Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Thousand Fibers...

"We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men."
-Herman Melville

Consider for a moment the way in which you define your existence. OK, I realize that this is a pretty lofty concept, so let me clarify.

You may define yourself as a brother, a father, a musician, or a friend. You may be tall, you may be thin, you may be completely average. All of these adjectives comprise your definition. Alone, these descriptions do not surmise your existence, yet collectively and in context - each aspect of how you are perceived is "you". These items may be how you see yourself, how others see you, or some combination thereof. They may be accurate, they may be a complete misrepresentation, but either way, perception is reality. You are the perception of you.

Now that you have a list of adjectives that describe "you", consider how those descriptors position you in the world. No matter what you are, no matter how you are defined - the reality of "you" is wholly reliant on the people and the context that surrounds you. Think about it this way - without a sibling, how can you be a brother? In order to be tall, there has to be a short counterpoint to which you are compared. In order to be man, there must be woman to be distinguished from. In order to be alive, there must be death. Without other people, we would not have any context for which to define our own existence.

I heard an episode of RadioLab this week that discussed the origin of the numeral zero. The unit originated in India - in order to define "nothingness", Indians literally encircled the void, thus creating the symbol for nothing. The only way to define "nothing" is to compare it to something. Try to describe a hole in the ground. You might describe the dirt that makes up the walls or the depth of the floor. You might describe the hole as dark, or cold, both adjectives that describe the light and the atmosphere, not the hole itself. The hole does not exist as separate from the ground that surrounds it and the air within.

I have been thinking a great deal about the way we define the world around us, especially as it in turn defines each of us. All too often we seek to define people based on our own preconceived notions or definitions and, in doing so, we lose the unique elements that lie behind the broad labels. We strive to be defined as unique, so we cast off labels that group us. We attempt to understand, so we confine complex beings in overly-simplistic, often dismissive labels.

In order to truly grasp the nature of any person, a balance must be struck between the application of labels and the understanding of intentions. Generalizations are inevitable, but generalizing with arrogant dismissal of the humanity that lies beneath that stereotype is what creates animosity, vitriol, and intolerance. Generalities are essential to perception, but should be where the conversation starts, not where the conversation ends.

A Renaissance Man seeks full understanding with humility - realizing the finite knowledge he possesses. To assume that you fully understand anything is to overestimate your capacity for comprehension and underestimate that which you seek to know.

“True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.”


Socrates knew that the world is made up of infinite perceptions, ever changing with our evolving views of reality. To assume absolute truth is to dismiss the world around.



  1. If you get a chance, read two books: _Zero_ by Charles Seife regarding the origin of zero and what it makes possible; _Trumpet_ by Jackie Kay regarding the inability of language to properly identify people.

  2. Both of these sound awesome - I will check them out.

    Thanks for reading, and thanks for the book reference!