note your errors. Articulate them. Strive to correct them. That is how you discover the meaning of your life. That will protect you from the tragedy of your life. How could it be otherwise?
Confront the chaos of Being. Take aim against a sea of troubles. Specify your destination, and chart your course. Admit to what you want. Tell those around you who you are. Narrow, and gaze attentively, and move forward, forthrightly.
Be precise in your speech.
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