Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Not Really About Science

So I know I haven't posted in a while, but I got to journaling a bit in an effort to process a few things I'm going through, and this is what came out. I'm sharing it here because it started with a vaguely sciency bent even though it quickly got way off that track. Enjoy.

Our senses provide only an imperfect representation of the world around us. With our native ability, we can only perceive a sliver of the information that is truly out there to behold. Not only is the visible spectrum of light minuscule relative to range of frequencies at which photons bombard us, but we can only pick up changes in intensity when you actually slide up or down by something like an order of magnitude. We have to use logarithmic-scale sensitivity to interpret an infinite range of variability. 

So how do we make sense of anything? Our brains try to fill in gaps. We take pieces of information and sew them together into a poorly sketched cartoon version of the reality around us. Our brains actually lie to us, telling us that there is sense to be made in the static, that there is a reliable signal when there isn't. We lay that cartoon over the world like a blanket, and sometimes we miss the pitfalls before us, or there's a mound under the blanket where we don't have a picture of anything. It's what makes illusion possible, what makes M.C. Escher paintings so disorienting; we forget, when we really fall into such traps, that the Escher is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional imagining, and our eyes lead us in uncomprehending circles. 

When this happens, we have choices. First, we can ignore the discrepancy between reality and our cartoon-embroidered blanket. We can take no action and go on as we were, tripping or falling or stubbing our toes occasionally, and maybe it isn't a big deal because our blankets are comforting and it doesn't happen too often. Second, we can plant a flag to pin the blanket to the mound or draw a circle around the hole, label a thing with our best understanding of what's there, be eternally wary of that spot, perhaps even try to find similarities in setting and context to other spots like it. Maybe we'll even make up a story, draw constellations using stars further apart than they are from us and imagine a connection, or simply say the night's sky is a black sheet penetrated by pinholes that separates us from God's grace. But all that does is create another cartoon. These paths lead false assumptions to become rigid beliefs and can result in cognitive dissonance. 

No, if we want to do the rewarding hard work, we can take the third option. Investigation, analysis, testing. We observe what we can and we circle around to look from other angles; we find things we cannot see using our hands, things we cannot hear using our eyes, and so on. Having such imperfect instruments as our senses, our brains require more to really have an understanding of things. We need use all the tools we have, and make more. We apply the microscope, the telescope, and we cut apart audio recordings. Not good enough! We direct electrons through a vacuum into copper in order to generate radiation, so that we can shine 1% of that light we cannot see through an object onto a backdrop and have a visual representation of variances in density within the thing . . . fractured bones, perhaps, or dental cavities. We need sonar, the oscilloscope, the mass spectrometer, the electron-microscope, magnetic resonance imaging, every tool we can dream up, each an achievement stunning in it's complexity, to help us more fully understand our place in things. But, even with these, our picture of reality is incomplete.  

I use all of the above to explain my mindset in how I navigate relationships. It informs my personal philosophy on people. I never really feel like I've reached a conclusion in understanding someone because I understand that my picture of them is a caricature, or a sketch, or at best, a portrait capable of demonstrating how beauty is supported by imperfection. Whatever my picture, I know it lacks a certain depth, and is skewed by my own experiences in like situations and by where I was in my own journey when I painted it. I understand that there's a chance maybe that the proportions of the rough outlines I scribbled down early on, which set the tone for the rest of the piece, were skewed by a bad first impression or by something in me, or maybe a bad experience threw mud across the surface rendering it forever ugly to look upon. So I investigate, I analyze, I test. 

When dealing with people, I work hard to assume no ill will unless it is openly stated, but I also must admit that I think most people are horrible, inconsiderate creatures, acting much of the time out of instinct or pride or fear; they are not malicious, but unaware of the harm they can do to others with a careless word or of how much their own selfishness may underlie their motives. But being short-sighted and lacking introspection does not make anyone worthy of unkindness. If you want to improve a rocky relationship, you give more than is fair. You build mutual trust by demonstrating trust. You build mutual respect by demonstrating respect. You do the hard work and you build better tools, learn better ways to communicate about yourself and about what you perceive, better ways to draw out clarity about others' intentions. It is hard work, no doubt, but it is rewarding.

You might think you understand someone's actions or their perspective, but I guarantee the information you have is incomplete, and somewhere or other you are filling the gaps with cartoons that approximate your understanding. Maybe a friend was close to you for a time and the relationship soured in some way. Maybe you saw what looked like solid evidence that you had been betrayed. But how do you know betrayal was the intent? We tell ourselves stories about people, about what they think of us, about what they thought their actions would mean to us, and how we approach (or avoid) that person forever thereafter is influenced by the stories we tell ourselves. Your assumptions, your false picture, can lead you in circles. For families, this can lead to a devastatingly difficult to buck trend that can last decades. 

Be careful in your stories. Be careful in your assumptions. Accept that you are imperfect, that you act sometimes out of instinct or pride or fear more than rationality or altruism, and that words you may not remember saying can leave lasting damage. People mistreat each other enough without our adding to their emotional injuries, so I'd rather we broke the pattern than reinforce it. Be kind to the people around you, and when someone hurts you, take whatever space you need but continue to be kind while you address it, especially if the person is important to you or to others you care about. Understand that some  portion of their true story is hidden from your eyes, that their story of you may be a fairground caricature, and do your best to show them their error with gentleness and patience. 

The hard work is worth it, I promise you, and the world will be an unquestionably better place for it.