Peek-a-boo, Moon!

The well for coffee beans was empty this morning. I love it when that happens. I get to open the new bag of whole beans, and there is very little in the world that smells better than coffee beans at 6 a.m. on a cold mid-January Thursday after walking the dog under a dark sky.

There’s a new moon somewhere out there. The universe playing peek-a-boo with us. Teaching us not to put all of our faith in our senses. Humility, limitations: always be aware of not knowing. It’s funny how we laugh at young children’s gullibility when we play peek-a-boo. We laugh, and (lovingly) condescend to their repeated experience of surprise. But have we learned that lesson yet, in all our years?

One of my students asked about conspiracy theories on Monday. Sometimes I find these kinds of discussions extremely difficult to have with a class – but then – this is how I know it is important, and that I will learn something, too.

With the current situation, the school has encouraged us to talk to students about democracy and “what is happening” in the United States. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that all of the teachers are on the same page regarding “what it happening”. About what is and is not a “conspiracy theory”. But I know for a fact, from hearing conversations in the teachers’ break room, that is not true. I worry about what other teachers have said. Maybe wonder more than worry? No. I worry.

My grandfather warned me to stay away from philosophy. I didn’t take his advice. But I also didn’t understand how much philosophy would permeate my theater studies. How difficult it would be at times to discuss the humanities and to teach critical thinking without taking on the role of a convincing Devil’s Advocate. Not literally, as my grandfather accused his atheist professors of doing, but I’m often afraid of opening the wrong door, to the wrong mind, at the wrong time. All those “wrongs” being defined by what I think would be detrimental for them within my community – and therefore detrimental for my community as a whole.

I know I often overthink things. And I very often overestimate my influence.

Thank goodness.

At any rate: I talked about the moon landing. When I was in high school, I was working at a Dairy Queen and we had a regular customer who’d come in every week for a soft serve. An old man, with a snaggy voice. I don’t remember how the conversation began, but I remember, “You don’t believe that bullshit, do you? A man walking on the moon!”

It was the first time I’d met an adult who questioned “common knowledge”. The first person who wasn’t a pot-smoking, play-satanist teenager pushing the buttons on the chest of authority. At first I thought he was pulling my leg, but this man really didn’t believe.

His explanation of a movie lights and actors is a “conspiracy theory”. An explanation for something observed indirectly or directly that goes against the “common knowledge”*. This old man had to answer, not for the man on the moon, but for the film footage of the man on the moon. Deep fakes were a thing before deep fakes are a thing.

*I am pretty sure this is not the dictionary definition of conspiracy theory. And I really don’t care. I’m not always in agreement with Wikipedia, or even the Oxford English Dictionary (connotation is everything, always).

There is a book on my reading list titled The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. I feel like I know about everything in the book already though. (Wink.)

Why do I believe a man walked on the moon? Cue REM. I told my student that we know very little based on our own experience. We trust our communities. We have to. And though we need to be compassionate and understanding when other communities – subcultures – political fractions – make different choices, have different beliefs, it’s often very dangerous to shrug off those differences as “something other”.

What we believe matters in the real world. Conspiracy theories can be dangerous. We need to ask ourselves if what we choose to believe makes the world the kind of place we want it to be. Is just. Is good.

I let it go at that. But left so much unsaid. So much examined.

 Where exactly does good stop being good? 

It was a junior high art teacher who told me there are no lines in nature.

And the truth can also be dangerous. I don’t believe good is a relative term, but is certainly at odds with itself a good deal of the time.

I think it’s interesting that the Buddha talked about suffering, when my primary experience of the world would be better described as fear. It may be a very personal understanding of the concept of suffering, but it seems to me to imply a kind of surrender, a resignation to the pain of living. Whereas fear…

I find it fascinating how belief can make things so. Not in the manifest-your-destiny/ capitalism-as-religion sense, but in the way it shapes our behavior, which shapes our relationships, which in turn shape our societies, which figuratively and literally heal or wound the biosphere.

What I wanted to tell my student was that we don’t even know there is a reason to brush our teeth every day, because we usually rely on someone telling us we have bad breath. By the time me may experience a correlation between brushing and rotting teeth, it would be too late for us.

We trust. We choose who we trust. We have to. Even not choosing is a choice that will situate us in, and within, a community. We are a hive. Sometimes I think: a uselessly self-aware hive.

This morning, looking for the Knowledge Illusion video, I stumbled on a “self-aware, autistic savant”*’s TED talk in which he goes about explaining why a poet chooses to use the word “hare” instead of “rabbit”. He had a lovely, reasoned explanation regarding the association between hare and hair, and the association between hair and fragility**.

*His label, not mine.
**His association, not mine.

Dude: Sometimes a hare is just a hare because the poet saw a hare and not a rabbit.

We can be seduced by our own knowledge, our own self-wareness.

All of us.

The one thing I know today is that when I inhale the smell of the coffee beans, I feel my shoulders relax, and I become aware of my body as a relatively simple thing in this complex world.

6 Replies to “Peek-a-boo, Moon!”

  1. Too tired this morning to say much other than “thank you.” I love your statement that all belief is a choice and that means we are trusting. Someone or ones. Because we have to. We can’t be alive without trust. And I love your criteria of “good” & “just.” Your distinction between suffering and fear is interesting. Just starting to think about it, I think almost all suffering is also fear. Fear the pain will never go away. That I’ll always be alone. That bad people run the world. Like that. And I, too, love the smell of coffee beans.. Thank you for reminding me.

    1. Thinking about the whole world these days and worried about putting this one out there – afraid it would look too much like the “both sides” B.S. that was spouted after Charlottesville. I am so happy this landed as intended. And I think you’re right – maybe my distinction between suffering and fear is just me circling into a better understanding of the concept of suffering… may we all be spared that in moments more often in the coming days…

  2. I’m obviously far more pedantic than you. I trust the better dictionaries and, more often than not, Wikipedia. And I find conspiracy theories to be dangerous enough to consider them worthy of censorship.

    I am not sure whether the people who subscribe to those are just instigators who don’t really believe Hillary Clinton ran a pedophile ring out of a DC pizza shop but know that fascism demands that they continue to repeat it until enough people believe it, or if enough people really do believe it. And if they do, we need to treat them as we would treat any other cult member or brainwashing victim. What kind of person could believe Wayfair sells pillows stuffed with child sex slaves?

    Right now, letting people believe the earth is flat is no more an option than letting them believe the rest of it, including that Trump gives a fuck about them.

    1. Since my students are not American citizens, our conversation was focused on observations and warnings for our own social democracy. The question of censorship has been hotly debated here for many reasons for several years now – in terms of the arts (a very bizarre case concerning a recent theater production that was accused of inciting violence) and in terms of the publishing world (even before 1993 and the shooting of Nygaard for publishing the Satanic Verses in Norwegian). I have to say I was thrilled that not one of the students said – oh, but we’re more educated, smarter etc. than Americans. They had so many thoughtful and thought-provoking points.

      A lot has changed here since July 22nd. I used to naively think that Norwegians were naive, but I have finally begun to understand them a bit better – AND July 22nd left them humbled and a bit more aware of their own hidden diversity of opinions. I think that’s why I hear a lot less America-bashing from the left here (the right never did that :). Here, the US left is just right-lite.

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