No Ledge

I was reading a philosophy book recently and stumbled upon a random line break. The word “knowledge” jumped to another page, splitting into “know-ledge.” This led me to “no ledge,” a metaphor expressing the essence of knowing as I’ve approached it since college.

Pragmatic people see education as building a foundation of facts and figures, a baseline for measuring objective truths. They think that learning enhances mastery over the world, that it’s a tool used to increase confidence and stability.

But dynamic thinking is all about vertigo and disorientation. It’s a shock to your system. Searching for a different angle, you look out the window of your high-rise apartment and find there is no ledge. How far will you stick your neck out to glimpse what lies below?

Most people venturing into the unknown have a fallback plan that maintains the status quo. If things get too scary, they retreat to their comfort zones. Thoughtful people ask serious questions with no clear solutions. Excited by the prospects of deeper truths, we devote our lives to following ideas wherever they lead. Sometimes we have to catch ourselves before tumbling all the way down.

Really Messy

I just completed my second semester as a volunteer literacy tutor at my local high school for adult students for whom English is a second, third, or fourth language. This term I tutored a factory worker from Belarus named Dzmitry. It sounds cliche but over the last ten weeks I learned a lot more than I taught.

It was clear from the start that Dzmitry likes to ask questions. He craves knowledge, wants to know why, desires the bigger picture. But he often meets resistance.

“People don’t like me asking questions,” he said, half-amused, half-resigned. “And I have many questions.”

After hearing this, I took it upon myself to let Dzmitry ask away. We never rushed through assignments but instead picked apart paragraphs and sentences, words and syllables. He wanted to overcome his accent. I told him it is part of him, that it’s nothing to hide. Above all, I gave him the freedom to inquire, to seek both the trees and the forest.

I was thrilled to find someone comfortable with uncertainty. Life is really messy and there’s a lot of shit to dig through, but it’s great when someone offers you a shovel and you take it.

Grays Matter

My father told me that the man who, when alone, can keep his mind busy with great ideas, is wise beyond measure.  He also said that different views on the same subject should be laid side by side, and that countering concepts can reside in a single mind.

I’ll admit that these lofty ideals didn’t affect me much when I first heard them.  Over the years, though, I’ve begun to understand what my dad meant.  In some of my darkest moments, times when I’ve felt totally lost and alone, I turned to art, which professes by its mere presence that there’s no Answer, only questions rife with possibilities.

Music, literature, movies, TV shows–various forms of expression that remind me of the complexity of existence–this is my salvation on earth.  Life’s not all black and white, the adage goes, and I agree.

For me grays matter.