Practical Philosophy

“Turns to So Many Shades of Grey”

One of the things I’ve started to believe is that it’s very hard to trust people who profess everything with confidence. They know their team will win, they know you’ll pull through, they know everything will work out fine. The also know that a company is great, a person is a hero, and a cause noble.

The reason it’s hard to trust this level of certainty is pretty simple: reality cannot hold it. The world made by human society is many things. But it is not a clean and transparent system in which everyone gets exactly what they deserve, turns out to be exactly what they presented themselves as being, and achieves exactly what they set out to do.

One of the things that annoys young people — generally in their teens and early twenties — about older people is how washed up and apathetic the elders seem. One of the things that annoys older people — those comfortably ensconced in the quiet understanding of advanced age — is how certain and energetically wrong young confidence can be.

If you stay in it a long time and pay attention, you’ll just come to accept and expect that human societies aren’t meritocracies, that right doesn’t always win, and that some times unexplainable and infuriating things happen. This is the nature of the human experience of reality. This is the human condition.

Now I should clarify a few things: there are plenty of young people who aren’t too certain, and plenty of older people who are. Not everyone learns and understands at the same rate, and some people are so desperate to believe unreal things about the world that they simply never learn its nuance.

Another thing that this whole argument — that “what once was black and white turns to so many shades of grey” — can lead people to is a kind of self-satisfied nihilistic apathy. And again I don’t think that’s either necessary or appropriate. I believe deeply that to really change reality you must deeply understand it. I also believe that nuanced understanding and nihilistic apathy aren’t complimentary, or even related. Nihilistic apathy comes from a misreading of nuance for irredeemable brokenness. Nuanced understanding sees that things are never completely broken, nor completely whole. (Relevant: a recent essay about optimism without delusions.)

To change things well, you must really understand them. Where you see anything as a simple story of good vs evil, or black vs white, you’re probably missing something. Look really deeply at the story and chances are good you’ll find some nuanced coloring in there. And while it can be frustrating and disorienting to discover the white turned grey in the short term, it’s the color of truth. And the stable understanding of grey reality is so valuable I guarantee it’s worth it.

OPW, poetry

OPW: What the Uneducated Woman Told Me

Today’s Other People’s Words is a nice–if a little bleak–little poem by Christopher Reid.

That she was glad to sit down.
That her legs hurt in spite of the medicine.
That times were bad.
That her husband had died nearly thirty years before.
That the war had changed things.
That the new priest looked like a schoolboy and you could barely
        hear him in church.
That pigs were better company, generally speaking, than goats.

That no one could fool her.
That both her sons had married stupid women.
That her son-in-law drove a truck.
That he had once delivered something to the President’s palace.
That his flat was on the seventh floor and that it made her dizzy to
        think of it.
That he brought her presents from the black market.
That an alarm clock was of no use to her.
That she could no longer walk to town and back.

That all her friends were dead.
That I should be careful about mushrooms.
That ghosts never came to a house where a sprig of rosemary had
        been hung.
That the cinema was a ridiculous invention.
That the modern dances were no good.
That her husband had a beautiful singing voice, until drink
        ruined it.
That the war had changed things.

That she had seen on a map where the war had been fought.
That Hitler was definitely in Hell right now.
That children were cheekier than ever.
That it was going to be a cold winter, you could tell from the height
        of the birds’ nests.
That even salt was expensive these days.
That she had had a long life and was not afraid of dying.
That times were very bad.



DWQCanadian Geese

“What a fool?!” thought the old man, seeing a young man coming up the path. He wasn’t looking out at the pond. He seemed to see little more than his feet and the dog that would sometimes wander away from him.

“What a fool?!” thought the young man. This grandpa had stopped on the path, put down his walking stick and is taking out his binoculars. Binoculars? There’s nothing to see here through binoculars. Just some geese floating around on the surface of a pond. More of a puddle really.

“I wonder if I should tell him.” After all, this young man doesn’t know the beauty of all that’s around in this park. He doesn’t see the beauty of a recently thawed pond. Or of Canadian geese chasing each other around. If I’d been smart enough to pay attention while my eyes were good I wouldn’t have to be standing here now, large binoculars on my eyes letting me make out the geese clearly.

“I wonder if I should tell him.” After all, some old people don’t mean to be so careless. Maybe he doesn’t mean to block the path. Perhaps he’s just forgotten where he is, and that he’s making it harder for others to walk by. Maybe if he knew, he’d move out of the way, or better yet, keep walking.

“It’s probably not worth it.” He’s young and self-assured, certain that the world is his for conquest and nothing more. He may sometimes notice beauty, but he probably quickly blinks and hopes it will disappear. The young have no time–or think they have no time–for stopping and paying attention to little things, like the geese on this pond.

“It’s probably not worth it.” He’s old and ornery. He’ll probably just think that I’m an ignorant young man who can’t be bothered to walk around him. He’s probably doesn’t care where he is; probably thinks that he’s old so the rules don’t apply to him. After all, he probably always walked to school, up hill both ways, in the freezing snow.

“Then, maybe he knows.” Maybe he’s taking a look at this pond and these geese. And though he may not be getting everything from it, he’s probably getting something.

“Then, maybe he knows.” Maybe he knows that he’s in the way. Maybe that’s the point. Trying to get me and others to take a second and look at what he’s looking at.

“It sure is pretty, this world.”

“It sure is.”