What’s the Matter: Notes on Seeing and Being Seen

Toni Morrison, David Berman, Hugh Everett, and the dangers of focusing on the what about us

This is Part 2 of a project that explores the who, what, when, where, and why of us. Part 1 on Who is here.

You Google “number of stars in galaxy” and have to laugh — 250 million, with a margin of error of 150 million each way.

I’m no astrophysicist but that seems … imprecise? Turns out we all apparently have to agree on what constitutes a star at some point. No biggie, though, since we can only see 4% of all matter in the universe. (Give Vera Rubin a Nobel Prize already.)

That means we could be way off on star-counts in each of the roughly two trillion galaxies we can observe and it won’t make a whole lotta difference how bad we are at tallying inconsequential stuff like the Sun. Because we don’t even really know what the other 96% of all that stuff out there is.

But that’s interstellar space, the super-macro of everything temporal, all the what in the world. Closer to home, someone counted and found that 7.7 billion people inhabit the only planet we know for sure has life.

Pretty good odds of the hundreds of millions of stars in each of the couple-trillion galaxies, ours is not the only one that has intelligent life. But even if it was? Humans make up 0.01% of all living organisms on Earth.

Let’s forget about 99.99% of life on Earth for now, though (we’ve got plenty of practice so it should be easy). The average human body consists of 100 trillion cells, give or take. Each of those cells is made up of 100 trillion atoms. What a helpful coincidence!

And those atoms? What makes up all the matter we know about? Stuff like granite and steel and Kevlar? In my limited research, scientists tend to talk about the atomic scale in a similar way:

Put a blueberry on the 50-yard line of an NFL field. The electrons flying around that tiny nucleus would be at the outer edge of the stadium.

And each electron is a bunch of quarks, and those are maybe superstrings of energy vibrating in seven more dimensions than we can see. And so on and so forth.

In conclusion, the 4% of the universe we can observe through telescopes or buy on Amazon is essentially just empty space.

That’s nothing new, of course. We’ve known this to a certain degree for a long time. But it’s good to remind ourselves when someone in front of us takes too long to order coffee — everything is essentially nothing.

Last weekend had us going to bed on Saturday night reeling from the news that a white supremacist drove nine hours with an assault rifle to El Paso to massacre as many Latinx people as he could. Those people were shopping in a Walmart at the time. He killed a lot of them.

Then we all woke up to the news Sunday that a guy shot as many Black people as he could with an assault rifle in Dayton. They were in a line outside a club, if I gleaned things correctly, but that hardly matters — nobody should’ve shot them or pretty much anybody else.

And all the quantum mechanics at the subatomic level that we think about as just empty space or fields of energy, or theorize about ad nauseam that matter isn’t what we typically imagine it to be — that doesn’t stop those guns and bullets from efficiently and effectively killing and maiming.

Occasionally I’ll see a straight white cis male arrive at a revelation that comes down to, nobody’s paying attention to anyone else. He’ll talk about how troubling that is at first. But then? Then he says we should find comfort in this, that it’s a positive part of our lives, a feature not a bug.

What luck! Embrace the anonymity, sillies. You are not a special and unique snowflake dot gif. So it goes, life goes on, happens to the best of us, hallelujah, case closed.

The most recent straight white guy I saw share this observation is a bestselling author. He will remain nameless because he’s generally great and smart and self-aware and I know first-hand that he’s really nice — and also I haven’t read his latest book so maybe there’s more to his observation. (Sorry, man. I promise I’m still paying attention.)

Still — this is a straight white cis male bestselling author lamenting that nobody’s paying attention. Is this a midlife crisis unfolding on social media? Or is it something more nuanced?

In any case, how many people in the world would love nothing more than to live in anonymity? Isn’t it a blessing to live by and large and when it’s convenient without someone paying attention to you? To reside in the background and make a living and raise a family — to walk or drive down a street where white people predominantly live without one of them confronting and or shooting you?

This is as micro as a kid strolling through a subdivision to the convenience store for iced tea or a kid playing in a park or a man selling loose cigarettes or another man sitting still in a car or or or. And it’s as macro as babies separated from their parents and thrown into unattended cages.

I feel seen.

This is one of those sayings that’s been frustratingly co-opted in clumsy, ironic hands to become a joke #online.

Basically the original intent comes down to, nobody acknowledged my circumstances until now, and I feel recognized instead of ignored.

To state the tragically obvious, we don’t always see those who don’t look like us. We ignore entire zip codes. We incarcerate entire demographics. We demonize entire religions. And we do it all from our pulpits of entitlement. And it emboldens cowards to kill innocents — the people they don’t bother with anybody else beyond asking, what are you?

If we look, we’ll see — people we encounter every day live in terror.

On Tuesday, we got news of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s death. And we got that news through profound personal essays, comprehensive obituaries and her own words.

Two quotes attributed to her jumped out at me today. The first I was familiar enough with that it was already in the outline for this piece.

Definitions belong to the definer, not the defined.

The other was brand new to me.

If you can only be tall because somebody’s on their knees, you have a serious problem.

In marketing, we talk about the attention economy. We measure the time it takes to attract and retain a consumer’s focus in micro-moments.

Entrepreneur cites a Prezi study that clarifies how our attention has recently evolved:

The findings suggest that our ability to maintain our focus on content is actually improving over time as we become more selective about the content we choose to devote our attention to.

Everybody moves through a day with what the writer of the piece calls a “firehose of content” impeding our path. Our brains have collectively stopped trying to process everything, to make sense of what is going on. For all the content vying for our brain’s time, our attention span and ability to focus is getting better.

We’ve become more discerning. We know where to look for what we want. Algorithms get better to anticipate what’s relevant. We can spot a crock of crap from a mile away now that we’re all internet-savvy.

But we’re also in a hurry, and we decide what we pay attention to. And we don’t like being challenged, so we might start to float around in a bubble of likeminded individuals. To Ms. Morrison’s point, we want to define others outside our echo chamber. Why?

Maybe because it saves time to lump as many people as possible into general groups. Labels make that easy. And it gets even easier if you divide everyone into two groups: those who have the same motivations as you, and those that don’t. If you’re not for us, you’re against us. Which side are you on. Swipe right or swipe left. Is it good or is it bad. Her or him. Negative or positive. White or not.

But we hate being defined — labeled as either one thing or its opposite. We fight hard to be different, to stand out from the clusters more easily categorized. We’re each a me, after all. Not a you. So we must be very different from everyone else. We’re all we know.

As a result, people love to tell you what they are, to make a distinction so we pay special attention to them.

So many of us angst over perfecting our social media profile’s “about me” section. Our unique @ handles are a shorthand way to boil ourselves down to our specific essence, the what of us that matters most of all. Then there are bumper stickers and vanity plates, ball caps for our favorite team and shirts emblazoned with designer logos.

That’s the tricky part — we hate being like everyone else, but we want desperately to belong and be accepted. We don’t want what we are to be wrong. You can define me, but only on my terms.

What we are can give us a sense of belonging, of community — of comfort. We feel less alone, even safe. That’s good for the most part.

But it’s dangerous for anyone who feels like society writ large says they’re wrong because, for example, they want to kill people for being different than they are. (Oversimplifying for efficiency.) The otherness combined with the togetherness of the hateful, intolerant what is toxic and terribly tragic.

Those electrons on the perimeter of the football stadium don’t orbit the nucleus like planets around a star. They do so more in a gyrating, shaky field around the blueberry.

You probably know about the holy grail of physics, the Grand Unified Theory. That would make Newtonian (classical) mechanics align with what happens on the quantum scale. This episode of Sean Carroll’s “Mindscape” podcast is incredibly helpful as a primer. Here’s my best attempt at crib-notes:

Four centuries ago, Newton suggested that all we need to know about an object is velocity and position — how fast it’s going and where it is upon observation — to tell us where it’s been and where it’ll end up.

In quantum mechanics, this doesn’t hold true. Electrons give off energy as light photons, meaning the electrons should, according to Newton’s idea, immediately run out of energy and crash into the nucleus. Every atom should, you know, be destroyed nanoseconds after it popped into existence — and yet?

And yet we can see these electrons flying around the nucleus. When we observe an electron. But it’s only the probability of the position, its superposition, something about a wave function — the quantum state that can put the electron in more than one place at any given moment. Easy, right?

Except that it shouldn’t be there at all. Electrons just don’t work with what we know about physics.

So when we see the electron, the act of our observation puts the electron in that superposition. That electron becomes entangled with our reality.

But if we didn’t observe, that would be a different reality. It doesn’t follow a clear orbit that follows rules for position and velocity. So we alter reality through mere observation.

Physicists blame the 1998 film Sliding Doors for the public’s misinterpretation of multiple universes, or many worlds. You go left or right, it splits off into a different reality in which you might or might not marry Gwyneth Paltrow.

Extrapolate that out to every single minute decision you make throughout the day and that’s what most of us think that’s a multiverse or whatevs.

Hugh Everett hatched the real Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics was hatched in the 20th century. (Some of us will know him as Eels frontman E’s wacky dad.)

That theory posits through difficult (some say questionable) science that our reality splits into different, parallel worlds through the act of knowing through observation where an electron is at a specific, minuscule moment. Every measurement one of us makes creates a new world.

Physicists don’t all necessarily buy into Everett’s Many Worlds interpretation. You can’t test it, after all. But philosophers love it.

Because it shows that, it’s nothing to do with the tiny decisions we make that could change our lives, a la Sliding Doors. It’s the tiny things we do to change reality. Like observe what’s really going on at the root of everything in the world. (Oversimplification strike two.)

Toni Morrison did this on a cultural level. She opened some of our eyes to a new world that ran and runs parallel to many of us — and unseen by way too many of us.

And for those who measure their height by how far down they keep others, that’s a flawed metric. That world isn’t parallel to our own — it’s impossible, not real.

Then on Wednesday of this past week, David Berman died.

I didn’t know how to bring Berman into this. Of the people I’ve never met, he would probably have been near the top of the list of people I couldn’t stand to see die. That’s been since I picked up his book of poems, Actual Air, upon its publication in 1999 because of his musical affiliation with my beloved Pavement.

To people who paid any attention and wondered about him during a decade-long hiatus, his death at 52 wasn’t a shock. It was just more tragic because he’d recently re-emerged triumphantly from that protracted silence.

Nobody’s said how he died. Everybody knows how he died.

Then, The New Yorker published this piece about how he made us feel less alone.

I was shocked to see his name as Twitter’s number four trending topic on Wednesday night. With all the other horror in the world, thousands came out of the woodwork as devastated fans.

A formerly Milwaukee-based pal, author Steven Hyden, published another piece that speaks of his recent contact with Berman. I had to stop reading it at work lest everyone think I was crying over my boss’s copy edits.

What got me was, according to Steve, David Berman thought nobody paid attention to his work. The fact that he could still live off royalties from the albums he stopped making 11 years ago blew his own mind. He joked that there must be pallets of old Silver Jews records that one guy bought and stored in a castle in Lichtenstein.

Berman reached out to Steve because he’d occasionally search for his band’s name on Twitter, and claimed Steve was one of the very few who still consistently said they were great.

Other presumably well-intentioned fans missed the mark, with one prominent comedian calling him “one of the great tortured poetic souls … A master of beautiful darkness.”

Hey, well boo-hoo for you. You’re not so lucky as to be a tortured soul. Guess you’ve got no shot at mastering that oh-so-beautiful art of darkness. Nothing else left for you to do but perpetuate the myth that Berman died of what all great writers do — a bad case of that ol’ rascal depression. Ah, the very romance of it all.

My great-in-every-way friend Andy Silverman pulled this all together for me by passing along a piece from Jezebel on — wait for it — a keynote speech that Toni Morrison delivered to the American Writer’s Conference, in 1981. In her own words:

We need protection in the form of structure: an accessible organization that is truly representative of the diverse interests of all writers. An organization committed to the rights of the few. And we need protection in the form of clarity, a knowledge of the limits of individualism and the private, indulgent suffering it fosters. We have to stop loving our horror stories. Joyce’s Ulysses was rejected fourteen times. I don’t like that story; I hate it. Fitzgerald burned out and could not work. Hemingway despaired and could not work. A went mad, B died in penury, C drank herself to death, D was blacklisted, E committed suicide. I hate those stories. Great works are written in prisons and holding camps. So are stupid books. The misery does not validate the work. It outrages the sensibilities and violates the work.

Morrison does what we don’t often do enough in a country that celebrates individuals and iconoclasts — she pleas for a supportive community that doesn’t ask writers to live down to Bukowski-esque stereotypes.

Those tropes tell us that it’s totally okay to drink ourselves to death and listen to our own inner voice instead of those who care about us. Because obviously, all great artists must suffer for their art. Only way make anything timeless and valuable. Better to burn out than fade away, I have been informed.

As publicly and widely beloved as he clearly was and is, Berman still felt that nobody paid attention. Maybe it was a midlife crisis — or maybe it was untenable mental illness. Some of us can put together convincing, evidence-based cases that we’re alone in this life, that nobody likes us, that nobody understands or appreciates us.

And we conveniently ignore all the kindness and support, many of which are heaped on us very deliberately and earnestly with unmistakably tender acts of love. Some of us even contend that anyone who treats us well is wrong to do so. Because in our minds, we don’t deserve it.

We can obsess all we want about the building blocks of matter, about how we reconcile the macro and the micro — and especially how the individual, self-aware conscious mind (or soul or whatever you call what you are) can inhabit a carbon-based pile of organic stuff that can make breakfast and write poems and pay taxes. Descartes has plenty to say about the Mind-Body Problem.

But that’s fine — our matter doesn’t matter much. We won’t come to a full understanding of what we are anytime soon. Because all that really matters is what we do with it.

It matters that we seek out reality and see what’s clearly in front of us, what others want and what we really want. That’s more critical than what we are to begin with. Content of our character matters, I am told. So let’s consciously, attentively see, and let’s accept what we see around us, provided we’re not hurting anyone in doing so.

Let’s accept being seen for what we are, and not give each other any reason to doubt that we’re doing our best with what we’ve got, filling the space of whatever we are with good stuff. And let’s be sure to tell the people we love in no uncertain terms that we’re paying attention.

Adventures in reading and writing. Making sense of what’s new in science, sci-fi, philosophy, culture, and creativity. And basketball.