Perhaps I am too much a student of Tim O’Brien, but I believe that the purpose of stories, literal or otherwise, is to contain truth. In his magnificent opus, The Things They Carried, O’Brien gave us the truth of being a soldier during the Vietnam War. It did not much matter that many of the things in his book were not literal events, because they contained the rich truth of that experience. Stories shine when they convey a truth of experience too big for simple events.
Which is not to say events do not matter. There is another, related role for stories: to provide context for the world in which we live. They are foils for everything we see and experience, catalogues of sensation and emotion, especially and personally constructed to anchor us on deep, shifting sands. So we would like our stories to feel true, in Tim O’Brien’s sense, and also be true, in a more literal sense. And yet, we also conflate those two.
The overwhelming scientific consensus is that human-caused climate change is real, ongoing, and extremely dangerous. For those who missed the most recent data point, February of 2016 was the hottest temperature anomaly in recorded history. That, on top of us having racked up most of the hottest overall years on record during the past decade. And yet, somehow, there are still intellectually dishonest people who stand up and argue that climate change isn’t happening, or maybe isn’t so bad, or maybe will just not be a problem because we’ll adapt (or something, and who needs those ecosystems anyway).
It’s enough to make you want to give up. What’s the point in trying to stop climate change when we keep electing people who are happy to disbelieve it? Isn’t it basically inevitable at this point? Realistically, we’ll be lucky if we can all agree that it’s real before we pass the point of no return, let alone do anything about it.
But I think that’s a pretty dangerous point of view.
I find boundaries deeply entrancing. The twilight steps between darkness and light, the long ridges between peak and swale, the blurry lines between solid ideas: no matter the subject, I am drawn to the edges. The gradients from one thing to the next often tell me more than the things themselves.
I regularly indulge my affinity for boundaries through exploring caves or hiking mountains, but I am equally interested in exploring the boundaries of knowledge. We spend so much of our discourse on a pendulum between certainties, swinging on a distant focal point in search of equilibrium. The central node of an idea holds some sway, but for me, it is only an anchor. It is a beacon for measurement, a view from which to survey the world, but not a place to stay. The interesting things happen farther out, in the wilderness between here and there.
Some seem to think the purpose of discourse is to draw our collective knowledge into orbit around a core, ideally rejecting alternatives as small-minded, irrelevant, or wrong. I think we ignore the oscillation when we need it most, arguing for the extremes when we really need equilibrium. By arguing for the extremes and ignoring the long fuzzy boundary between, each position starts to define the middle as part of some other extreme. We become hyper-focused on the longest amplitude of the pendulum’s every swing, but in so doing we lose awareness of the swing itself.