Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Living approximately

     A couple of weeks after the tragic events at the 2013 Boston Marathon, the airwaves were still buzzing with speculation about the two alleged bombers and their respective motivations. Much of what was said about the two, especially the surviving younger suspect, reminded me of commentary I'd heard following other unexpected and violent incidents. These comments might be fairly paraphrased in this fashion: "He was such a quiet kid, never caused any trouble… I can't believe he could do something like this."

     Having heard this refrain so often, it made me start thinking about the way we all live approximately, especially in relation to our fellow human beings. There are a limited number of things we can be absolutely certain about in our lives, and knowing for sure what is in the hearts and minds of other people -- even those near and dear to us -- is not one of them.

    Because none of us are mind readers (as much as some phony-baloney stage magicians and self-annointed "psychics" might like us to believe otherwise), we can only ever guess at what is going on in others' heads. Some of us are better at it than others, able to pick up on verbal and visual cues and "tells". To be sure, the closer we are to someone, the more time we spend with them, and the more we can observe their actions and compare those actions to their words, the closer we can get to a pretty good sense of what those people are truly thinking and feeling. Some people -- those who, as the old saying goes, "wear their hearts on their sleeves" -- make it a little bit easier for us to know their intentions. But… it will only ever be just a sense, an approximation in other words, and never a certainty.

    When you start thinking about it that way, it's somewhat... unnerving. 

    It's probably one of the reasons that the telepath (and, to a lesser extent, the empath) is such a beloved archetype in fantasy and science fiction. The idea of being able to be absolutely certain of what someone else is thinking -- and the corollary, as well (being able to make what one is thinking absolutely clear to another person via a direct mind-to-mind connection) -- must resonate with some deep, yearning, vulnerable aspect of our selves.

    But, much like the way we take our lives in our hands every time we drive our cars in traffic, where we depend on the general truth that most of our fellow drivers are actually going to obey the rules of the road and are not out to deliberately target us, we go through life accepting that we can only ever have a partial, approximate understanding of even the closest friend or mate… and yet we are able to move forward, even through that fog of uncertainty. I think it speaks volumes about the inherent flexibility, adaptability,  and resilience of the human animal, that we are not simply paralyzed by the sea of "maybes" we must wade through in our lives. -- PL

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