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The theme for late autumn here at HP is “Death and Life.”
I was in my twenties when my Dad died. My first Christmas without him was eight months later. If you’d called me to chat, and thought to ask, I’d have told you I was fine. Yet, that Christmas Eve I found myself walking around the dark house. Being haunted. I didn’t see him that night, though I would later. I didn’t hear him. I wasn’t thinking about him, no memories being replayed, nothing like that. I felt him, a profound sense of his presence.
For the next few years I caught glimpses of him. He would be walking along the street as I drove, or just ducking through a door. Most of those times I would look again and the image would become someone else, a man of similar age, build or body language. Those sighting have become less frequent as the years passed.
I don’t believe in ghosts or life after death. I can’t discount it philosophically but I don’t see the need for it to explain the world. Yet I’ve seen a ghost.
The ghosts in the gaps
Many of the things our brains tell us about the world, about the environment outside our heads, are wrong. A minute making love, or eating chocolate, is exactly as long as a minute in the dentist’s chair. The large screen, high-def field of vision you think you have (until you hit your forties and get bifocals) is the result of your brain fooling you. Your brain takes a picture full of holes and gaps and cleans it up, smooths it out.
Still, a minute in the dentist’s chair is longer and I don’t care what the stopwatch says. When I look out of my very own eyes the big screen high-def world is the one I see. That’s the thing about blind spots. You can’t see them. You don’t know they’re there.
Science can tell me what my actual field of vision is, or hold up the stopwatch. I accept those descriptions as accurate, as far as they go. Science can tell me that violence and anger is primarily a function of testosterone and adrenalin, but it does a shitty job of describing what rage feels like, or love, or helping us deal with them. All science can do is tell me they aren’t real. When I need to deal with how it feels to be human from inside the human head, to deal with the ghost, I must turn to art, literature, drama, sport, religion.
The narrative turn
I told this story in a certain way. I could have told it in a way which discounted my experience. I could have told it as pure psychology, with my relationship between my Dad and myself taking center stage. Each of those stories would have been true, as true as the ghost story. Each one is as true as the other, a paradox. In the Tao te Ching those paradoxes are called the Great Mystery. Sociology calls the ability to hold each of these competing ideas simultaneously “ambiguity tolerance”.
There is no need to rank them hierarchically. I do not need to decide which is more true or discount all but one interpretation as untrue, inauthentic. If I were a scientist with a hypothesis and a way of testing it, I would do those things. I would try and find the theory that most allowed me to model and manipulate this phenomenon. But I’m not, we’re not. I am a person that has had an experience and there is more than one way to understand it.
Interpreting an experience is much more like interpreting art than doing science. There are as many ways to interpret a piece of art as there are people.
The blind leading the deaf
Some interpretations will be widely accepted, will resonate with many people. Some will be wildly idiosyncratic. Each will be just as valid for a given individual as the other, but even the most widely accepted won’t work for everyone. Imagine a person blind from birth listening to the movie Star Wars and interpreting that movie without visuals or the visual library each sighted person has built up over a lifetime. Now consider a deaf person watching the same move with subtitles, with only visual cues and the written word.
Each of us takes in life the same way. Our experiences are not findings of fact and do not need to be treated as such. Certain interpretations will have a better chance of being accepted by large numbers of people. The Star Wars sound track played to a black screen would not have been a blockbuster hit. Still, it’s a valid a way to understand the movie. I can yell at the blind people about everything they are missing, but that hardly seems helpful or friendly. It’s also just as likely that they are hearing shades of meaning that totally escape me. Could we have a useful conversation about what we’re seeing/hearing, about those things the other might have missed? If we are open and polite, I hope so. Let’s try.
For discussion: In the comments below, share a time when you experienced something that was not easily explainable by your belief system.
My name is Ken Apple. I am fifty years old, I live in Puyallup Washington with my wife and youngest son. I attend the Tahoma UU congregation in Tacoma, WA. I have worked in book sales for almost twenty years, because I can’t imagine trying to sell anyone something else.
Next Sunday we continue our theme of “Death and Life” with Brock Haussamen, “Seasons and heartbeats”.