On Not Being Sure
One of the curious things about growing older — I’m beginning to discover — is that ideas that once seemed bold, proud and patently true, begin to get swallowed up in a ravine of prudent equivocation. I say it’s curious because I always imagined that aging would take me in the other direction. I was expecting a steady shoring-up of ideas — in such a way that would grant me ‘knowledge’ — not this foggy sense of insistent questioning, spreading between my beliefs like a contagion.
Let me put it this way. I think the old adage “there are two sides to every story” is quite possibly the wisest statement ever uttered. That’s how things stand with me now.
There’s that great scene in Fiddler on the Roof (I’ve only ever seen the film version) that keeps popping into my head, when Tevye the Dairyman torments himself with the rights and wrongs of his daughter’s marriage to a poor tailor, “On the other hand…” he says before thinking again. “But on the other hand… On the other hand!”
I know this pendulum of claim and counter-claim all too well. Experiences change when you begin to equivocate over the details.
For instance, there was once a dreamy pleasure in walking nighttime streets under the cool sodium hum of streetlamps, finding late-night dispensaries of food, drink and cigarettes, a rare chance to own the street landscape alongside prowling cats and the flash of an urban fox. In the glow of late-night exultation and with a sweet pang of melancholy, nighttime walking sometimes felt infinite and a touch mythical.
Nowadays, new thoughts insert themselves. The late-night scene seems like a different prospect. I wonder about the shortcomings of a 24-hour society, about who’s actually benefiting and who’s burdened with this graveyard shift-work. I balk light pollution, how the stars are hidden and how the migration of bird species may be affected. I care more, I suppose, and the world loses some of its magic.
There is a certain cruelty in thinking like this. As I learn more, I find I am increasingly unable to experience things in a singular, wholehearted way. Always I must consider the counter-argument. I wonder who is being exploited here? Who’s taking liberties? How has this knowledge been produced, who owns and interprets it, who wins, who’s speaking and on behalf of whom? In such a way, nothing can be entirely wrong, and nothing gets to be absolutely perfect either.
The other thing I’ve realised is that your speculations don’t even need to be accurate for them to feel correct. Insights can be mistaken and yet still feel like insights. In our clamour to call out “monster”, “fake”, “elitist”, “hypocrite” or “bigot” to all those figures who seem to deserve it, we tend to find our justification in the intensity of our incredulity as much as in its accuracy.
These moral affronts are bound to leave a residue. The tatty edge of the dialectic. It is now a knee-jerk reaction of mine to be suspicious. It feels wise, but I wonder if sometimes it isn’t.
So here is the thing I want to say to myself: That to be amateurishly approximate, to be keenly stupid, to be indulgently blinkered, can sometimes be a fine thing. To disregard data, overlook the evidence, to put the latest studies to one side and take on face-value the surface gloss of things, that can be a fine thing too.
I’m not saying this approach should be the first principle. That would be reckless. I just mean that, sometime down the line, when all the debates have been wrung out and the sun is beginning to set, then occasionally settling back and allowing a flake of wonder to drop in can be a very decent choice too.
You don’t always need to be right and you don’t always need to be wrong. Sometimes you should just surrender yourself, and leave everything else intact.