I was driving earlier this week when I found myself in a scenario that should be familiar to anyone who has been in city traffic. While waiting to turn left at a traffic light (with no green arrow) I saw that the semi-truck waiting across the intersection from me had its right blinker on. The truck had clearly congested the single-lane street it was on, with a long line of cars behind it. As the light turned green for both of us, I yielded to the semi to let it turn right. This was not just an act of courtesy to help decongest a neighborhood street, but was also in compliance with right-of-way laws and in the interest of my own safety (generally speaking I believe it’s not recommended to enter the paths of oncoming semi-trucks.)
This story is about the man in the car behind me. Unable to see the semi-truck’s right turn blinker—perhaps unable to see the truck at all—and unsure of why I continued to wait at a light that had already turned green, this elderly gentleman began to honk aggressively and express his frustration and impatience at me via a series of passionate gestures in my rear-view mirror.
I’m not sure how he would have handled the situation differently were he in my car and I in his, but I’m fairly certain that given the circumstances at the intersection, information to which I was privy but that was beyond his field of vision, he would have done exactly as I had done.
If this example sounds trite, it’s because I have deliberately chosen a trite example to illustrate an issue that I believe pervades every level of modern life from politics to interpersonal and familial relations to, yes, sitting in traffic. What I’m talking about is the gap between our own perspectives and reality.
Sitting at the light, I was able to see something that the gentleman behind me couldn’t see. This caused me to make an informed decision that seemed from his perspective to be ignorant or even downright stupid. Fortunately for both of us, he wasn’t able to intervene in that moment and take over the controls of my car to force me to go when he thought I should, or I may have wound up in a head-on collision.
The gap between expectation and reality is a principle of human experience so dear to us that we rely on it heavily in modern storytelling—it’s the principle of the “twist” we crave in books, films, and video games. We are guided by a storyteller into a particular perspective, made to see from the vantage of a particular set of values, and suddenly with a fresh revelation of truth we see with new eyes something we had formerly taken for granted. Our understanding of the story is disrupted, even completely reversed, to our delight. The more unexpected this revelation is, the better.
For a famous example, think of the climax in the The Empire Strikes Back (spoiler alert). This famous scene contains two tremendous twists that force Luke to make three crisis decisions. Screenwriting master Robert McKee discusses this corkscrew of a climax in his 1997 book Story:
“Face to face with Darth Vader, Luke is met by a Crisis of courage . . . Luke musters his courage and chooses to fight. However, when Vader suddenly steps back and says: ‘You can’t kill me Luke . . . I’m your father,’ Luke’s reality splinters. In a flash he realizes the truth and now must make yet another Crisis Decision: whether to kill his father.
Luke confronts the agony of this decision and chooses to fight. But Vader cuts off his hand and Luke drops to the deck. Still, it’s not over. Vader announces that he wants Luke to join his campaign to bring “order to things” in the universe. A second Gap opens as Luke realizes that his father doesn’t want him dead, he’s offering him a job. He must make a third Crisis decision, a lesser-of-two-evils dilemma: to join the “dark side” or take his own life? He makes the heroic choice and as these Gaps explode, the Climax delivers deep rushes of insight uniting two films.”
Nothing is more human than the realization that something you had taken for granted is not true. In fact we seem determined, even proud of our determination, to remain locked into our perspectives despite the fact that they mislead us so often both in stories and in real life. But in film, at least, we crave the experience of having our perspectives proven wrong. “George Lucas could have exposed Luke’s paternity,” McKee goes on later, “by having C3PO warn R2D2, ‘Don’t tell Luke, he’d really be upset to hear this, but Darth’s his dad’ . . . Inevitably we need a mix of action and revelation. Revelations, in fact, tend to have more impact, and so we often reserve them for the major Turning Points, act climaxes.”
In real life, unfortunately, we are less delighted and less open to being proven wrong by fresh revelation. Whether our example is the bombastic approach of political groups averse to so-called “PC culture” or grouchy citizens in everyday traffic, the gap between reality and the outer limits of our individual human experiences is a tremendous thorn in modern society.
In what our forebears believed would be an age made golden by the miracles of constant and instantaneous communication and the proliferation of information (I know—it’s a mouthful), we’ve been blown apart instead of having been brought together. We feel more silenced and excluded, less capable of productive debate, and more frustrated by our inability to enforce our disparate visions of truth and justice on society than ever.
But is that really the case? Human history is certainly no stranger to conflict. If we want to call our current political climate a revolution as some do, or even the makings of a revolution, I think we would be exaggerating. This is precisely the reason we study the violent revolutions and conflicts of history: they give us a window into matrices of cause and effect, a way to understand conflict and resolution, the battle between ideas, the ability of the powerful to oppress, the ability to the oppressed to resist.
I think we are seeing something else rearing its head in Western society: the inability to empathize. Whether this is unique to our historical moment is beside the point, though I would argue that the technological revolution is squarely to blame. We’re frustrated by our loss of voice because we feel the “other side” doesn’t hear us, without lending an ear to the other side ourselves. This is not as simple as it sounds. Allow me to explain.
The genealogy of what I’ve been calling the gap between expectation and reality goes back to the oldest philosopher in the Western tradition, Socrates. Plato, his disciple, records in a text called The Apology of Socrates the account of how Socrates came to consider himself the wisest of all in Athens, told within the context of Socrates’ legal self-defense against charges of “corrupting the city’s youth” and “impiety against the pantheon of Athens” brought against him by a number of eminent Athenians.
As he addresses the jury, Socrates recounts that it was his friend Chaerephon who first approached the oracle of Delphi to inquire as to whether there were any in Athens who were wiser than Socrates. The oracle replies that there is none. Socrates, rather than accepting the oracle’s prophecy, treats it as a riddle, “for I know I have no wisdom, small or great,” says Socrates.
He goes on to put the oracle’s prophecy to a test by searching for one man wiser than himself. He first goes to the politicians, but finds that though they are skilled in rhetoric they do not truly understand the meaning of what they say. Then he goes to the poets, but finds that though they are able to use language deftly, they are more like diviners or soothsayers than people inspired by real wisdom. Then to the artisans: they believe that their knowledge of craftsmanship gives them also knowledge of high matters, but beneath this they possess no wisdom.
In each case Socrates finds that knowledge and ignorance go hand in hand, and that though he himself does not possess the knowledge of these various Athenian citizens, he neither possesses their ignorance. This is the solution to the oracle’s riddle, he argues, that though he knows nothing he also knows that he knows nothing. He is better off as he is with neither knowledge nor ignorance than he is possessing both knowledge and ignorance, he says, and this fulfills the oracle’s prophecy that he is the wisest in Athens.
The lesson of this more or less fictional account of Socrates’ trial is that what made Socrates wise was that he knew and was unashamed of the limits of his own knowledge. Any who wish to be wise, Plato implies, will follow the example of Socrates.
In his impatience, to return to my earlier example, the gentleman behind me was ready to throw wisdom out the window in a vain attempt to speed me up. Entrenched in his own limited scope and unwilling to consider alternate possibilities for my delay, he lashed out. It may still sound trite, but it’s perfectly true.
But think now about this phenomenon on a grander scale. In a TED talk that I reference more than almost anything on this blog, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt alludes to the persuasive and pervasive political narrative told by both liberals and conservatives about one another: that the reason the other side does not understand our perspective or agenda (the “truth,” as it were) is merely because they are too dumb to understand. If only that were true! God forbid the possibility that it is instead my own scorn for wisdom, through the humility of Socrates, that makes me too “dumb” to understand.
Particularly in American society we find ourselves in a sort of moral gridlock between liberal and conservative thinkers: the battle, we think, between “truth” as it has been revealed by science, research, statistics, and so on, and “truth” as it is understood to have been revealed in the Bible or sealed within what we might consider to be traditional American values. The hysteric battle between these sides is presented as a dilemma of irreconcilable goods.
But this is only as we see it played out on the grand stage of American media, of course. It’s far easier for us to imagine ourselves warring against a villainous caricature of the other, imitating what we’ve seen in the media, than it is to see the others as real, intelligent, people. Reality is far more complex, unfortunately. Society isn’t a unified party-line split down a row of issues and values; it’s an array of unique perspectives borne of unique life experiences and stories. I’ve written about this before.
As a society we cling to the idea that “truth,” whatever it is, is out there somewhere. It’s a truly impartial way of looking at the world, a way of standing objectively from “nowhere” so as to weigh all information equally, to see with clean eyes and an enlightened, unpolluted mind the way things “really are.”
Yale scholar and Christian theologian Miroslav Volf argues for an alternative take in his unparalleled book Exclusion and Embrace. Instead of attempting to view reality from “nowhere,” he says, we just need to view it from “there.” That is, the truth about the way things really are does not lie in one or another person’s particular perspective, but in all of them united together. What compels us about our own perspectives are the true parts of them, the parts that resonate with our own experience. If we really want an encounter with truth, a kind of fresh revelation, we don’t have to necessarily adopt another person’s agenda and way of thinking, but we do have to learn how to see things through their eyes.
Belief in an all-knowing God uniquely equips, or ought to anyway, Christians for this exercise, Volf says:
“Ideally, of course, we should see things from everywhere . . . For what happens ‘here’ and ‘there’ are not isolated events, but are a part of a larger stream of social events. ‘From everywhere’ is how God sees human beings, I would argue. God sees not simply from outside but also from within, not abstracting from peculiarities of individual histories but concretely, not disinterestedly but seeking the good of all creation . . . This is why God’s truth is not simply one among many perspectives, but the truth about each and all perspectives.”
He goes on:
” . . . we cross a social boundary and move into the world of the other to inhabit it temporarily. We open our ears to hear how others perceive themselves as well as how they perceive us. We use imagination to see why their perspective about themselves, about us, and about our common history, can be so plausible to them whereas it is implausible, profoundly strange, or even offensive to us. To move inside means to seek to come as close to others as they are to themselves, to get into an ‘inner correspondence of spirit’ with them, put oneself into their skin, as Clifford Geertz says of the anthropologists work.”
It may not seem radical at first, but it quickly becomes so when put into practice. It means looking with empathy not just at your political opponents, but even villains and evildoers. Why do terrorists blow themselves up to sow fear and uncertainty? Is it from a malevolent desire to watch the world unravel? Of course not. They’re committed to a project of cultural purification, a war for the sake what they consider to be a holy and just cause. The understanding and empathy this exercise produces is the first step toward peace and the common good.
This is a lesson that we can all learn from. We are all imperfect, none of us are impartial. None of us is the sole possessor of “the truth,” the author of the unbiased account of the way things “really are.” We’re just people. The louder we honk and the more obnoxiously we gesture at the car in front of us, the more we prove how limited our understanding of the truth really is and the more we keep real truth at arm’s length. If we want to really encounter truth, we paradoxically have to step out of our own perspective and become, temporarily, the other person.
This takes more compassion that most people are willing to give. It takes more self-sacrifice than most people are willing to make. It’s not as sublime as confronting the twist ending of a movie, not as delightful as discovering a new layer of complexity in the book you thought you knew. But it’s the only way.
I think it goes without saying that no one is allowed to say “lib-tard” anymore.
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