Although I receive constant reminders of my profound ignorance of almost everything from this little thing we like to call ‘reality’, nonetheless I’m having a bit of a ‘doh!’ moment. My head keeps spinning with frustration over the level of scientific and historical illiteracy evident everywhere, the level of functional innumeracy, when, obviously, those are mere symptoms. People have been screaming the name of the real problem from the rooftops for centuries. I have even heard it, and acknowledged it. Repeatedly.
Few Americans have have any understanding of science or history, no grasp of what a set of numbers might mean, because few Americans have any grasp of reality. Not merely no grasp on the particulars any one of us receives moment by moment through our senses – although even that is clearly lacking – but no grasp of the general principle that there even is an objective reality that doesn’t care how you feel about it.
Somehow, I keep forgetting this grim fact, and waste my time gathering evidence and shaping arguments, as if evidence and arguments will convince anybody except the tiny fraction of people willing to be convinced – OF ANYTHING.
Memento Mori – not just a good idea. It used to be that death, a very real thing that a) happens to everyone, and b) clearly doesn’t care how you feel about it, put some sort of cap or lid on our fantasies. At the very least, even those convinced of their own immortality would (eventually, gratifyingly) die. Reality got the last word, and, more important here, everybody knew reality got the last word.
Now? Death, where is thy sting? Hiding out in nursing homes, hospices, homeless encampments, third world countries – places YOU don’t have to see it or worry about it. This partly explains the freak-out over the d*mn virus: people refuse to consider exactly WHO is dying of this thing. An easily identifiable population sharing one critical trait: they are already dying of something else. That’s why they’re in nursing homes in the first place. But we are not allowed to consider this factor, instead, on the off chance anybody notices the age distribution, it’s sweet, welcoming grandmas who we are killing if we go maskless, or get together with friends, or open a restaurant, or support the wrong political candidate. Which grandma would that be? The comparatively vigorous grandma out gardening in the yard every day? Or, perhaps, the grandma who been stuck in a nursing home, where she will be lying in bed with soaps on the flat screen, drifting in and out of coherence, unable to take care of even her most basic needs, for the last few months of her life?
Have any of these people ever been to a nursing home?
Without any real experience of death in their lives, except as a horrible wrong thing that we need the government to protect us from, the last real tether to reality has been broken.
As I written before (perhaps ad nauseum), I learned a lot from getting to know a large variety of families from very different backgrounds through the school and church. My own families, while closer and experienced in more detail, don’t work as well, in the fish-describing-water sense. One thing that I noticed many times: the family story. Two examples:
I was once having dinner with this ‘blended’ family. The sisters of the mother to two out of the three children were also there. They were discussing an incident from their childhood where one of them got hurt on a trampoline. At one point, they all became, again, little girls: one of them explained that no one was to blame for the accident, and the other two nodded and spoke in agreement. It was clearly a critical part of the story that they all agree on the explanation of where the blame lay, and that this was not the first time this issue had arisen.
This seems, no doubt, utterly trivial, but you had to be there. These three professional women’s whole demeaners and even voices changed, for the brief moment it took to make sure they all agreed to the story. It was clearly very important to them that they agreed, and had been since the time of the incident. This made me wonder what had actually happened. There’s lots more to this picture, mostly centering around how this family also shared a story about how the damage to the children of divorce could be mitigated if not eliminated if all the adults behaved properly. Reality suggested otherwise, in this case.
Next, a tragically more common experience: there was a family with two mutually exclusive stories, one in which divorce was no big deal, and that the one parent acting as if he’d been betrayed was just being a big baby, and that the kids needed to get over it. The other story was, obviously, that this husband had been blindsided and betrayed by an act of wanton, petty selfishness, an act that damaged his and their children’s lives.
Because the stories were incompatible, the kids were forced by the mother to pick one. If they even acknowledged any validity at all of dad’s story, they were cut out of mom’s life. So siblings start by losing their family, then move on to losing each other as they are forced to pick. The price of acceptance was never contradicting the story.
And on and on – once you see this, you can’t unsee it. This buy-the-story-as-the-price-of-membership shibboleth is EVERYWHERE in human lives. At a very base emotional level, we stupid, crazy, damaged humans need our stories, and even more, need our tribes. To belong to the family, and, by extension, the tribe, there are tales we must accept. Comparing those tales to objective reality is suicide in most cases. So we simply don’t – some abstract notion of truth simply can’t prevail over the immediate, visceral need to belong.
The incessant ad hominem attacks on dissenters is exactly this: if you disagree with the story, you are not a part of the tribe or family – and that is problem! No vitriol or imaginative effort is spared in describing the evil that lurks in the hearts of – take your pick: climate change deniers, Trump voters, people who don’t ‘believe’ (note the word choice) that lockdowns are absolutely necessary and are saving millions of lives. Truth? What is that? We just need to know: are you of our tribe, or not?
At least the Yanomami are upfront about it: if you don’t speak our language, you are not human. But we’re certainly gaining ground on this front. Ah, progress!