So What's it all About Anyway?


“A writer ought not to be an opinion-machine… The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is, full of many different claims and parts and experiences.” — Susan Sontag

There's always been a fine line separating what we choose to see of the world from how it really is. In truth, a human eye can see less than 1% of all light shaping our worlds. Yet despite this limited vision, the backbone to creativity resides in an ability to skate across these enigmatic lines into the realm of some other unknown reality. Whether it delights or even disturbs, this idea of grasping for unknowns nurtures an abitlity to learn rather than simply react. Although the process can seem like a mysterious one — often keeping itself hidden from plain view — with measures of patience and curiosity to skate across these enimatic lines we can nurture deeper perspectives about our all too fallable human condition. Yet despite how dedicated we may be to this pursuit, there's an increasing tendency for us to default into predetermined categories that avoid the difficult, unknown contexts around us. We create mindless assumptions about the motivations of ones and others — whether righteous or not — while suffocating an ability to expand on them further. In her studies on mindfulness Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer argues, "We make them [our categories of seeing] mindfully, and then we start to use them mindlessly, forgetting that... we’re people." Seeing is “the simple act of actively noticing things”.

Theodor Lipps

Theodor Lipps

Although we are often encouraged to process what we see as immediate, emotional experiences — ones that we often sleep-walk through — to deeply see (what Theodor Lipps called Einfühlung or empathy) is to move beyond these initial categories and experiences. This may sound like a call to extinguish mysticisms or daydreams (which is not entirely wrong), but at its core is an active process that builds a more vivid picture of the histories and the values shaping us — beyond just reactions. The process of 'other' thinking remains active in its curiosity to read more and to learn about the inherent duplicities shaping how we see things. It forms a creative approach to the cultural legacies of both our past and present, right and left, or simply one and other. What can emerge from it are the larger reflections on the worths and wants that inhabit our moral dilemmas.

Seeing is “the simple act of actively noticing things”

William of Ockham

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Oil painting Justus Sustermans, 1635.

For centuries thinkers have explored different approaches to liberate us from the dilemmas of binary thinking that often govern decisions by rote. From ideas like Occam's Razor and the Anti-Razor's, to Feynman's Cargo Cult Science, to Galileo's tenets of thinking, to Anatol Rapaport's rules of debate, or the epic masterpieces of the modernist artists, each in their own way insist on acknowledging a certain kind of ignorance as the departure points for learning. In other words, how can we learn anything if we know everything already. The mistakes we make and the unknowns we struggle with are essential to discovering the bigger picture we are trying to better understand. For many of us, we often treat the works of our ancestors as either oddities or just inherited parts of a cultural scenery, left to be unexamined. Yet their value resides in an ability to understand how past cultural evolutions, social mores, and technological influences emerged and shaped our human condition. What makes Occam's Razor, Galileo's theories, Virginia Woolf's fevered writings, or Feynman's work so vital is that they remind us of a world and an evolution that we often take for granted. Their artworks or inventions as objects remain less vital to us than the thinking behind them — a creative urge to see past the default categories into other times and places. Their works have come to represent not the obvious surface of things, but the power that lies hidden beyond the familiar and obvious. After all, as Marilynne Robinson wrote, "the beautiful persists, and so do eloquence and depth of thought, and they belong to all of us because they are the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us." Her words capture the spirit of wonder that searches across the seemingly mundane to discover our connecting cords, despite the fear to realize what they may hold. "Do not obey in advance" argues historian Timothy Snyder, look longer and see more. And what more could it be all about?

— michael graf