Thursday, April 16, 2009

Lopsided Bubbles, Convoluted Metaphors

My more disgruntled high school friends and I would often talk about what we thought was the pitiful shortsightedness and intellectual isolation of our hometown. To our young minds, our mostly white, mostly rich, mostly conservative community was the pinnacle of a suburbubble: a boring, plebian, un-enlightened, narrow-minded outpost of a non-city that was much too small and much too unsophisticated for we aspiring young urbanites. (It is only a testament to our own shortsightedness that this hometown was a part of a metro area of nearly 2 million people.) So imagine my surprise when I get a bit of experience with places that by this maxim should be much more wise, enlightened, ethnic, and evolved, and find out these places area just as ordinary and disappointingly real as the suburbubble I hoped to escape from. My experience with these urbubbles (urban places that were still boring and narrow-minded, though in different ways) made me question my assumption that any kind of mindedness is dictated by place and collective characteristics. I wasn’t living in a limited sphere of experience and scope because of where I lived, or where I went to school, at least not entirely. It was a light bulb moment for me: I wasn’t living in a suburbubble, I was living in an ego-bubble. My bubble was shaped by my own limitations, opinions, personality traits, and perspective in life much more than it was shaped by any physical address I could ever have. (Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite a light bulb moment. Maybe a lucky striking of the flint, so obvious and caveman-like does this epiphany seem now.)

In another concept that escaped my youthful understanding, real bubbles are always exact spheres because the air inside them exerts force equally in all directions. My personal bubble, however, is not nearly so perfect. I generally only exert force in the directions that I care about. I spend much more time trying to understand and change, for example, my relationship situation than I do trying to understand and change, for example, the situation in Darfur. This lopsided nature of my sphere of care is not at all a good thing: I should try constantly to exert force equally in all directions, to change to size and scope of my bubble, to overcome my baser compulsions. In my pursuit to be a well-rounded person, I must learn that people I don’t physically know can be really real, that sorrow I don’t personally feel can be really sad, and that I can never blame the convoluted shape of my own tiny soap-sphere on any limitations but my own.

It is not in our daily conscience that what matters to us could so easily be so very different. While it is true that intimacy leads to empathy, it is also true that where our intimacy leads our empathy could be a very misguided place. With the advent of the common complaint “FML,” we have only reinforced such unworthy empathy. As much as I hated to hear my mother tell me to get some when I was young and disproportionately tortured, perspective is important. Just because someone close to me dies does not make that death sadder than the death of someone I didn’t even know existed. A tragedy is not made more or less by how it affects me an individual. For example, I recently spilled on my computer and had to buy a new one. Five million people were recently (in the last ten years) killed in the Congo. There is no question as to which event is more objectively sad. There is also no question, awful as this fact may be, which event affected me more personally. We shouldn’t feel every tragedy so deeply that it cripples us, but we should feel them. I must try, as an evolved, intelligent, and empathic human being, to exert more force in the direction of events that are objectively and not just personally sad.

In relation to all the objectively sad things in the world, nothing in my exceptionally blessed life would be worthy of sympathy (and really? It’s not). I have absolutely no reason to say FML, even though sometimes I may feel like I do. And in terms of feeling, in regards to anything as uncontrollable and irrational as human emotion, whatever one feels has value. If a tragedy is more relative to you, of course you will feel more sad about it than you would about one that is not. But rationally, thoughtfully, one must strive to consider events without the limitations of one’s bubble, physical or otherwise. Though our feeling may not be, our action, our force, and our decision (who to support, who to help, who to attack) must be dictated by objective consideration more than personal intimacy and feeling. I don’t need to pop my bubble, but I do need to try to push its rainbow-changing surface into a more spherical shape and its position into a place of greater perspective.

Friday, April 10, 2009

It's Really Something, To Know Nothing About Everything

When I was very young, people told me that when I was eighteen I would think I knew everything about everything, but I would really not know anything about anything. As a young child in league with adults against those crazy teenagers, I always thought, “I’m not like other people. I won’t be like that.” I think this experience is pretty universal. Now that I am that hallowed or horrible age, people still tell me suspiciously frequently that I don’t know anything about anything.

Of course I sound very young in saying this, but: I know I don’t know anything about anything. I know I am young and stupid and foolish and ignorant and arrogant and every other awful-yet-true adjective that can be used to describe young people. I feel that, every day. Why else would I make such poor decisions, do such silly things, and care so much about things that even I can see do not really matter? I use my youth as a crutch; what else can I lean on to prove that my dramatic nature, my critical tendencies, or my difficulty with authority are not deep character flaws but things I will grow out of, like baby teeth or loving Seventeen? If my parents, my relatives, and my teachers had not indoctrinated me with the notion, I would still be aware of just how little I really understand. I don’t claim to know or understand everything, or even much about anything. The only thing I ever claim to come close to understanding is the depth of my own ignorance: I understand that it is infinite, and then some.

I don’t know the capital-T truth about everything, and I may not know it about anything. No one knows everything about everything, the be-all-end-all Truth that quiets all dissenters and squashes all inquisitive young people. Each of us is limited by who we are, as people, as individuals, as Americans, as teenagers, as adults. Our influences, our society, and, yes, our youth all separate us from the capital-T Truth about life and love and existence, and, really, anything. I agree that a truth about any subject as I understand it may be less well-informed, less experienced, or less sophisticated than an older person’s take on the same subject. Mine may be farther from the Truth as it is without human limitations. But as no one can ever consider Truth completely without being held back by his or her own humanness, my truth is still a truth, valid and worthy of consideration like any other. Not the Truth, yes, but a truth nonetheless.

It is my default setting as a person, especially as a young person, to consider the world as it relates to me. I am very tempted to make witty-yet-shallow, true-yet-hurtful comments about anything and everything. As John Green said of a poor review a teen gave of his new book after reading ten pages, “When you are young, you want to make critical judgments on things, and you want to do it quickly.” I do this often, of course. I am very tempted to group things – books, people, concepts, age groups – into Good and Bad, or Smart and Stupid, or True and Not. But, as John Green went on to say, “Reading is not about deciding what is good and what is bad. That’s not even the job of the reader.” I, in my infinite youth, understand this, and I try very hard not to comment until I have thought about a subject at length, devoted much time to it, or read the whole book. Even then, I must remind myself that I can never claim to know what is True or Not. That is not my job as a person. My job as a person is to extend and adjust my view of the world so that it is close to the capital-T Truth as possible, to shake off the limitations of my youth and my humanness, to not need any crutch to lean on. I also need to know that I can never fully accomplish this, and know that others’ truths are just as deep and important and legitimate, if not more so, than my own.

Just like anything with growing up, it is a process, a long and hard journey that never really ends. A journey that includes at least one self-serving rant, at least one snarky/annoying anonymous comment, at least a million Good and Bad good and bad judgments. As much as I would love to be the strong, sure woman people seem to think I am in informing me I know nothing about anything, the closest Truth I have is that I am absolutely, infinitely, still a little girl.