I get a lot of mail from people I don’t know very well (or at all). The subjects are all over the place. Some people write to say they enjoy reading what I write. A few send me nasty messages. One woman was writing love messages about me on her blog and then sending me links. A flight attendant based in Philadelphia wrote to say that she didn’t agree with me about anything politically, but she had fallen in love with me from reading anyway.
A surprisingly large number of people make personal observations about me, based on what they read here and what they see of me on my open Facebook page. I got two messages over the weekend, though, that were sort of thesis and antithesis.
“I love reading what you post because you’re always so happy and nice to everybody,” one woman wrote, in part. “You’re smart and tough, but I can tell you’re really happy and love the world.”
“I’m thinking this inbox is a bit overdue,” a man wrote. “You seem angry lately. I actually prefer angry David vs. disinterested David … angry David remains rational in his anger.”
Both messages had additional content, but these parts stuck out to me. One person sees me as happy. Another person sees me as angry. Which is true? And what could account for people coming to such strongly different conclusions?
I’ve written before about the fact that the human mind will always be the weak link in communication, so I already believe that it’s pretty much impossible for me to accurately convey to you the precise thought I want to convey. I lose some of the message in the encoding into language and then more of it is lost when you decode it slightly differently than I meant.
But let’s assume here that one person is accurately seeing anger and another is accurately seeing love and happiness. Which do I feel?
I feel a lot of things. I feel happiness, anger, joy, rage, frustration, love, desire, need, wonder and a million other things. I seem to feel a very wide range of emotions, and a lot of times I feel out of step with the world as a result. (“I am an emotional man, emotional man with obsolete feelings,” wrote Mark Heard in a song he wrote in the ’80s that I always identified with.)
I feel many different things — about the world, about people, about my life. They’re contradictory things at times. I rage against a large chunk of the human race. I don’t especially like people in many cases. But I also have an intense desire to help make the world a better place, for those people and the ones to come in the future. I’m angry at people who don’t understand things in the same ways I do. I’m angry at people who assert the right to control others (including me) without any moral reason, but at the same time I understand them. I know why they believe what they believe. I think they mean well, for the most part. I see both sides.
I can see flaws in someone I love and see things that hurt me, yet at the same time, an understanding of the person makes the flaws irrelevant. It’s not that they don’t exist anymore. It’s simply that I hold contradictory pieces of information about people and places and things — and I can know that the truth isn’t in any one discrete piece of information. The truth is in the synthesis of the seemingly contradictory pieces.
When I was younger, I didn’t understand what F. Scott Fitzgerald meant when he wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” But at this point, I don’t know any other way to think. Contrary to what Fitzgerald said, I don’t think it’s about intelligence. I think it’s more about the willingness to feel things and not be overwhelmed by the seeming contradictions. It’s about withholding judgement even in some cases where it would be easy to judge prematurely.
At the risk of making it too complicated, understanding the world is something of a Hegelian dialectic. At least, that’s one model to use in understanding it. You take a thesis and then the antithesis responds, so to speak. They can’t both be true, according to typical western logic, but somehow the truth emerges out of a synthesis of the two contradictory ideas.
I’ve come to see the world as a wonderful place and a terrible place at the same time. When I see the beauty and wonder, it’s not that I don’t see the ugly parts. When I’m in despair over the horrors of the world, it’s not that I suddenly deny the good parts. Instead, I’m looking at the innocence of life and also looking at the stark reality of death and loss — and I’m looking for what’s true between those extremes.
Both innocence and death are real. It’s not that truth is somehow found in finding an average between them. The truth is found in something that’s real across the board. It’s found in the emotions. It’s found in love and being loved. It’s found in experiencing beauty and the warmth of being understood by someone else.
As I was thinking about the two messages I got over the weekend, I was reminded of an old song by Pat Terry that addresses seeing both sides of life. In a song called “Man of Steel,” on the 1984 album, “The Silence,” Terry wrote:
It’s a typical day for the man of steel
A little happy and a little bit sad
Seems like a reasonable way to feel
For a man in a world gone mad
There’s a baby that’s bouncing on his daddy’s knee
Grinning like the world’s his own
There’s a Cadillac climbing a cold, dark hill
To a grave with a fresh-placed stone
And the man of steel has a gleam in his eye for the innocent one
And the man of steel has a lump in his throat for a loved one gone
And the man of steel has hope in his heart for anyone
Who can see what’s true between the two and carry on
Later in the song, he adds:
And the man of steel has a lump in his throat for a world gone wrong
And the man of steel has a gleam in his eye for the one whose despair is gone
And the man of steel has hope in his heart for anyone
Who can sing a clear and truthful song
Who can hear a lie and still be strong
Who can see both sides and still decide to carry on
I see both sides. I see “a world gone wrong,” but I also see the joy in those “whose despair is gone.” The world is a wonderful, terrible place. When I look at my own life, I see things I hate and desperately want to improve, but I also see things that make me love life — and that make me have hope for the future.
So who was right of the two people who wrote to me and saw very different things? Both. And neither. Notice the detail on the M.C. Escher painting at the top of the page. If you look at individual parts, you see things that look right and normal. If you just look at one narrow slice, you see people walking up stairs. But if you look at another narrow slice, you’re equally sure that the stairs are going down. Which is it? Both views are true, but both views miss the broader truth that encompasses both.
It’s easy to live life as a Pollyanna. You just ignore what you don’t want to see. It’s also easy to live life as a miserable and cynical person who expects the worst. You just ignore how wonderful and beautiful certain things are — and you ignore the possibilities of being loved and understood.
To do either extreme, you have to ignore some parts of reality. But if you look at all of reality, you’re faced with a mixed bag of contradictory facts.
I think contentment, happiness, serenity — whatever you want to call it — ultimately comes from accepting the world for what it is. It comes from accepting the good things and bad things and all that’s in between — and then making a conscious choice to carry on with the business of loving people and accepting love. Both sides are important. You can’t take care of anyone else — or really love anyone else — until you take care of yourself and love yourself.
I’m all over the chart with what I’m saying here. This is one time when I don’t have the words to properly convey what I feel. I have abstract pictures in my head and my heart of what I’m talking about. In my heart, it all seems so obvious.
I wish I had the words to show you all these emotions in my heart, because the world makes a lot more sense in my heart than it ever will in my head.