There is a line in Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” that should be a starting point: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find.”
These are two primary foci for our existence: There is the world and there is our mind working on the world. Mind and world, the face and the mirror. The central problem is that the world is incomprehensible, multifarious, immense and unimaginably complicated, self-entwined and raw, while our minds, however brilliant, are puny organizers and pattern-finders. What we believe of the world is what we have been able to make of it, and we are simply not humble enough to recognize the insufficiency.
Take something as basic as sight. We look upon the world and take what we see as something “real,” something actually “out there.” Yet, we know that visible light is such a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, that our human vision is essentially nothing more than the chink of Pyramus and Thisbe, the slat of a Venetian blind lifted to see a wedge of the world outside the window. Other animals are sensitive to different parts of the spectrum, and for them, the world is a different world: The bee sees not the daisy that you or I see.
We know this because human ingenuity has given us instruments that can measure those portions of the wavelengths that we cannot apprehend directly, and proves their existence. But we cannot know them directly: We are too limited. For that matter, so are the instruments.
Also limited are the odors we can smell, the sounds we can hear, the tastes we can enjoy or revile, or, for that matter, the languages we can understand or the names we have for the emotions we feel. And yet, somehow we feel we can say we know the world.
I am constantly amazed at human arrogance in the face of the vast ignorance we daily confront. Perhaps it is unavoidable that we have faith in our senses and our minds, that we believe what we have learned of the world is the way the world in actuality, is. It takes an act of imagination to escape our shortsightedness.
And it is not only the world beyond our skins that escapes us: The conscious mind — that part of ourselves we generally consider to be “us” — is such a small part of what our brains do for us. We are not consciously aware of our guts squeezing the chyme along our bowel, not aware of our capillaries constricting, our irises expanding, our hearts beating faster or slower, depending on the unconscious monitoring of our inner bodily needs. Consider yourself at this very second, sitting or standing. Are you fingers curled? Are you tapping them? Is your head tilted slightly? Are you yawning? Have you sneezed? Did you “decide” to do any of those things? Your body seems to work quite autonomously, and your administration has delegated authority to its constituent parts to act on their own. Let’s face it, you would die if you had to will each heartbeat, each breath, each eye blink: Keeping track of it all would be impossible.
And yet, we have faith in that little voice in our heads that seems to be in charge: It blithely makes assumptions that cannot be justified.
This is not to toss out the little voice: We could not operate in the world if we did not simplify it to our purpose; we would be overwhelmed. We make schemas and function within those schemas quite happily, but are seldom aware of their artificiality.
A good deal of trouble is caused by our unawareness. In politics, for instance, one side believes in pure capitalism, the other in socialism, but each view is only a schema, and takes not into account the great variability of human want, need, ability, and the inevitability of change, both historical and social. Remember feudalism? Monarchy and aristocracy? These were earlier schema, and sustained over centuries, even millennia. One thing might work better at some point, while its opposite might be more functional at another, neither perfectly, while all are always mere band-aids. No human reality can be encompassed by an ideology. They are all simplifications to the point of absurdity.
Republicans who now believe things diametrically opposed to what they had once believed, think that if they can finally pass the laws they want, everything will work like a well-oiled machine from thence onward. Conservatives, who once championed strong central power, now believe the least government is best. (In reality, they believe in whatever will best preserve their own hegemony and wealth and if that changes, so will their ideal of proper government). But in practice, nothing is ideal, nothing is unchanging and perfect: Politics is always ad hoc. It doesn’t fit into cardboard pint containers like so much chop suey.
Religions, political ideologies, psychologies, even science are all such partial schemata and none can be said to encompass all of existence. It isn’t that we should trash all of them, but rather that we should recognize their agendas. And beyond that we should embrace, enjoy and revel in all that is not contained therein. The universe is vast, it contains multitudes. It is this plenitude and fecundity that ultimately sustains us. No system is enough.
What wakes us to the complexity is experience: travel, reading, learning other languages, meeting other people (as a “thou” not an “it”), education, and most of all, the exercise and strengthening of imagination, which all the previous foster. Openness to the world rather than stricture according to ideology or schema. Pulling our turtle heads into the shells of our small perceptions is nothing but retreat.
And whenever possible — and this is the biggest lesson I have swallowed in 68 years on this round, bubbly planet — to love the things of this world. All of it, helter-skelter, unapologetic and enthusiastic, chaotic, overwhelming, incomprehensible and glorious. And recognize our smallness, our ignorance, in the face of it.