I’m finding myself gravitating towards people who stumble around in incomplete sentences, wear uncertainty in their furrowed brow, and wade in a stream of questions. Yes, I’m human, and there are days, often when I’m most tired, that I reach out for clean, clear directives and rules. Resolution. A place in the back of the room where I can keep both the good guys and the bad guys in my line of vision (but where does that leave me?)
It’s an interesting time to talk about truth and certainty. The other night at dinner with my parents my father was venting his frustration about having to provide measurable objectives on the topic of play for a conference he was going to speak at. He was an early childhood educator and his whole mission in life has been to elevate the conversation around play, and show its necessity in a child’s development. My brother and I, being the analysts that we are, probed him to think about his research, which has mostly been observing kids in his classroom and writing about it, as science. No, he didn’t have controls or any sort of formal process but he was, in a way, doing what scientists do: trying to understand through observation.
Play, he kept saying, is not a thing but rather a way of being – as important as food and sleep for children. It is the vehicle in which they learn about the world and themselves. This is not quantifiable, he kept urging. Finally, after my brother and I spouted off various examples of scientific studies with quantifiable objectives and measurements that have led to better outcomes, my dad refined his position. It was the certainty in which we’ve come to rely on data (which we all agreed was not the same as science) that is a problem. To which we all agreed. To which we lamented that for some reason in our culture people tend to trust the person who is speaking with the most confidence and certainty.
Or, we latch on to words spoken by someone that confirms our ideas and beliefs.
Both are blinding.
I recently finished Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio. For me, this fascinating collection of essays has no real binding theme except for the questioning of language, noting its limitations when used to expound truth and certainty. His essays show the ways that we distance ourselves from understanding, or from accepting that we don’t understand, through language.
In one of the essays D’Ambrosio writes about the Mary Kay Letourneau trial which he attended. The essay was not to form an opinion of Mary Kay Letourneau and whether what she did was right or wrong, but rather an observation of how she was described by the media and experts. He writes “What I wonder about is language, about what gets lost when laypeople concede the control of words to clinicians, scientists, lawyers, etc., which is, silicate, the rich, supple instrumentation of language that makes it an encounter with reality, that lets it reach into everything, into every little part of life, and now in this case a circle had formed and experts with fixed language were returning Letourneau to a fixed state, and doing so by excluding, again and again, notions that were not naturally a part of their descriptive vocabulary, like love.”
He reiterates this notion on the last page of the essay: “Anyway, you could see the day of the sentencing, as experts in psychology and sociology and law summed up and asserted their positions, how language was being leveraged, how each fragmented field with its highly specific problem-solving vernacular was in a way carting off pieces of Letourneau, and how in the end there was nothing left of the very thing she had probably hoped would unify her shattered life, this elevated, fanatical rule-exempt, healing notion of love.”
D’Ambrosio was not vested in any particular opinion – he didn’t work for anyone that required a certain outcome to this case. In not having to prove anything he was left to see what was missing. And it’s what’s missing that seems to be the thing that keeps us headlong toward certainty. “Abstract love is the nosy neighbor of abstract hate” he writes in another essay. “If you can love abstractly, you’re only a bad day away from hating abstractly.” Both allow you to operate at a distance where details (a.k.a real life) are impalpable.
D’Ambrosio’s call to arms is so stunningly simple (and yet so difficult to implement in real life): wake up. Don’t impair your senses and experience with language. Those come first, then language. I think that’s what my dad was trying to say too. He was warning us about self-imposed limits. About how more often than not we miss the very thing we are trying to measure because we cut ourselves off from it. We stop playing.
That there are times when we are called to be strong and certain against hate or injustice is not lost on me. But I wonder everyday whether we are all complicit in this confounding time we’re in. That rushing to judgements and opinions before we’ve experienced that situation or asked any questions, even if we mean well, has come at a high cost: D’Ambrosio says in another essay “For me, borrowing from Isaiah Berlin, another writer intimately aware of history, diversity (or plurality) is an answer to the central twentieth-century historical problem of radical subjectivity. Accumulating enough subjectivities – setting them against each other – is as close as we’re going to come to objectivity, and this is why agreement is problematic: What’s the point of being right if it’s only safety in numbers? The history of being right and how wrong it’s turned out to be is a long one.”
I’m drawn to D’Ambrosio’s way of moving through the world. It elevates a way of being that is mostly discouraged. It’s a respite to read these essays and see someone holding two or more conflicting views at the same time. Someone who is using their platform to show confusion. To read a book that relinquishes the facade of resolutions. However dizzying and discouraged this way of being is, it seems to be the most humane.
And, ultimately, as D’Ambrosio puts it: “You don’t really want to crash down the whole universe just to satisfy your situational unease or your incapacity to see the whole picture, do you? You don’t want a life based on your failure to understand life, right?”