So easy to get out of sync, it’s absurd

It's pretty easy for us to get out of sync with our surroundings
Image reads: It’s pretty easy for us to get out of sync with our surroundings. We can find ourselves out of our personal element at a moment’s notice, just by taking a wrong turn in an unfamiliar locale. Take a left instead of a right, and you can find yourself in a hostile situation, facing off with someone who’s armed and dangerous. You can actually end up dead – whether in the city, the country, or the suburbs. Or you can find your entire way of life displaced by events beyond your control – market  downturns, corporate mergers, even war. Whatever the scope, whatever the scale, the disorientation is intimidating. Destabilizing. Scary. Even in the most stable of unfamiliar circumstances – surrounded by friendly (but unfamiliar) co-workers at a new job – the conditions are less than ideal.

So, the Facebook drama continues.

Like countless people (I’m sure the number keeps changing), I downloaded my data and took a quick look earlier today. Hm. Pretty boring, actually. I don’t use Messenger that much, and I don’t have an Android phone, so that’s been a bit prophylactic. I’ve been in the web space for over 20 years, and from the start, I’ve been skeptical  about the ability of anyone to keep me safe online. Safe from others. Safe from myself. Safe for others.

So, I’ve self-censored considerably over the years.

I hear a chorus of dismay rising up — Censor yourself?! How horrible!  It seems, at times, that total freedom is the goal of our modern world, and that’s fine for everybody else. But seriously, this place is full of people who wish others less-than-well, and that’s as true online as it is offline, so caveat emptor. For days. Yeah, I’ve censored myself. And the result is that I haven’t been rocked by the shock waves of indignation that lots of other people feel.

Either that, or I’m not being pessimistic enough about how creatively data scrapers can use my PII against me.

But I digress. This isn’t really about me, after all. It’s more about us. Our need to connect, to stay connected. Our fear of missing out and getting disconnected. We all know just how easy it is to get cut off from our social circles. Sometimes, all it takes is a wrong word, a misspoken opinion, or even a look that gets taken the wrong way. You wear the wrong piece of clothing in the wrong season, and you’re a marked person. Things seem to have loosened up around the “no white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day” rule that was etched in stone during my childhood, but you know what I mean.

Sure, you do.

You know as well as I do, the feel of that internal cringe, when something comes out wrong, or somebody doesn’t respond to you the way you’d hoped. You mis-hear what someone else says and/or they misinterpret your response. And before you know it, you’ve got Problems.

Those Problems are very real, for they’re all wrapped up in the whole of our identities, our sense of safety and belonging in the world, as well as our definitions of what will and will not keep us safe. Those Problems can go so far as to get you beaten up. Even killed, if you’re in the wrong situation. It’s easier than ever, these days, to end up in the wrong part of town, and pay for it.

I’m not just talking about White folks in Black or Hispanic neighborhoods, or Black men driving through predominantly White neighborhoods. I’m talking about University of Georgia fans speaking out of turn in an Auburn sports bar — I once had an extended conversation with a woman whose husband had to be hustled out the back door of such a bar after having a few beers and running his mouth against his wife’s advice. I’m talking about somebody losing their filter while they’re in the middle of political opposites and ending up with their car keyed.

Say the wrong thing in the wrong way at work, and you can get shown the door. And there goes your monthly credit card payment, toppling your credit rating, as well as your future job prospects (since many employers run credit reports on prospective new hires). A poorly timed joke can turn from a pebble dropped in a pond to an earthquake that sets off a tsunami. Or the wrong piece of information can leak to the Wall Street Journal, and before you know it, your employer’s in full “spin mode” and you have to watch what you say to anyone and everyone, since you’re a walking, talking representative of the company.

It’s all so precarious.

Sheesh, how did we get to this place? I mean, people can get seriously hurt over things that used to just elicit eye rolls and shrugs. Ah… simpler times. I remember those days when you could detest other people (and vice versa) without homicide being in the mix. I remember when an honest misunderstanding wouldn’t push a person to social-media-fueled suicide. Apparently, I’m a dinosaur. Like I said, simpler times. Lord, how did this all get so … dire?

But here’s the thing, though. In spite of it all, I still have hope. If we got to this place, we can extract ourselves from it. I really, truly believe that. Life is cyclical. Pretty much everything alive moves in patterns of back-and-forth vacillations. And I believe with every cell in my body, we have the capacity to back away from the brink, just as we’ve danced along its edge, over and over and over again, throughout the course of human history. We’re just learning a sh*t-ton of tough lessons, right now, absorbing an array and variety of data points in massive volumes that never, ever factored into the mix, before. The Way Things Have Always Been Done… well, that’s sorta kinda imploded/exploded, and we’re left picking up the pieces that fell closest to us, trying to fit them into a cohesive narrative about our world.

So, where was I…? Oh, yeah, how easy it is to get out of sync.

And how absurd that is.

In Beloved Distance, I talk a lot about meaning… the patterns we use to figure out how what’s happened fits into our understanding of the world, as well as where events are going to take us… and how. While I was absorbed in my meditations on meaning, last year, I coincidentally happened across a lot of writing about the “absurd” state of the human condition immediately after World War II. Samuel Beckett. Albert Camus. Václav Havel. Existentialism. You know… light reading.

And it occurred to me that absurdity — the quality or state of being ridiculous or wildly unreasonable — could be seen as the quality or state of lacking meaning. After all, we rely on meaning to reason. We rely on our sense of meaning to establish balance and predictability. And our understanding of which causes lead to which effects (and why) makes it possible for us to stabilize ourselves in a confusing and disorienting world. When we lose meaning — lose the plot, lose touch with the overarching patterns — everything starts to look ridiculous and unreasonable.

Which is where Europe was after World War II with the rise of authoritarian states, and all the upheaval of the Cold War. The old monarchy and Order of Things … well, that was history. Literally. There were no clear patterns ahead, there were no circumstances that could reliably point to predictable outcomes. Everything was impossible to fathom, in a historical sense, because it was all new… and unexpected.

That, I feel, is where we are now — in the same kind of situation. Past patterns can’t be relied upon, because we’ve never had conditions like this: The Internet. Facebook (and everybody else) collecting data on a vast scale. Defense contractors deploying information warfare techniques against the civilian population in service to political interests. I’m not sure we’ve ever been here before.

And yes, it is absurd.

In the midst of it all, perhaps the most absurd aspect of it, is how disconnected we are, even as we are hyperconnected technologically. We have the means to bridge gaps, to find belonging, to become a part of something larger than ourselves, and yet… we don’t. Maybe our human natures haven’t quite caught up with our capabilities. Well, yeah. They really haven’t yet. And so we miss out on a whole lot of opportunities to make more of ourselves and our situation than what it’s been.

It’s absurd, really.

It’s like we’re not at all the macro equivalent of the billions of interconnected cells in our brains, in our bodies. It’s like we’re neurons that think we’re cut off from each other, when we’re actually in close communication and interaction, every living moment of our lives. It’s like we think we can actually function as a species, by pushing others away and cutting ourselves off.

How bizarre.

And yet, here we are.

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To work in the mode of Cajal

Purkinje Cell illustration by Santiago Ramón y Cajal
Purkinje Cell illustration by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

The article I found yesterday about Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s roots in fiction was a welcome addition to my overall work direction. In it, I found my own sentiments mirrored — and by one of the great leaders in neuroscience.

If we would enter adequately into Cajal’s thought in this field,” Sherrington continues, “we must suppose his entrance, through the microscope, into a world populated by tiny beings actuated by motives and striving and satisfactions not very remotely different from our own.” Cajal highlighted that subject and object—the brain scientist and the neuron—descended from the same evolutionary ancestor, contained the same physical material, and were beholden to the same mortal laws.

Here was a man who literally transformed his field, and he did it (at least in part) by reimagining the human relationship with his objects of study — animating them with qualities similar to our own, because after all, we are “descended from the same evolutionary ancestor, contained the same physical material, and were beholden to the same mortal laws.”

It’s easy to lose sight of this correspondence in our increasingly fragmented world, where experts slice off ever slimmer targets of exploratory interest and specialize to the point where they know “more than anyone else about less than everyone else”. And in these days of funding battles and the struggle to be taken seriously in the scientific world, the idea of finding correspondences between a cell and a full-sized human being might seem like too risky a prospect to even entertain.

And yet, there’s so much to be gleaned from the correspondences we find, and there’s a lot we can learn from how our neurology behaves… just as Cajal learned a lot about our neurology by understanding how the human heart and spirit behave. Beloved Distance is a sort of “reverse-reprise” on Cajal’s particular “take” — as I turn our gaze from the microscope to our macroscape and reference not Don Quixote or shadows dancing on the ceiling, but the mechanisms of neurotransmitters leaping into the gaps between our neurons.

It may sound like a stretch, within the context of 21st Century science, but Cajal was in direct conflict with some of the dominant beliefs of his day, as well. And look where his approach got him — and took us: To a whole new understanding of how we’re actually put together, without which we’d have a much less complete understanding of ourselves, and perhaps a completely different version of medicine.

I’ve always had a marked respect for Cajal. It’s my understanding that the prevailing attitude of the day was that the nervous system was all continuously interconnected, like our vascular system. Cajal was an outlier, in that he believed in the “Neuron Doctrine” which held that all cells are individual entities (and so cannot be continuously directly connected). Others were believers in the Neuron Doctrine, but Camillo Golgi (whose stain made it possible for mere humans to view neurons) in fact devoted his Nobel lecture to discounting the Neuron Doctrine. He shared the stage / prize with Cajal in 1906, so the Spaniard was literally sharing space with someone determined to tear apart his work from the scientific pulpit.

What does it take, for someone to hold forth in their work, regardless of vehement opposition? Cajal’s defiantly resilient character, which took him through years of beatings by his father, surely played a role. And yet, there seems to be more at work than a cast-iron temperament. There are flights of fancy in the mix, too. Fancy which is deeply practical and has its place alongside the driest of facts laid out on a slide beneath the microscope.

That fancy, those flights, that imagination is something we all need, to carry us forward. It both tempers us and inspires us, and it makes the long slog of the necessary work into something more than… a slog. Just as we dance between separation and unity, between distance and closeness, the dynamics of creation and observation are complementary. And when blended with intention and intelligence, they can take us in some wonderful places.

You needn’t be a polymath to grasp how mutually beneficial supposedly opposing approaches can be.

You only need to be human… with a sense of adventure.