Lately, unless you are completely unplugged from media (social and otherwise), you cannot escape politics and the near-constant flood of Trump/Clinton stories, along with analysis of and heated opinions about these stories, followed by arguments about said analyses and opinions. I’ve found myself reading (sometimes against my better judgment) long threads of arguments in the comments sections of people’s Facebook posts about one candidate or the other. There have been a few instances where this has been genuinely informative and given me some good things to think about and investigate. But mostly this has been, for lack of a better term, a huge bummer, albeit a fascinating bummer.
The bummer part is how deeply entrenched most people seem to be in their current position and worldview, and how completely unwilling many of them are to allow for even the slightest possibility that they might be wrong, or that they might not know as much as they seem to think they know, or that the way they’re thinking and coming to conclusions might be flawed. There are a lot of people out there who are absolutely certain they know what is true, and everyone who disagrees or doesn’t think like they do is a fool and/or terrible person and/or insert-dismissive-all-encompassing-generalization-here. It’s as though they have coated their reality in Teflon, and nothing that might contradict or add even the slightest shade of grey can penetrate. Or at least that’s my perception—one that can make me want to plug my ears and close my eyes and hide out in some cave until after the November election.
On the other hand, I also find all of this behavior fascinating because it gets me thinking and wondering about all kinds of interesting things, which is something I happen to enjoy. For example, are people really more entrenched in their worldview/rightness now than, say, fifty years ago, or does it just seem that way because of social media and the fact that we are exposed to so many more people’s opinions than we were when we had to talk to each other directly or just read a few angry letters in the newspaper? Is the flood of information we now have access to making people feel more knowledgeable and informed (even though some of that ‘knowledge’ is specious), and that’s part of the problem?
It also makes me think about the nature of reality, which is often far more fluid and difficult to nail down than most people like to acknowledge. I’m not talking about pure relativism here. I actually believe that there are some absolutes and fixed realities in the universe. But what I question is our capacity to actually perceive and correctly interpret these absolutes and realities.
When I was in college, I borrowed a book from my brother to read on a long flight called Hyperspace by Michio Kaku. It was my first introduction to a physics that I actually found interesting, high school physics seeming to consist mostly of math equations, which I did not enjoy at all. I don’t remember much from that book as it’s now been over 20 years since I read it and my brain doesn’t hold on to information like that very well, but one thing I clearly remember was Kaku’s discussion about various dimensions whose existence has been mathematically proven by really smart people. However, these dimensions remain in the theoretical realm as we simply don’t have the capacity to physically perceive them. To illustrate this, he gave an example of a two-dimensional stick figure drawn on a piece of paper. If a three-dimensional ball were to pass through the paper, the two-dimensional man would only see a point stretching into small circles, widening to larger circles, then constricting back into smaller circles back down to a point. He would then run around excitedly to his friends, telling them about this weird phenomenon of circles and points, not understanding or having the capacity to conceive of something entirely different. Namely, a ball.
This kind of blew my mind, which is probably why I remember it and nothing else, because it gave me a metaphor for my interaction with all of reality. How often, I wondered, did I only see a small and distorted part of the whole, interpreting the fragment I could perceive and classifying it as something that was completely other from what it really was? When it came to my understanding of God, it was easy for me to say that that was probably true 99% of the time. But what if that were true for other aspects of my life—my perception of the people around me, of situations I was in, my understanding of the world around me, my perception of myself? In a way, I have my older siblings to thank for being open to the possibility that I might be wrong or have incomplete knowledge on a regular basis. Growing up, they were always smarter than I was, more knowledgeable, and if I ever brought up a memory of something none of them remembered, I was told that I had “dreamed it.”
The more education I’ve had and the more I’ve read, watched, listened to, and people I’ve engaged with, the more I realize how regularly I’m wrong, whether it’s in assuming something based on not much of anything or seeing only a part of the picture. For example, for the past two years, I’ve been reading through the book of Genesis and Exodus with two friends, one of whom is an Old Testament scholar. Stories that have been long familiar to me, that I’ve assumed I’ve fully understood, have become completely new to me due to this friend’s knowledge of ancient near eastern culture, the Hebrew language (and the wordplay often at work in OT literature), and the careful attention to detail and analysis of those details by both friends. Another example: assuming that systemic racism wasn’t really a thing these days except in some isolated circumstances, then reading article after article, historical and statistical documentation, personal narratives, literature, watching documentaries, plays, etc. that have completely contradicted that assumption.
What I am realizing more and more as I get older (and, hopefully, a little wiser) is that the closest we can get to a complete truth or reality is through a multiplicity of sources and people, and disagreeing ones, at that. Such tensions, rather than posing a threat, actually open the way to understanding something greater than our pea-brains can conjure all by themselves. In discussing reality and poetry, Christian Wiman asserts that with the greats, there is “some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals—and it does feel like revelation—a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see.” He goes on to refer to what physicists call “quantum weirdness.” I explored that term for myself and came across an article in the NY Times, which explains this phenomena through an experiment involving electrons being fired at a screen. Through various tests and under different conditions, the electrons behave in baffling ways, pointing to completely contradictory conclusions about the known physical realities of electrons. The author concludes, “What this research implies is that we are not just hearing different ‘stories’ about the electron, one of which may be true. Rather, there is one true story, but it has many facets, seemingly in contradiction.”
Our country could learn a thing or two from physics—namely, that the person we disagree with most might have an important piece of the whole. Might they also be repugnant and offensive to us in some way and maybe wrong about a lot of stuff? Absolutely. But to dismiss what contradicts or offends us entirely risks dismissing a facet of the truth, keeping us stick figures stuck on a page instead of fully alive to the world around us. Reality, then, is most complete in community—not just with those who are like us, but those completely other.